Archive for December 2009

2009 final photo

December 31, 2009

This was taken last week in the small town of Ennigerloh in Westphalia, Germany.

Compatibility with future generations

December 31, 2009

A little while ago I was asked by a group of students from a neighbouring school for advice on the following: they were putting together the contents for a time capsule that they were intending to bury in their school grounds, to be disinterred in 2100. They wanted to include in it a lot of photographs, some shool magazines and some essays. Their intention was to bury this in electronic format, but they were stuck as to what media to use. If they put it all on CDs or DVDs, would these still be readable in 100 years, and indeed would there be the still be hardware that could be used for this purpose? Or should they use a memory stick?

Of course I was quite unable to offer any useful advice. Or rather, I suggested that the only safe thing they could do would be to include it in hard copy, i.e. on paper. I think they may have been disappointed with this advice, as they probably hoped that the president of a technology-savvy university would have some hi tech solution. Perhaps if I had asked my computing colleagues they might have given some advice, but on the whole I suspect we know very little now about what technology will be available in 100 years and whether it will be sufficiently ‘backwards compatible’ to read a DVD from 2009. Paper just seems safest.

But for me that raises all sorts of other issues.Right now one of the great movements in technology applied to the arts and humanities is digitzation – i.e. the conversion of manuscripts, books and art into electronic format. But how durable is this going to be? How can we be sure that what we are digitizing will be in a  format that will still work in 2020, never mind 2100. Or are we going to have to reformat all this stuff every few years for the digital repositories to have any functional value? And if so, what about private archives that don’t have curators who can perform this task whenever it is needed?

I am reminded of this because I am the proud possessor of (I think) 38 computer disks in five an a half inch format. They were assembled in 1992. Now, in 2009, they are not exactly unreadable, but it will take an enormous effort to find some equipment that can do that. And what is more, most of the documents on them were created using word processing software called ‘WordStar’ in DOS (if you have no idea what I am talking about, don’t worry, it’s not worth your while finding out). So even if I can find the necessary hardware, I doubt that it will have the software to read the files. In short, the disks are really useless. I am only glad that I didn’t bother transferring them to 3 inch disks when I was contemplating dong that in 1998 – that too would have been a waste, because those disks are more or less also now unreadable. And do you really think you will be able to plug your USB memory stick into anything in 2030? I doubt it.

And so what this makes me wonder is whether the technophobes and Luddites will have the last laugh. Is all the stuff we are now assembling in computer files doomed to be altogether ephemeral? Will the output of this generation, so overwhelmingly stored only electronically, just fade away and remain, untouchable and unreadable, on old computer media in the back of some dusty drawer? Will our era be thought of, in some 1,000 years time, as a dark age from which nothing survived?

‘Red flags’ in higher education finances

December 30, 2009

The US tax authorities, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), recently conducted a survey of higher education institutions in order to ascertain how well their finances are being managed. The conclusion was, on the whole, positive, and the IRS found that the institutions were prudent and responsible with the resources at their disposal. But the report does identify some ‘red flags': chiefly these were concerned with the remuneration of management officials and some top academics, as well as the benefits made available to athletics coaches; but another concern was related to ‘risky investments’ in some colleges.

The institutions surveyed also delivered the data to Ernest & Young in order to get their own assessment of the information, and the resulting report was published last week. One of the findings was, at least to an Irish reader, remarkable: that the average salary of an athletics coach was over twice that of a college president. Although I believe sports to be a very important part of what a university should promote, I cannot help feeling that in some American institutions this has got out of all proportion.

From the perspective of the institutions surveyed, the results in general are encouraging. The report is positive about the administration of finances and the existence of policies that help to secure good practice, including policies on conflicts of interest. But with the climate we now have, the question of whether salaries are proportionate to the role being carried out and appropriate in terms of comparability will need to be addressed.

Here in Ireland salaries are much more tightly regulated, but a more general assessment of financial management may come out of the ‘forensic audit’ that the Minister for Education has entrusted to the Comptroller and Auditor General. Although I have been wary of the context in which this audit was requested, it may be that it will help to build confidence in the ability of the Irish universities and colleges to manage their financial affairs, and such confidence is vital if the institutions are to be encouraged to be innovative and reform-minded. The US survey by the IRS may provide some useful comparative material.

All the news that’s fit to print

December 29, 2009

One of the key questions for modern journalism is about where to draw the line between news which the public have a legitimate right and expectation to know and items that are really just an intrusion into a person’s privacy. And before we go down that road, there is a corresponding question that needs to be asked of us, the general public: what do we want the media to tell us, and are we consistent between what we say in answer to that question and what we are prepared to read or listen to?

Of course the trigger for such a discussion right now would be the report by the Irish television station TV3 that the Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan TD, has pancreatic cancer, a story they released despite the fact that they knew he had not told all of his friends and family and was intending to do so over the Christmas period. As far as I know, TV3 have not stated why they released the news in this way; the only statement from the station that I have come across was from Andrew Hanlon, Director of News at the station, who said: ‘We held it for two days to enable him to inform his family’. Apart from the attempt to portray the station as having behaved sympathetically, I cannot see in that statement why they did it at all. To be fair, it is perfectly correct to report on the Minister’s illness, as his role is crucial in the government and his personal ability to handle the issues facing the economy is a relevant issue; but there can be no real argument that this needed to be known during the Christmas holiday and could not have waited another week.

My own view is that the station got it badly wrong and behaved inappropriately in a very sensitive matter. The issue here is one of timing rather than of substance. And of course the reason why they did it was that they believed that it would provide them with publicity that would be commercially useful to them; the tut-tutting of the other media was not only not a problem, but perhaps was an additional bonus in PR terms. Such news items work for the media because, in the end we, the public, go for it. We may join the ranks of the tut-tutters, but we do so having read or listened to the item.

The problem in all of this is that it is difficult to formulate a set of principles on the public interest in such matters, or indeed on public accountability for those who exercise power, which is clearly set apart from what is just salacious interest. The French media did not report the existence of François Mitterrand’s illegitimate daughter while he was President, although the story was well known. Was that the correct position? Or was it right to suggest, as some British journalists did at the time, that Mitterrand’s marital infidelity should have been fair game because it showed that he could not be trusted to keep his word, and that this was a matter of public interest?

Generally speaking, it is my view that the Irish media behave with a significant degree of responsibility. But even here we may need to develop a better understanding of what constitutes news that should be printed (or broadcast), and what is simply a matter of private concern that the public does not have a right to know.

Two year degrees?

December 28, 2009

In a recent post here I drew attention to the annual ‘grant letter’ which the UK’s Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, Lord Mandelson, had sent to the English founding council. But apart from the issue of university funding that the letter addressed, there was also one other matter raised by Peter Mandelson in passing which has attracted a lot of attention. Here’s what he said:

‘We want to see more programmes that are taken flexibly and part-time and that a learner can access with ease alongside their other commitments. We also wish to see more programmes, such as foundation and fast-track degrees, that can be completed full-time in two years.’ (para. 4)

It would be fair to say that this didn’t go down very well, with almost any audience. Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU, the academics’ trade union), said:

‘Reading between the lines here it sounds like a two-tier university system where the privileged few have the pick of the university park and everyone else has to make do with what they can afford.’

Media comment was also almost universally hostile, as in this example.

In fairness to Peter Mandelson, I’m not wholly sure that he said what has been attributed to him by some of the critics. He did (as seen in the quote above) refer to two-year programmes, but I don’t see the immediate evidence that he was holding this up as the general model to be applied. Rather, he seems to have been concerned with the need to have structured programmes that are accessible to those who are not traditional university students. For all that, he said what he said, and he certainly does seem to be contemplating some two-year courses. And if that is so, it is indeed necessary to examine where such courses would fit into both the Bologna framework and, more generally, our understanding of the pedagogy underlying university degrees. The problem is that the rather high volume of the responses may make a dispassionately analytical discussion with the Secretary of State difficult.

This is also an important topic for us in Ireland, and one that should be addressed in the higher education strategic review now under way, and in the resulting discussion. Right now there are three-year and four-year undergraduate programmes in Ireland, and some niche ones that have other structures. It is time to reach an agreement on what educational aims we expect to see satisfied in degree programmes and how the total period of study affects that.

The continuing story of e-books

December 27, 2009

According to the latest information released by online book retailer Amazon, this Christmas, for the first time, e-books out-sold hard copy (i.e. paper) books. The company’s e-book reader, the Kindle, is now more likely to contain a customer’s book collection than a bookcase or a set of shelves on the wall. This raises a number of questions, but perhaps some of the more interesting ones include what this will do to book prices, how writers and publishers will be affected, and what kind of ‘market’ this will turn into.

Take this example. If you would like to buy Colm Toibin’s latest book, Brooklyn, then on Amazon you can get the paper edition for $16.50. But if you go for the e-book (Kindle) version, you will have to pay $13.79. So you’ll get the electronic version at a lower price, but low enough? If you’ve just got the Kindle, and you are full of admiration for your new toy, maybe you won’t think that price too bad. But let us say you’ve had the device for six months, and you start wondering about what this money is paying for, and in particular that neither the publisher nor Amazon have to create and then ship anything of material value to you, then you may start thinking that the price is too high.

In fact, it appears that many customers regard $9.99 as the top price that would be acceptable for an e-book – and I’ll bet my first edition of Dickens’ Bleak House that in another two years or so that price elasticity will have slipped further and the limit will be $4.99. And between now and then you’ll have publishers and agents and Amazon itself arguing about copyright and older titles and heaven knows what else, and before you know it the whole publishing industry will be plagued by piracy and other such stuff.

There is also a rumour that Apple is about to enter this market – wait for an updated version of iTunes with book content for your iPodReader or whatever.

There will be interesting times ahead. E-book readers are here to stay. And e-books provide opportunities for publishing and distribution that could rattle the cages of the large publishing houses and open up some real competition. Let us hope that this is how it will develop.

Weird illegalities

December 26, 2009

I always find myself sitting down during the evening of Christmas Day and reading one of the books I will have received (I always receive some, and would miss it if I didn’t). One rather amusing book I was given this year describes ‘the maddest laws from around the world’. It’s in German, but in translation here are some examples:

• In South Dakota (USA) it is illegal to fall asleep in a cheese shop.
• In Vermont it is illegal to whistle under water.
• In New York it is illegal to walk backwards on a public road.
• In Uruguay duelling has been made legal, provided both duellists are blood donors (as the editor of the book observes, that’s very practical)
• In Carmel (California) men are not permitted to leave their house unless their jacket is stylistically compatible with their shoes (who is the judge?)
• In China a couple cannot get a divorce if they have lost their marriage certificate.

But my favourite is this one: if you are driving your car in Pennyslvania and you meet horses, the law requires the driver to stop at the side of the road and cover the car with a blanket that has been painted or sewn to blend into the scenery.  If the horses are not happy, the driver must disassemble the car and hide the parts in any nearby underbrush. I do hope this law is regularly enforced.


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