It’s Cold. Let’s Eat.

The return of fall—or of fall weather anyway—inspires rather mixed feelings in the Fleming-Miller household. Caroline, good Southerner that she is, loves the heat. Me? I enjoy all things fall. Hiking through forests turned red and gold, mountain views becoming more expansive as the canopy falls. Jackets and sweaters replacing t-shirts. Shorter evenings catching us unaware.

Mostly, though, I love fall food.

Fortunately, that’s one thing about fall that Caroline and I both share. Winter squash, turnips, sweet potatoes, apples, pumpkins, all turned into soups or stews or baked into bread. Tucking into a hot and hearty dinner with my beautiful wife, nice glass of wine in hand, the darkness outside broken only by the light from our dining room leaking past the blinds—it’s about as close to a perfect evening as I can think of.

So with today’s 50 degree rain keeping us off the trails, I figured it was a good time to lift Caroline’s Ohmygoditswinteroutside blues with some fall flavors.

For breakfast: Whole wheat pumpkin pancakes. I lifted the recipe from Pinch My Salt, and used it nearly verbatim (my only addition was 1/2 tsp of Allspice.) Highly recommended.

Next up: Autumn Pumpkin Loaf, minus the pumpkin seeds (which we didn’t happen to have around.) Great right out of the bread machine, and should make even better toast this week.

Finally, dinner tonight is baked acorn squash with a pear-bourbon stuffing and an orange glaze. The squash and pears are courtesy of our CSA box. I’m going to be making this up a bit as I go along, so I’ll have to let you know how it goes later. But, you know, squash, pears, bourbon, and orange. Seems hard to go wrong.

But that part doesn’t happen until I get outside for a walk. It’s going back up to the 70s later this week. I’m going to enjoy the early taste of fall while I can.

Update: I did in fact get around to the acorn squash. And to the walk, though the rain cut it short a bit. Here’s the recipe I used, for those of you keeping score at home.

  • Two medium acorn squash, cut in half with seeds removed
  • Olive oil
  • Two apples, peeled and chopped
  • 1 TBSP brown sugar
  • 2 TBSP bourbon
  • 1 TBSP lemon juice
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp mace
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 c. frozen orange juice concentrate

Cut brush the cut halves of the squash with olive oil and place on a parchment-covered baking sheet cut-side down. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes.

In the meantime, peel and chop the apples, then mix the next 7 ingredients (brown sugar through salt) in a bowl, stirring until combined. Add the apples and toss until coated.

Remove the squash from the oven, flip over and spoon apples into the seed cavity. Pour any remaining bourbon mixture over the apples. Return to the oven for 20 minutes.

Put orange juice concentrate in a small saucepan and boil until reduced by half. Pour some of the (admittedly low-rent) orange glaze over the top of the squash just before serving. We had the squash with green beans (thanks again, CSA!) and rice. We actually saved a bit of the orange glaze to mix in with the rice. It would be equally good with any kind of cooked grain.

In fact, next time, I might actually try mixing in some bulgur or maybe some cous cous with the apples and stuffing the squash with the fruit-grain mix…

Philosophy and Economics

So, I wore my new David Hume shirt to work yesterday. 

Joe's Hume ShirtAnd before you ask, yes, I am in fact that much of a nerd. Also, yes, I do in fact have a job where I can wear that shirt on a Thursday and no one cares. Some parts of my job I really like.

Anyway, I found the whole experience to be just a tiny bit depressing.

“Why’s that?” you ask, not unreasonably, perhaps expecting me to say something about how I’m an adult who still wears printed t-shirts to work or maybe waiting for me to comment on the fact that when I walked out of the office yesterday in my t-shirt it had suddenly turned really fucking cold.

But no. It’s not any of those things.

The depressing thing is that no one recognized David Hume.

Now I realize that I work with economists and budget analysts. I probably wouldn’t recognize a lot of fairly famous economists, either. But this is David Hume. The David Hume who was both a close friend of and huge influence on this other 18th century Scot you may have heard of, a fellow by the name of Adam Smith. Yeah, that Adam Smith. I mean, I’ve definitely heard that economics programs have stopped doing much in the way of history/theory and turned into applied mathematics programs, but I mean…

So my typical conversation ended up going something like this.

Composite character: Who is David Hume?

Me: He was a philosopher.

Composite character: * Blank look *

Me: 18th century. Scottish enlightenment. Friend of Adam Smith.

Composite character: Ah. Your shirt makes him look like a rock star.

Me: Yeah, that’s supposed to be the joke. It’s Daft Punk’s logo.

Composite character: Who is Daft Punk?

Me: Can we talk about something else now?

Zombies and Bloggers and Politics. So fun.

Feed (Newsflesh Trilogy #1)Feed by Mira Grant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed Feed far more than I thought I would. I mean, okay, there are zombies. That’s definitely a plus, though I suspect that the current wave of zombie books/movies/shows might already have peaked. At the end of the day, there’s only so much you can do with zombies, right?

That said, Grant manages to put two novel spins on the genre. First, she depicts a society not in the days immediately following the zombie outbreak, but rather one that has learned to accept the zombie menace as a way of life. We see civilization carrying on. Business carries on, democracy marches forward, testing for the zombie virus is routine, and humans are still the scariest monsters there are.

Grant’s second original spin is to place bloggers front-and-center in the post-zombie society. It’s an odd conceit, but it is a more-or-less plausible outgrowth of our reality-TV obsessed world.

In all, I thought that this was great fun, and the book actually had what was (to me) a perfect ending. Honestly, my main disappointment is that there is a sequel. That may sound odd. But I fear that trying to carry on with a sequel is going to end up a little bit like season 6 of Buffy: It sounds like a good idea at the time, but in retrospect, it really just makes everything that came before it a little bit worse.

View all my reviews

Newspapers and Universities

Are universities headed down the same path as newspapers? That’s the prediction Matt Yglesias offered a couple of days ago on his blog. Here’s Matt:

I was reading John Gravois on “The College For-Profits Should Fear” in the Washington Monthly and Paul Campos’ continuing jeremiads about legal education (and this) and I more and more have the feeling that American universities are headed for a newspaper-style, technologically-induced giant collapse at some point in the not-to-distant future.

Matt goes on to outline some similarities. News reporting can be done more efficiently via the Internet. Similarly, so can finding lots of facts about the world. The internet allows anyone with sufficient interest and talent to play the role of journalist. Ditto for teaching. The internet reduces the marginal cost of bringing news to an additional eyeball to zero. Ditto for a video lecture. And so on.

The comment section is filled with protestations of the “But a university education isn’t about communicating facts; it’s about teaching students how to think effectively. You can’t get that from reading Wikipedia!” sort. And that’s all true. But is that really so different from the “Newspapers provide objective and impartial filtering of facts. You can’t get that from bloggers” sort of claim that old media types make about the new media world that is fast replacing them? I’m not so sure.

Here’s my $0.02 on the matter, based solely on my own (admittedly brief and increasingly distant) stint as an academic.

Teaching is a skill. But by-and-large, it’s not a skill that graduate programs spend much time attempting to impart to graduate students. And at top universities, teaching is not a skill that gets much in the way of recognition. An increasingly crowded job market means that the only way to land a job (never mind getting tenure) is to publish, publish, publish. Even at my decidedly off-brand university, I maintained an article per semester, completed manuscript before tenure review pace.

I was lucky, though. My university still valued teaching; the individual recognized as the university’s outstanding teacher each year was the opening convocation speaker each fall. Rumor has it, though, that at some Name Brand Universities, getting a reputation as a great teacher can actually hinder one’s quest for tenure. Listening to my friends describe the professors at their large undergraduate universities leads me to think that there’s at least some truth to the rumor. (My own undergraduate experience was decidedly different, but then my largest intro class had only about 35 students in it.)

So where am I going with all of this?

The fact is that there are some really great teachers out there. And every once in a while, there is a really great teacher who is also one of the top researchers in her/his field. Once upon a time, classes with great teacher/researchers were limited to a relatively small group of students. But now there is really no reason why that needs to be true. Lectures can stream to millions of students simultaneously. Archives of those lectures can reach millions more. Students can write essays, post those essays on their blogs, and have their arguments evaluated by an army of motivated volunteers (“motivated volunteer” being more-or-less a synonym for “graduate student” anyway.)

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that the cost curve of a university education is unsustainable. And unsustainable trends are, well, unsustainable. At some point, prices for college education are going to crash, and when they do, a lot of local colleges and universities are going to find themselves going the way of local newspapers. Those that survive are going to be in one of two classes: Brand Name Universities that subsidize the traditional college experience for a select few by offering an online product to the masses, and Small Local Universities that eliminates everything that is not teaching classes.

Any of that sound familiar?

Visuals and Text

So let me start by saying that I’m a sucker for long-form text. The condo my wife and I share in Ballston is overrun with books. My office is filled with the pieces of my collections of philosophy books that I couldn’t bear to give up when I left academia. I never go anywhere without my Kindle. I mean, hell, you’re reading this on a blog, fercryinoutloud. Scroll back a few entries and you’ll see that I’m clearly a fan on long (so very long) pieces of prose. I have been an academic (where I wrote long articles), a journalist (where I wrote long-ish articles), and now work at an agency full of academics (who like to write long studies).

But I’m also a web guy. And part of my job as a web guy is to recognize that long-form text is really not the future of the web. I see this at my own site, where our average time-on-site generally  hovers around 3 minutes.

So how does someone whose own background is in producing lots of text help an agency whose processes revolve around producing lots of text stay relevant in the web world? How does our three-person web team retcon a 100+ page PDF file into something suitably byte-sized? (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

It’s a process.More than one person has asked me why the solution to optimizing for mobile devices isn’t just to produce a 3-inch PDF shaped like a BlackBerry screen.

Still, there’s reason to be really excited. We’ve introduced some very simple interactive charts, and we produced our first ever infographic recently. Analysts are starting to ask for help in producing charts that aren’t of the single-line or bar-per-year variety. We’re looking hard at some of our print products that are either short already or that contain a bunch of discrete pieces. Crazy ideas like jQuery and Ajax are getting tossed around. In some ways, we’re actually a little lucky: by getting into the game a little late, we can skip Flash and move straight to HTML 5 and CSS 3.

It’s a fun time to be working on the web. You’ll forgive me, though, if I slip away every once in a while to write a blog post or tweak an essay. I do enjoy some prose.

SharePoint Saturday: The Conference

With the Congress in recess (more-or-less) for most of August, and the mad scramble over the debt ceiling debate behind us, all was quiet at CBO this week. CBO’s web team took advantage of the quiet time to get some additional SharePoint training at SharePoint Saturday: The Conference. Simone focused on train-the-trainer and power-user sessions, while Annette leaned more toward developer and architect courses. That left me to focus on project management, administration, and governance.

  1. Governance, governance, governance. The total amount of data produced is growing faster than storage costs are dropping. So even with storage costs/GB dropping to pennies, total storage costs are increasing. Moreover, in most enterprises, about 50% of the data stored is junk <hyphen> duplicate files, outdated information, irrelevant items. Unstructured data storage (read: SharePoint) exacerbates the problem. Unless you have some sort of information management policies in place, SharePoint will end up a sprawling mess, eating up infrastructure, and actually making it harder to find things.
  2.  “The Cloud” is more than just a buzzword. Microsoft’s push into the cloud with Office 365 isn’t just about competing with Google Apps on price. Pushing collaboration outside of the firewall eases telecommuting, which at CBO is one of the biggest roadblocks to wider SharePoint adoption. Microsoft’s various hybrid environments—collaboration pushed to Office 365, with proprietary data staying inside the firewall, and all of it accessed through a SharePoint portal—is well-suited for allowing people to work where they want to work while letting IT protect what needs protecting.
  3. Social business is just good business. Yes, I know that sounds like a line from a here-today-gone-tomorrow business book. But there’s some real truth to it. Facebook didn’t amass 500+ million users by being a fad. It got there by allowing people to connect in ways that they want to connect with the people to whom they want to be connected, and it did so via a user interface that is simple and easy to use. The days of the top-down Intranet are numbered. The future is the individualized portal that allows users to connect to the agency in the way that makes sense to them.
  4. Business requirements are not functional requirements. Perhaps this is a well, duh point for experienced project managers. But it really struck home for me. I see this all the time at my agency. Business users say, “I want X.” Too often we then proceed to give them X without ever trying to elicit what the business user really wants to accomplish. The result: A system that will do exactly X but won’t do other any of a pile of other things that are X-like but not exactly X. We then end up with a method for X another one for X1 and a third for X2 and so on. The takeaway is that developers need a project manager to take business requirements, translate those into functional requirements, and then document—that means write down—those requirements.
  5. If you’re committed to a project, you have to keep funding it. An Intranet built on SharePoint is not a build it and forget it for the next decade kind of deal. It requires refining, updating, expanding, etc. That means it needs a dedicated stream of funding. Period.
  6. I’m not a big fan of shilling for products. But is the perfect product to drive adoption at my agency. CBOers love, love, love them some email. Bringing SharePoint to them is a way easier sell than bringing them to SharePoint. I’ve been using the free version for months. The newest enterprise version is fantastic, and the mobile app (still in alpha, but scheduled for late 2011) is really slick.

There was more—so very much more—but those are my big takeaways. I’m looking forward to getting back to the office on Monday and setting some of these in motion.

The Future of the Web: Aggregating, Editing and Filtering

Techdirt’s Mike Masnick wrote a short piece a couple of days ago about the most recent spat between old school journalists and new media news sites. At issue was the claim that journalists create content whereas sites like the Huffington Post simply aggregate content produced elsewhere. The whole thing is worth a read, but the main takeaway is that journalists are also really just aggregators at heart. At bottom, journalists write down what other people say and so are, in some sense, simply aggregating the views of a bunch of people who are connected to a particular event into a story.

I’m not entirely convinced that this is exactly right. There is a difference between a list of unedited quotations running down a page and a story that weaves these different views into a compelling narrative. There’s a kind of creation that is going on at the desks of NY Times reporters that just isn’t going on in my Google News feed, and I think it’s probably a bit misleading to pretend as if those acts aren’t very different.

That said, I do think that there is something similar between aggregators and journalists, even if it isn’t quite the something that Masnick seems to think. But that something is that both are acting as a sort of filter. And while content aggregators aren’t necessarily taking over the content creation role from journalists, they are usurping journalism’s traditional role as arbiter of what’s important.

Consider, for example, the Times famous slogan: All the news that’s fit to print. The Times doesn’t report on every possible story out there. Its reporters and editors look at a bunch of possible stories, then decide which ones merit the time and effort it takes to produce a NY Times-worthy article. The paper in effect acts as a filter, deciding what things its readers ought to know.

That approach makes sense in a world in which news coverage is a (relatively) scarce resource. Printing presses are, after all, fairly expensive, and full-time writers and editors aren’t especially cheap either. But the internet reduces distribution costs to nearly zero. And the supply of people wanting to be writers has always been much, much higher than the market for printed news will bear. So now suddenly you have armies full of amateur journalists who create content for very little money (or even for free) and who can then distribute said content for very little money (or, again, even for free.)

These days, the problem isn’t so much that news coverage is a relatively scarce resource. Indeed, I can find someone, somewhere who is writing on pretty much any topic that there is to be written on. There is no longer a filter. If the Times doesn’t want to cover a story, then someone else will just step in and do it. A simple search will bring me to reports and/or opinions about — well, just about anything.

What that all means is that these days, the really scarce resource is time. Once, I could outsource the filtering to the editors at the Times. Now I have to act as my own filter, and that (as it turns out) can take a great deal of time. That’s where content aggregators can sometimes help. If I outsource the filtering to Ariana Huffington, then I can keep up with what’s important by going to just one place, much as I used to do with the Times. (Of course, this means that I’m likely to have trouble with issues like epistemic closure, since my chosen filters are likely to end up being those filters that tell me only things I want to hear. But that’s an issue for another post.)

All that said, I’m not entirely convinced that content aggregators are particularly good at the role of filtering. At the end of the day, the Huffington Post is more concerned about SEO and pageviews than it is about good journalism or getting the truth out to the public. Crowdsourced filters like Digg or Memorandum are interesting experiments, but they are really best at telling me what everyone else thinks is important. Whether I want to rely on the wisdom of crowds who aren’t sure if the earth goes around the sun or if the president faked his birth certificate is a bit of an open question. Plus, they don’t get me to those hidden gems. Like, say, random articles about journalism and content aggregation.

At the moment, really good filtering still requires some sort of human involvement. The real killer web app is the one that can automate my filtering. Some combination of my social graph plus my RSS reader stats plus my browser history would seem a good place to start.