Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Atlantic Hurricane season "ends" today

Hurricane season in the Atlantic Basin officially starts on June 1st and ends on November 30th. These dates typically bracket tropical cyclone activity, these storms can form anytime conditions are favorable. Tropical storm Epsilon, the 26th named storm of the season, will not dissolve at midnight. Epsilon's sustained winds are ~4 mph under hurricane strength; if the storm continues to drift southward over warmer water, it could become the 14th hurricane of the year.

Here are two useful links for current activity:

National Hurricane Center home page
contains many useful/informative links, incl. monthly tropical storm summaries listed near the bottom of the page

Naval Research Lab Tropical Cyclone page
contains satellite imagery and track information

In the waning hours of the current season, you may be interested in reading a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Technical Memorandum by Blake et al. (2005), entitled, "The Deadliest, Costliest, and Most Intense United States Tropical Cyclones From 1851 to 2004 (and other Frequently Requested Hurricane Facts)." Though an update is likely forthcoming, a read of the article and the monthly tropical storm summary links on the main NHC page should provide a good sense for the severity of the record-breaking 2005 season.

Here's the URL:
http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/Deadliest_Costliest.shtml

While the article is limited to storms affecting the U.S., we should not limit the scope of our awareness. Hurricanes regularly devastate Caribbean and Central American nations, and the same storm types of different names menace the Pacific and Indian Ocean basins.

The National Climate Data Center posts monthly reports of significant events in the world:
http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/research/2005/perspectives.html

Perhaps other bloggers can suggest additional sites related to international hurricane impacts.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Sodexho

Dr. Rohini Anand, Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer of Sodexho, will deliver Geneseo's third annual President's Lecture on Diversity on Wednesday, December 7, 2005, at 3:00 p.m. in the Robert W. MacVittie College Union Ballroom.

When I first saw this announcement the name Sodexho sounded familiar but I could not place it. Later someone told me it was the notorious corporation that had attracted so much attention for its vigorous union busting activities, ownership of private prisons, and a class action discrimination suit. I wondered why someone from a company like that had been invited to Geneseo to talk about diversity.

A little Googling turned up one possible reason. The campaign against Sodexho seems to have forced some company changes. Colorado Collge Fair Labor (CCFL), a student group, gives details about their campaign and its successes. Students, labor unions, and community groups can work together and win sometimes.

However, CCFL also concluded that "Sodexho still does not pay its workers enough, still has employees without health insurance for their families, and still runs anti-union campaigns."

Sodexho is a transnational corporation. The U.S. subsidiary may have made some changes but the larger entity has not. Corporate Watch UK has an extensive website detailing Sodexho's bad habits. Read them and judge for yourself.

There are some successes in Canada.

UNITE HERE workers win an organizing campaign at two Sodexho sites in Toronto.

UNITE HERE Canada has begun organizing the employees of Sodexho Canada on the York University campus.

It is harder to win organizing campaigns in the U.S., but not impossible, because U.S. laws are more favorable to companies than to unions and the National Labor Relations Board, especially under the Bush administration, is essentially anti-union.

I don't know what Dr. Anand will tell us about diversity, but I doubt that her experience at Sodexho can teach us much about community. The food service workers, grounds keepers, custodial workers, and others at Geneseo are represented by unions. They don't get paid enough and their working conditions are not as good as they should be, but they are better off working at Geneseo that they would be if that work had been outsourced to Sodexho (or one of its competitors).

I hope that members of the Community and Diversity Commission or the department chairs in their meetings with Dr. Anand will ask her about Sodexho's current actions when their workers want to form a union.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Teaching media versus researching media

The weekend prior to Thanksgiving I was part of a SUNY Geneseo contingent that attended the annual Lilly Conference on Higher Education, at Miami University of Ohio. (It was great fun, and kudos to Becky Glass at our Teaching and Learning Center for doing such a magnificent job organizing the whole thing). This was a long weekend full of interesting and engaging (well, most of the time) presentations and interactive sessions on how to make teaching and learning more effective in the college setting. Shortly after I got back I happened to read a piece by Scott McLemee ("Meet the Press") in Inside Higher Ed -- a piece that clicked with how I see college teaching and learning evolving, particularly in the field of communication and media studies. McLemee's central argument is that, in the broader public debate about journalism's role in society, academic media analysis "plays no part at all, at least in its theoretically articulated variants" in influencing that debate. In other words, most of the academic research in the field of communication and media studies has little direct impact on journalists and their bosses as they go about their work. The problem, as he sees it, is that even the best academic analyses in the field of media studies don't have "traction" within newsrooms. Or, in McLemee's own words: "The most subtle and cogent analysis by a rhetorician of how The Times or CNN frames its stories has all the pertinence to a reporter or editor that a spectrographic analysis of jalapeno powder would to someone cooking chili."

Up to a point I'd agree with that, though I'd contend that academic media studies do have a palpable influence on journalism, though it's slow, indirect and often hard to find--apart from anything else, working journalists who have already entered the field would hate to admit to being directly influenced by academic studies. And that brings me to teaching and learning in higher ed. Because I think that professors in communication are best served by striving to show comm students (actually, all students) how to be more critically aware media producers and media consumers while they're still at college. This is especially important in the U.S., which has such a woefully inadequate record of teaching media literacy in high school (in sharp contrast to countries such as Canada, Australia, and England). I could write a dozen peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles analyzing the media's role in society. Yes, it'd be great to have that sort of publishing record behind me. And yes, I believe that sort of scholarly activity still has worth (for one thing, it shows that published professors do have real expertise in their field of inquiry; and some of the ideas and findings from all this research does eventually seep through into the professional press and even into the newsrooms). But ultimately, for me, it's more important to have some direct impact on my students -- to help them become better critical thinkers. Part of that direct impact comes from my ability to engage in meaningful and publishable research. But it's also important to encourage them to conduct some original analysis and research of their own (in class or outside class). The extent to which I can facilitate that is the extent to which I'll be an effective educator.

In that spirit, McLemee concludes his piece as follows:

    It is now much easier to publish and broadcast than ever before. In other words, the power to cover and event or a topic has increased. But the skills necessary to foster meaningful discussion are not programmed into the software. They have to be cultivated.

    That’s where people from academe come in. The most substantial interventions in shaping mass media probably won’t come from conference papers and journal articles, but in the classroom — by giving the future citizen journalist access, not just to technology, but to cognitive tools.

So research does have an important and ongoing role to play--as long as it stays closely connected to student learning. That applies whether it's me doing the research or the students.

Hope you all had a happy--and safe--Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Crash of the Starship Enterprise: Why humans will not travel to the stars

Part of the American collective identity is related to space exploration. For more than 50 years, elements of our culture have been linked to investigating space with dreams of the eventual movement of humanity to the stars. However, most people who believe this is likely to happen have no idea how empty space is. Looking at the sky on a clear night gives the impression that space is crowded with stars. Creating a scale model of our stellar neighborhood teaches us otherwise.

We can scale a model of the Milky Way by comparing our sun to a grain of sand. The sun is 1.4 million kilometers in diameter. Coarse sand grains range between ½ and 1 millimeter. If we use a 1 mm particle to represent the sun, the model scale is 1 mm = 1,400,000 km. Our nearest star neighbor is Proxima Centauri at a distance of 40.7 trillion km. To scale, the model distance to Proxima Centauri is 28 million mm (28,000 meters). Therefore, if the sun was a 1 mm grain of sand, the next nearest star would be a grain of sand at a distance of more than 17 miles! With the sun at Erwin Building, Proxima Centauri would be in Dansville.

The 400 billion Milky Way stars would be 11 truckloads of sand. This seems like a lot but to scale these would be spread over a circle 67,000 km in diameter—almost five times the diameter of the Earth. That's not even a decent beach. Our stellar neighborhood, fit into a 35-mile radius bubble (the galaxy is not flat) with the Sun at the center, would contain about 30 grains of sand.

Because space is so empty, it takes such a long time to get anywhere. Voyager 1, traveling 17 km per second for over 28 years, has gone less than 11 meters in our model—0.04% of the distance to Proxima Centauri. Glise 876, the closest star to the Earth known to have a planet, would be over 100 km (62 miles) away. Only about two dozen star systems are closer. In 28 years Voyager has traveled 1/9000 of the distance to Glise 876.

Despite this technological challenge, many smart people believe we will explore and/or colonize the stars. Human curiosity, competitiveness and the willingness to climb a mountain “just because it’s there” have driven impressive accomplishments in the past.

Historically, curiosity had only one way to be satisfied—by a person going into the unknown and bringing back knowledge. Curious humans will explore space—just not in person. Space probes based on advances in robotics, computers and nanotechnology, will do our exploring by proxy. While human travel to the stars is not reasonably projected for 300-1000 years, within the next century sophisticated machine explorers will be able to make those trips. Electromechanical explorers will be smaller, smarter, more durable and more expendable than their biological counterparts.

Imagine that a future space probe approaches the planetary system of Glise 876. As it passes by each Glisean planet, it releases subsidiary probes. One instrument is 40-50 nanotech telescope units coordinated into a single viewing system called an interferometer. Over 16,000 times more powerful than any system we have today, it can observe life forms, topography, weather, ocean systems and more in over 200 spectral bands from 100,000 miles above the planet. Miniaturized manufacturing systems land on the planet and produce smart dust using readily available mineral resources. Smart dust units are nano-engineered microscopic sensor/computers that float in the atmosphere and then settle on the surface gathering information and relaying it to a satellite in space. Eventually all these devices self-destruct leaving no trace of their presence. Millions of probe systems send detailed information back to Earth. Possessing overwhelmingly detailed knowledge of every star, planet, dust cloud, nook and cranny in the physical galaxy, to sate our curiosity by sending human bodies out in space ships is redundant at best.

However, humans remain competitive and driven to “climb that mountain.” Whether we retain those characteristics in the coming 3-10 centuries before we are capable of going to the stars remains to be seen. As technology completes the imperative of the Industrial Revolution to free us from hunger, disease, menial labor, and material want will the human soul still aspire to commune among the stars? Or, as Ray Kurzweil asks in The Age of Spiritual Machines: When computers exceed human intelligence will that soul also migrate to mechanical proxies? If so, will they then speed away from Earth, leaving our carbon-based bodies behind?

Monday, November 21, 2005

Serving the "public interest, convenience and necessity" in the digital age?

There recently appeared an interesting Op-Ed piece in The Hill, a "newspaper for and about the U.S. Congress" reminds us about something that most broadcasters would probably rather forget about: their supposed public interest obligations under the Communications Act of 1934 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996. These obligations - which are supposed to be enforced by the FCC - demand that broadcasters continue to serve the “public interest, convenience and necessity" (as outlined in S. 307 and 309 of the 1934 Act.)

Gloria Tristani, who served on the FCC from 1997 to 2001; and Meredith McGehee, director of the Media Policy Program at a nonpartisan government watchdog group, outline what these obligations should include. Serving the “public interest, convenience and necessity" should be about whether:
  • "Our televisions can keep us alert and informed in national and local emergencies.
  • "Our children can turn on a television and find truly educational content.
  • "The voices and views on our airwaves reflect the diversity of our country.
  • "People who are sight- or hearing-impaired can access all of TV’s educational, informational and entertainment programming.
  • "We can be active and intelligent participants in our democracy with sufficient civic programming before elections."

However, they argue, in the current shift toward digital television - supposed to be completed by 2009 - broadcasters might be allowed to finally slip out from under these obligations, unless strong action is taken by Congress and the FCC, who "need to address how the transition to digital television will benefit citizens’ local, civic and electoral needs." Then, basing their position on the recommendations of a 7-year-old presidential commission on the matter, Tristiani and McGehee list a set of criteria that, they argue, "should define meaningful public-interest obligations that ensure broadcasters:
  • "Air a minimum of three hours per week of local, civic or electoral-affairs programming on the most-watched channel they operate and a comparable minimum number of hours across other streams of programming they may provide.
  • "Promote the FCC’s often-stated goal of diverse viewpoints and voices on television by ensuring that independent producers provide a minimum of 25 percent of broadcasters’ most-watched channel’s prime-time schedule.
  • "Tell the public how they are serving the interests of their audiences by making this information available in a standardized, searchable format, not only at the station, but posted on the station’s own web site."

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A Lesson Plan for Teaching Intelligent Design

Across the country, Fundamentalist Christian activists are working at the state and local level to have Intelligent Design (ID) taught in public school science classes. As a body of knowledge or an intellectual process, ID is not art. It is not plumbing, medicine, landscaping or mathematics. It is also clearly not science. It is a combination of religion and rhetoric. Evidence that it is religion can be seen by looking at who promotes it. All of its promoters have an ultimately religious agenda.

Examining the rhetoric of ID may actually be a good reason to bring ID into science classes. To help busy classroom teachers, I have prepared the lesson plan below.

LESSON PLAN: INTELLIGENT DESIGN AS RHETORIC

Grade Level: Adaptable for 9th through 12th

Time Estimate: 1-3 class periods

Purpose statement: Science is the search for explanations of the natural world. One purpose of science is to apply discoveries to solve the problems of humanity. This applied science has cured diseases, improved communications, enhanced medical practice, increased food supplies, and advanced other aspects of life. For science to benefit society, good science has to be taught in schools and colleges. One way to understand “good science,” is for students to examine bad science, e.g. Intelligent Design, as a contrast.

References Consulted: Various web sites linked in the text below.

Objective: The student will be able to state, in his/her own words, three reasons why Intelligent Design is not science.

Materials: Pictures and materials as described below.

Activities

I. Anticipatory Set

[Review the history of Intelligent Design using the timeline available at \\files\outbox\Education\showers.]

In 1859 Charles Darwin summarized the scientific discoveries up to that time related to the development of living systems in On the Origin of Species. As evolution came to be the basis of modern biology, it entered the public school biology curriculum. A battle developed as Fundamentalist Christians fought to keep evolution out of schools. In 1925, John Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution in violation of a Tennessee law. Evolution gradually pushed Biblical creationism out of science classes until in 1987 the US Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard that teaching creationism in public schools violated the First Amendment. This decision was supported by a statement opposing creationism as science signed by 72 Nobel Prize winners. Since that time religious advocates have attempted to get it back into the public schools. First called creation science the idea changed several times eventually becoming Intelligent Design.

II. Body of the lesson

[Explain in your own words] Intelligent Design, or ID, is offered as an explanation of the origin of the natural world and as an alternative to evolution. Part of the argument for ID is that the world is so complex it had to have had a designer.

[Ask] What is the purpose of a corn field? [Discuss]

[Show pictures of a corn field and clean ear of corn.]

[Ask] What characteristics of a cornfield indicate that it was designed? [Discuss]

[Show pictures of a weed-infested corn field and misshapen ear of corn with bugs.]

[Ask] Compared to the first field, is this field more complex or less complex?

[Discuss answers. The second field is more complex.]

[Ask] Which field is more efficient? [Discuss. The first field is more efficient.]

[Ask] Which field would you say had the better designer?

[Discuss. The designer of the first field is better.]

[Explain] Designed systems can be simple or complex. Designs that accomplish their purposes most efficiently give more reason to believe that they were intentionally designed to accomplish a purpose. A field of corn, weeds, soybeans, grass, and flowers would not give one reason to believe that the field was designed to produce corn.

[Show a picture of a Rube Goldberg device or a setup of the game Mousetrap.]

[Explain] A Rube Goldberg device is a system that is needlessly complex for the task that it is designed for. The children’s game Mousetrap is an example of such an apparatus. Rube Goldberg devices are humorous because needless complexity implies that their designer is not efficient, i.e. not intelligent.

[Explain] Computers read programmed instructions but if an instruction is nonsense, they stop. Imagine a computer that is capable of reading nonsense instructions, recognizing the nonfunctional command, ignoring it and going to the next potential instruction. Consider the following two programs where the string O, F, F tells the computer to shut off:

Program 1: OFF

Program 2:

CATRATDOGFROGTREEBEEMOUSEHOUSETURKEYLURKEYHENNYPENNY
CHICKENLITTLEBUSHISAMENTALMIDGETIHATETHEYANKEESOFF

Both programs function. It is the efficiency of the first program, not the complexity, which indicates it was designed for its purpose.

Designed nature infers a Designer of mistakes and inefficiencies. Humans have appendixes and tail bones. Men have breast nipples. Snakes and whales have vestigial legs. Fish and insects produce millions of offspring so that a few might survive. Ten percent of the sunshine striking a leaf is converted to useful energy. The fossil record is a catalog of millions of dead ends.

Program 3: JAIEUCNEOSHEUCNLTHAEUSNTHSTEHUUITMANTHENSUNBAPABRKLSTG
CMLSDGSLKDHXCGDVDKXGSKMFKHXXKJDMCUSFWILDSHSDKFGFUHVDGYEBMVFNV
DOIUFDUIFEJKFMVFLKJVOIUFRHUFRLNKVOFF

Program 3 is random but has the hidden complexity of at least ten English words. It also has inefficiency as 98% of the information serves no useful purpose.

[Ask] Does Program 3 indicate intelligent design? [Discuss.]

[Explain] Where DNA controls the organization of a human being, 98% of it does not serve any organizational purpose. While some of these “dead areas” are thought to serve some functions, the complexity does not indicate efficient design. [Discuss: Is a computer program of millions of lines of code efficient or intelligent if only 2% is functional?]

[Explain] Intelligent Design advocate Michael Behe argues the irreducible complexity of organs, organisms, and other natural systems requires that scientists accept the viability of ID as a scientific idea. This is a revision of the Blind Watchmaker argument that has been completely refuted by biologists most notably, Richard Dawkins. While removing part of a complex system can make it nonfunctional, biology shows complex systems can develop from accumulated changes in simpler systems.

ID proponent William Dembski promotes specified complexity as follows: “[I]f an archer shoots arrows into a wall and we then paint bull's-eyes around them, we impose a pattern after the fact. On the other hand, if the targets are set up in advance ("specified") and then the archer hits them accurately, we know it was by design.” This argument employs circular logic to convince us it is science. How do we know the minnow’s purpose is to be eaten by the trout? Because the trout eats it. Both the trout and the minnow are designed to a specified complexity because they efficiently serve their purpose. But the purpose is identified by the existing function of the organism.

III. Conclusion [Summarize main points:]

  1. Intelligent Design is the latest variation of Creationism promoted by certain Fundamentalist Christians
  2. Edwards v. Aguillard, supported by 47 Nobel Prize winners, declared that creation science is not science
  3. The arguments of intelligent design based on the complexity of natural systems are specious (at first appealing, but prove to be false).
  4. Intelligent Design is not science and should not be taught in public school science classes.

Note: The arguments against Irreducible complexity and specified complexity have been greatly simplified for space herein. Much more complete arguments are easily found on web sites like infidels.org or csicop.org or several good books on the topic.

Monday, November 14, 2005

What next for the New York Times?

So in the wake of Judith Miller's resignation from the New York Times, just what is in store for America's "newspaper of record"?

The debacle over the Valerie Plame incident--and Miller's role in it--brought a great deal of criticism on the heads not only of Miller, but also those who run the New York Times - including its executive editor, Bill Keller and its publisher, Arthur Salzberger. But the focus of the criticism was on Miller herself--and some of it came from within the paper. It was clear that Miller had become an embarrassment for the paper. The Times's own public editor, or ombudsman, Byron Calame, opened up on his web site a public comments section that was inundated with submissions from outraged readers; he did this after penning his own stinging rebuke to Miller and the Times ("The Miller Mess: Lingering Issues Among the Answers")--a rebuke that included a call for Miller to quit. Maureen Dowd, another Times columnist, also more-or-less called on Miller not to go in a separate column the same week.

Elsewhere, the Times has had criticism heaped upon it from all sides. Editor & Publisher editor Greg Mitchell called for Miller's head. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has stated in his influential Pressthink site that the paper is now only the second best paper in the country, after the Washington Post (and only just in front of the Wall Street Journal). In an interview with Howard Kurtz on CNN's Reliable Sources on Oct. 9, Rosen said that the Times
    has lost the capacity to tell the truth about itself in this story. It’s completely overidentified itself and the majesty of the institution with Judy Miller and what its own people describe as her personal decision making… It isn’t the First Amendment drama that they think it is. It’s a much more complicated, darker and ultimately dubious tale.

Glenn Reynolds and Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, also appearing on that show, seemed to agree.

So just how much trouble is the Times really in? Well, the paper's not about to shut up shop and shuffle off into history - it's still far too important for that. The Times remains financially healthy, both on its own terms and as the core of a significant media mini-empire that includes nineteen newspapers (including the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune), as well as eight TV stations and the widely syndicated New York Times News Service. Certainly it's true, as Slate's Jack Shafer points out, that this latest scandal - "like Jayson Blair's journalistic malfeasance and the embarrassments of the Wen Ho Lee episode before it - has sent the old gray palooka down to the mat once again, where we find it wheezing, bleeding, and struggling to find its feet." (The Jayson Blair incident, btw, also led to the resignation in 2003 of the Times' previous editor, Howell Raines in a cloud of uncertainty that seemed to infect all journalism for a while.) But the paper will get back up again, shake itself off, and keep going. Still, I note Rosen's position that the Times is no longer America's number one paper. I'm still pondering that one; but I am sure that the paper is in a continuing downward spiral, so if it's not number two - or three - yet, it could well slip down there before much longer. The New York Times has almost 110 years of accrued status, respectability and economic success - going all the way back to Adolph Ochs in 1896 - that keeps its stock high. But it can't keep taking hits like this forever.

American Journalism Review Editor Rem Reider, in a piece for his journal ("Life After Judy"), notes that, as far as the Times is concerned, "Now comes the hard part." The Times has to put its house in order . . . again!

Last word to AJR's Reider, who, among other things, compares the Times unfavorably to USA Today.
    Not long ago a journalism savant I respect a great deal made a very interesting point. He said he thought that USA Today had absorbed the painful lessons of the Jack Kelley scandal and implemented necessary changes. He wasn't sure the Times had been as successful in learning from its mistakes.

    So now it's up to Executive Editor Bill Keller to put the pieces back together. His handling of the Miller affair wasn't what you would call nimble. But he's a top-flight journalist and a respected figure in the newsroom (if not the world's most gregarious guy).

    One common thread runs through the Times' debacles: breakdowns in the editing process. Putting safeguards in place and applying them stringently will be key.

    It's also important that the Times level with its readers, consistently. While it did publish that extraordinary (and merciless) reconstruction of the Jayson Blair saga and – belatedly – weighed in on the Miller episode, it took far too long to address the WMD problems, and didn't address them all that well when it finally did.

    As for Times Publisher (and Times Co. Chairman) Arthur Sulzberger Jr., two of the major messes – the Raines selection and the paper's awkward Miller "entanglement" (to borrow a Bill Kellerism)--are on him.

    One thing's for sure. The Times is going to be one closely scrutinized news outlet for quite some time.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Does Al Gore really hold the future of the TV industry?

Remember Al Gore? You know, the guy who was supposed to win (well, probably did win) the 2000 Presidential race but somehow never made it to the White House? We haven't heard much from him since those dark days. Following his defeat in the Supreme Court, he famously grew a beard, briefly taught graduate journalists at Columbia, and has been spending more time back in his native Tennessee, where he is steadily rebuilding bridges in his home state (which notoriously failed to vote for him in 2000) as rumors persist that he'll make another presidential run in 2008. Wikipedia also lists his current activities as chairing a company called Generation Investment Management, sitting on Apple Computer's board of directors, and serving "as an unofficial advisor to Google's senior management."

The role that has recently drawn the most attention to Gore - certainly in media circles - is his partnership in the new cable and web TV enterprise, Current TV, which went on air on August 1 this year. Gore and partner Joel Hyatt have set up the new network - based in San Francisco - in an effort to do something radically different with television. It seems like he might be on to something. Here's how a recent USA Today article ("Akimbo, Current Media could embody TV's next generation") introduces us to the operation.
    Two decades ago, if you wanted to see how cable would change TV, you might've visited Turner Broadcasting and MTV, just to soak up what was going on. Today, there's no question the Internet is going to alter television — not make TV go away, but make it different. So whom do you visit to check out where this is heading? Could be a lot of contenders, but while I'm in San Francisco, I can hit two on the same day: Current and Akimbo.

Akimbo, btw, is another nascent TV hybrid operation that seems to act like a "super-TiVO" for "niche video-almost-on-demand". Its main claim to fame seems to be that it's being run by a chap called Will Hearst, who apparently is a grandson of 19th Century newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. But the Current TV operation sounds like it's the more interesting venture of the two. As USA Today notes, Gore and Hyatt are thinking about television in a very different way," as they attempt to integrate TV and web operations more symbiotically than ever before. "Current is using the Internet to make its viewers a meaningful part of the TV channel. More than 30% of the segments on Current are produced by amateurs and are sent in through the website." (I haven't got to see the TV version yet, but I have dug around on the web site to see the type of material being submitted and aired.)
    Here's how the system works: Anyone can use a digital video camcorder to create a five-minute story — or “pod” in the Current lingo — and upload it to www.current.tv. Then the site's users view the pods and vote on them. The pods that rise to the top — a sliver of the number sent in — are considered for the Current TV channel.

    Before launch, Current executives thought they'd be lucky to get enough good-quality content from viewers to fill maybe 5% of airtime, says Joanna Drake Earl, who runs Current's Web operations. But they were amazed at what came in. “It looks and feels different, but we love the rawness,” she says.

    So the channel has wound up with pods about religious-themed haunted funhouses, amateur kickball and young Afghans who work out with weights while admiring 1970s posters of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Back in early August, right after the station started operations, NPR ran a piece that noted how the station was designed to "snag the short attention span of young people who don't normally watch the news." Clearly, though, no-one back then had a clear idea whether this exercise in truly interactive TV would take off. NPR quoted commentator (and USC professor) Todd Boyd, who refelected that the programming looked a little like "a cross between an earlier version of MTV, CNN, and the Internet." Boyd focused on how it was hard to imagine Al Gore being associated with anything "hip." Yet three months later, it seems as if Gore has hit upon something that connects to "the kids."

USA Today concludes: "For the past decade, the Internet has opened the door for people and subjects that wouldn't otherwise make it into mainstream media. Current is now using that opening to change mainstream media. And the industry is paying attention."

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Scientific Democracy

Before I begin this little treatise, I want to thank the American Democracy project and those at Geneseo who made this activity possible. It is a fervent hope of mine that through such mechanisms the original vision of American democracy might be reclaimed by bringing a marketplace of ideas directly to the people and giving citizens a forum in which to employ them.

As my initial contribution, I hope to lay out a framework of some general ideas of the relationship between science and modern society. In the weeks to come I expect to flesh this out by examining past and present scientific and technological achievements and discussing their impacts on society. As a starting point, I shall share my view of science AS democracy (or democracy as science) and the importance that this thinking has on understanding a truly democratic society.

As a starting point, I would like to expose a myth.

This myth is one that probably every American was taught in school. It is still in History textbooks and has been celebrated by generations of Americans for over 200 years. That myth is: George Washington was the Father of our Country.

It is true that without Washington and his actions throughout the Revolution, the United States would not exist. Washington uniquely played a vital role in the birth and early development of this nation. However, a father is a male whose creative act results in a birth. George Washington was the protector of the developing nation from its conception through its earliest days of life. Actually, George Washington was the Obstetrician of our Country.

The creative act in the formation of the United States was the constitution of the Constitution. The genealogy of a person can identify key traits s/he will have in life. Similarly, the heritage of some very important ideas allows us to better understand American Constitutional democracy. While James Madison is often referred to as the Father of the Constitution, the family tree also includes John Adams, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s thinking is particularly important not only in its own right, but doubly so because he was Madison’s principal guide and mentor for many years.

Vital to creating this new form of government was establishing the moral authority of a secular democracy. The Founders had to wrestle with how to create a basis for law that does not derive from the moral of a particular religion.

As scientific thinkers, the Founders found a way. Jefferson is perhaps the best example. His philosophy in this regard comes from the school of thought known as deism. Franklin, Paine, Madison, James Monroe and even Washington are also considered deists. An outgrowth of Enlightenment thinking, deism can be thought of as the science of God. A deist must determine the nature of God for oneself by discerning a body of evidence and discovering the principles those examples illustrate. By observing people in various circumstances not as children of God, but as manifestations of God, one comes to know God. Deism rejects “revealed” religion and such ideas as the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Jefferson spent his time and effort trying to infer the nature of God through the investigation of Creation and the human condition. One illustration of his methods was the construction of what came to be called “The Jefferson Bible.” Jefferson took the Gospels in English, French, Latin and Greek and literally cut and pasted a volume to study. To create this work, he removed material rooted in paganism added by the early Church and anything supernatural. He rejected most of the Old Testament and the parts of the New Testament on the development of the Christian Church. Jefferson had a great regard for the moral teachings of Jesus but little trust in the church that grew up in his name. He once referred to the Apostle Paul as “the first corruptor of the teachings of Jesus.”

The influence of deist thinking is evident in what is in, and not in, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. As author of the Declaration, Jefferson cited “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” While some point to this as evidence that the US is a Christian nation, the opposite is true. “Nature’s God” is a deist idea that does not mean the God who rules nature, but the God understood from the study of nature.

Madison is important not only as the Father of the Constitution, but also as the author of Memorial and Remonstrance in protest of a bill proposing government financing of Christian teachers. In it he decried the fruits of 15 centuries of Christianity as “More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” With Madison as principal author it is no wonder that the Constitution has no reference to God or the doctrines of any particular religion. To the contrary, Article VI forbids any religious test as a requirement for federal offices.

So if the science of God is the moral basis for the secular democracy of the United States, how is it to be applied?

The simple answer is: rationally. However, there are many ways of reasoning about any simple issue which must be multiplied when confronting complex issues. Here again, Jefferson is instructive.

In rejecting both revealed religion and most of the Old Testament, Jefferson not only committed himself to a God discerned by reason, but a God of compassion and justice. These are the overriding themes of Jesus’ message that Jefferson studied over and over in four languages. This calls citizens to make distinctions based on the motives of leaders to judge the reasoning they apply to issues.

Deng Ming Dao warns of the brave man, “Such a person will threaten others, force his will upon others, and even murder others not out of passion but out of something much more deadly—rationale. He will justify his actions according to ideology, patriotism, religion and principle.” We see far too much of this from rulers today.

We must see the difference between rationality and rationales. A rational morality applied with compassion and a quest for justice is a vision that Jefferson and other Founders held for the fledgling United States. The application of scientific ways of thinking to this moral pursuit is the ultimate possible relationship between science and society. It is also a possible way to achieve the goal I described in the first paragraph of this essay, “...a fervent hope of mine that through [blogs and similar tools of discussion] the original vision of American democracy might be reclaimed by bringing a marketplace of ideas directly to the people and giving citizens a forum in which to employ them.”

Monday, November 07, 2005

What future for network news?

What is network news going to look like five years from now? Twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, a pretty confident answer would have been "Pretty much the same as it looks now." Now, with the networks under ever greater pressure from cable, satellite and Internet, and the old troika of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings gone, the answer is much less certain. In fact, no-one has a clue what network news will be like five years from now--or even six months from now.

In a recent piece in the New York Times Business section (registration required), Bill Carter asks five key questions that need to be resolved in the near future:
  • "Who will anchor the ABC evening news after the death of Peter Jennings?
  • "Who will eventually take over the CBS evening newscast, if CBS will even have a traditional anchor format on the program?
  • "Who will lead NBC News, which is still without a permanent president?
  • "Will the long-running ABC News program 'Nightline' be able to survive with an ensemble anchor team replacing the program's highly regarded anchor/patriarch, Ted Koppel?
  • "Will the evening newscasts at each network be regarded as lesser programs in comparison with the far more profitable morning news programs like 'Today' and 'Good Morning.'"

These questions all cut to the core of what we think "network news" should be all about. Are we still talking about the dominant construct, which has remained that of the all-powerful nightly network news, headed by the all-powerful network news anchor defining America's universe for all its people? This construct, which crystalized in the 1960s, has been steadily undermined in recent years as news budgets were slashed and total network news audiences plummeted (and those audiences that remain skew older--advertisers don't like older audiences). But the core idea of an early evening, 30-minute national network news broadcast has remained sacrosanct - up till now. Will that remain the case? Yes, it's too easy to wax nostalgic about the era of Edward R. Murrow, Huntley and Brinkley and Walter Cronkite--an era immortalized in such works as Fred Friendly's Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control . . ., and in the just-released movie "Good Night, and Good Luck. Even if there is a tendency to mythologize those "good old days," we can't help but regret that today's network news divisions are mere shadows of their former selves. Yet at least we can still recognize today's entities as direct line descendants of these paragons of the (so-called) "golden age of television". With the passing of the "old guard", will we be able to say the same in five years? What kind of people will take the place of Brokaw, Rather, Jennings, Koppel et al.?

Certainly the network news shows are still pulling in national audiences - between 22 and 25 million per night, according to Carter - that dwarf those of the cable networks. But is that enough? And these numbers diminish with each passing year. The morning news shows still remain profitable and healthy, but these are increasingly turning to entertainment news. What's to be done? Everything is up in the air for the network planners. Maybe it should be. Maybe the old network news construct, built in an era when 95% of Americans watched the same three TV stations, is simply no longer tenable. If that's the case, what's going to replace it?

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Public Opinion Polling and Democracy

George Gallup wrote in 1965 that "Polls can make government more efficient and responsive; they can improve the quality of candidates for public office; they can make this a truer democracy."
"Polls and the Political Process - Past, Present, and Future." Public Opinion Quarterly 29 (winter):544-549.

Our experience with polls over the past half-century has not always been consistent with Gallup's claim. This is a theme I will develop in future postings. But to get things rolling let me draw your attention to an ABC/Washington Post Poll from November 3, 2005 Bush Approval Hits New Low. Toward the bottom of this page there is a comparison of Lyndon Johnson's and George W. Bush's approval ratings at comparable dates in their presidencies. There is a striking similarity in the steady decline in approval. No doubt the White House is paying close attention to such polls and they probably have internal polls of their own. But how will they respond? Will they think about changing policy? Will they use their internal polls to test market new language to dress up the old policy? We will know in a few days or weeks when the speeches and talking points become obvious. I'm not expecting a change in policy.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

About Democratic Vistas

...an infinite number of currents and forces, and contributions, and temperatures, and cross purposes, whose ceaseless play of counterpart upon counterpart brings constant restoration and vitality. --Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas, 1867-68
Democratic Vistas is the weblog of the American Democracy Project at Geneseo. SUNY Geneseo has joined more than a hundred other college campuses in affiliating itself with the national American Democracy Project, a joint enterprise of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the New York Times.

The American Democracy Project aims to promote students' experience and understanding of civic engagement. There are many ways for a liberal arts college to fulfill this aim: by encouraging volunteerism, for example, or by building service-learning directly into academic coursework, or by creating opportunities for deliberative dialogue on issues that ordinarily generate more heat than light.

Geneseo is attempting to do all these things. It is also attempting to promote students' experience and understanding of civic engagement by demonstrating the connection between areas of liberal learning - the "arts and sciences" broadly understood - and issues of public concern. For the greatest value of liberal learning lies not in the preparation it provides for rewarding and gainful employment - as valuable as that preparation is - but in the foundation it lays for active and critical participation in democracy.

The bloggers at Democratic Vistas will use this space to connect their own academic expertise to public issues, musing aloud about current events and offering leads to other sources of valuable information or opinion. They will speak for themselves on this page - not for SUNY Geneseo as an institution - and they will speak, not to each other, but to the community of interested readers. Geneseo's Democracy Project Committee hopes that you'll count yourself a member of that community, and that you'll check in regularly at Democractic Vistas to learn what the bloggers here are thinking.