On Facebook’s research

A friend of mine asked:
“Do you think there is something different about researching if we will click on more ads, to researching if different types of posts alter our mood Carl…? And does their blanket policy cover both, in good faith…?”

To which I responded:

I think people in general understand that Facebook wants us to use their site as much as they can get us to do so. I’m going to guess that most people participate willingly without a thought regarding Facebook’s motivations. When people do think about it, they understand that ads are how Facebook makes its money. So research in the service of making money is in alignment with their expectations and so they’re ok with that.

Research into whether, and how, one’s news feed/wall affect the emotions of a group of people is something new and unexpected. So people go from surprise to questioning the, possibly hidden, motivations. What is the /real/ motivation? What could this research be used for? Who might exploit this information?

We are affected by everything that we see and read. The Facebook news feed has never been “neutral”, neither has your newspaper of choice. The content has always been subject to some kind of filter. What is revealed here is that the filter might have some, possibly nefarious, purpose we weren’t previously aware. We have been conditioned to be exploited for money. We’re making money for Facebook and we don’t see any of it. I call that exploitation. But I can leave at any time, and mostly its informative and often entertaining–so I’m ok with it for now.

The question people are asking now reduces to: are they ok with the idea that people unknown might be influencing them for some unknown purpose with malice aforethought? Further, they wouldn’t even know it was happening. But we know that advertisers, marketers and sales people do this all the time. So why do people feel their agency is at risk when Facebook does it?

I don’t believe “in good faith” applies here. We are not Facebook’s customers. Facebook’s customers are its advertisers. We are Facebook’s product being sold to the advertisers.

I believe Facebook’s lawyers wrote the privacy terms and data use policy with the intent to provide Facebook with as much leeway as possible to do whatever they want to do.If they missed something, or come up with some new idea that isn’t covered by the existing language, they just update the terms/policy. They might make an announcement to say that they’ve made some changes and suggest that we read the revised document. But really how many will do that? How many read it to begin with? If anyone disagrees, the only recourse is signing out and walking away. The concern Facebook has is how much can they get away with before a significant number (whatever that means to Facebook) decide to do that.

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Agreeing and Disagreeing With Pope Francis

The article
outlines Pope Francis’ position on a variety of contentious issues. I was asked which ones I disagreed with. So here we go:

PRIESTLY CELIBACY – “It’s a question of discipline, not of faith. It could change.”
I think this should be changed. Celibate people are ill-equipped, to put it mildly, to offer council regarding marriage, family, or children. Theoretical knowledge is not a substitute for lived experience.

Removing this requirement acknowledges that priests are human, with human needs. I think this would make them better priests and less subject to the temptations which could lead to the next topic.
Note that I’m not suggesting that married priests are better than unmarried priests. I’m saying that having priests who are married would make the priesthood better as a whole.

CLERGY ABUSE – “Francis says punishing the priest is more important than protecting the church’s image.”
I’d reframe this as child abuse by the clergy. Francis wants to punish the offenders. I’d say that’s just the beginning. What really needs to happen is a set of reforms that correct and prevent the problem from reoccurring. My worry is that some scapegoats will be found, and that will be that. Not nearly good enough. The church must understand how the abuse become so widespread and has gone on for so long. Then publicly atone for it and fix it so that it can not happen again. Churches must be a safe place for the vulnerable and the “least of these”. Letting it become a haven for predators was a betrayal of its mission and people’s trust.

ABORTION – “Francis is against it, from the moment of conception.”
Agreed, with the caveat that it needs to remain a viable option. Prohibiting abortion is fundamentalism, see the last topic. As difficult as it is to reconcile, there are two lives involved. Sometimes hard choices have to be made by either the woman, or her doctor(s). As someone who does not have to make that choice, it is not my place to judge those who do, and have to live with the consequences.

I think what we should do is reduce the number of times that abortion is considered as an option. This means reducing, with the goal of eliminating, unwanted pregnancies. In the meantime, we should also provide viable options (eg. adoption, family support) for those women who do not wish to raise their child.

Where are the men in this? Women don’t get pregnant by themselves. Eliminating unwanted pregnancies requires eliminating rape. This is something men in particular need to address.

SEX EDUCATION – “Francis is for it, if done holistically, with love and not just sex in mind.”
Agreed. Sex education should be taught in the context of relationships as a normal part of what adults do. It can be messy, but it is not “dirty” or shameful. Focussing solely on the biology and the mechanics ignores its significance.

CONTRACEPTION – “Francis thinks many Catholics are too obsessed about it.”
I think too many priests are too obsessed with it. Contraception, or the lack of it, should be a discussion between the man and woman involved. The choice is theirs to make. No one can force either of them to use it, or not. However, they have to live with the consequences of their decision. Preventing an unwanted pregnancy, is far better than terminating an unwanted pregnancy. If God really wants a couple to have a child, He is perfectly capable of making it happen. Also, denying others the contraception they desire is fundamentalism, see the last topic.

DIVORCE – “Francis agrees that divorcees who remarry cannot take communion, but wants them attending church.”
This makes divorced people “second-class citizens” in the church. But there are no second-class people before God. (Galatians 3:26-28)

HOMOSEXUALITY – “The Vatican condemns gay acts, tolerates gay tendencies. Francis goes a bit farther.”
While Old Testament law forbids it, Jesus said nothing on the subject. However, he did say “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…. Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:37-40) He also said “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. …Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.” (Luke 7:36-37) So, if two men, or two women, love each other, how can I in love deny them that? Would I want anyone to deny me the person I love? The only people who have the right to do that are one I love, and myself.

The subject of marriage, and the definition of marriage inevitably comes up. The Bible provides several examples of marriage: One man, one woman; one man multiple women (eg. Solomon multiple wives plus concubines); a soldier and prisoner (Numbers 31:18); a rapist and his victim (Deuteronomy 22:28-29); and others. All(?) cultures have a concept of marriage. The common thread being the life-long commitment of two people to each other. Can two men, or two women, do that? Absolutely.

The subject of children follows. Francis says that “[e]very person needs a masculine father and a feminine mother to help them settle their identity.” The evidence does not support this. What children need is loving parents who provide a safe and nurturing home for them in which to grow up. They need parents who model loving and respectful relationships. Can two men, or two women, do that? The evidence says they can. Is a child’s development adversely affected by the absence of a masculine, or feminine parent? The evidence says probably not.


ORDINATION OF WOMEN – “Francis is against it, but says women have a maternal role vital to society.”
So he thinks the primary role of women is as mothers. Seriously?? The chauvinism of that is astounding.

FEMINISM – “Francis has issues with it.”
Clearly, he does. Women are as much children of God as men are. Therefore they should have the same rights and privileges as men have. Love your neighbour (male or female) as yourself. Also, Galatians 3:26-28, again.

EUTHANASIA – “One is not obligated to preserve life through extraordinary measures. This can go against the dignity of the person. Active euthanasia is something else — that’s killing.”
Agreed. One might not be obligated, but might choose to do so. Also, reasonable people might disagree on what “extraordinary measures” are.

DEATH PENALTY – “Francis says it’s never OK.”
Agreed. Luke 7:36-37 again.

FUNDAMENTALISM – “… this kind of religiosity, so rigid, wraps itself in doctrines that pretend to provide justifications, but in reality they deny liberty …”
Agreed. Modern day Pharisees.

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Filter Hierarchy

Seth Godin, asked What’s your filter hierarchy? I thought it a great question. Here’s my ranking:

Phone call from your mom
I’ll take that call.

Phone message from the kid’s principal
I’ve had a few of those. They get my attention.

Email from your boss
Some need immediate attention. Some can wait.

Text message on your phone from your husband/wife
Facebook update from someone you haven’t seen in ten years
Personal note from a good friend
Email from someone who had your back one day when it really and truly mattered
These get my attention.

Handwritten love note from a current crush
Better be from my wife or I’m in serious trouble.

Blank sheet of paper quietly waiting for your next big innovation
I keep a stack just to the left of my keyboard.

Three or four recommendations from trusted colleagues, each with the same link
Worth looking into.

Comment on a blog post you wrote three days ago
Someone wants to talk to me about something I wrote, I’m interested…

New post by your favorite blogger, delivered via RSS
I use Google Reader to follow 86 feeds. My favourite blogger would just show up in the stream in due course.

Post on Google + from a friend of a friend
Hmmm, I should check G+ more often. It’s been a while.

New review in the Times of a restaurant you happen to be going to tonight
Quick scan

File on the intranet you’re supposed to read before the end of the week
If it’s important it would come to me.

Movie playing across town
I go see movies on occasion.

!!!urgent marked email from the HR department about the TPS reports
Email from HR is never “!!!urgent”. What are TPS reports?

Tweet from someone who really, really wants you (and everyone else) to follow her
I received a tweet from some guy like that, I asked him why he wanted followers. His answer: “I guess it means more exposure.” I now ignore him.

Latest volley in a flame war
Can’t be bothered.

Obviously bulk snail mail from a charity you donated to three years ago
Recycle unopened.

Sales pitch on your voicemail
Deleted immediately and with prejudice

Spam email from a stranger
Tenth note from Eddie Bauer, this one to an email address you haven’t used in a year
Instant delete, assuming it even reaches my in box.

Angry tweet from someone you’ve never met
Tweet from the handler of a celebrity who is pretending to be the celebrity

Commercial on the radio that’s playing softly in the background
I don’t listen to the radio. I can’t handle the chatty announcers or the commercials.

Story that’s repeated endlessly on cable news because a producer thought it would get good ratings
TV commercial on a show you’ve got on your DVR
I disconnected the cable on Sept. 1st 2001.
I don’t have a DVR.

The latest on Reddit
Newest negative review of your business on Yelp
A trending topic on Twitter
Rebecca Black’s new video
Book in the bookstore, next to the cash register
Book on the back shelf of a bookstore, newly put there yesterday by the manager, who doesn’t know what you like
I won’t even notice it.


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It’s official, I’m a published scholar

The article is now available at Uses of a private “virtual margin” on public threaded discussions: An exploratory lab-based study

What a very nice long weekend present….

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Virtual Margin proxy source code

Well I’ve finally done it. It’s long over due, but here it is. The source code I used for the virtual margin proxy server is now available here Virtual Margin. This  includes the Apache virtual host configuration, the Perl module and the web tree. Everything you need to add virtual margins to your own Knowledge Forum server. If you actually do that, I’d love to hear how it goes.


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What I want

Computing has moved beyond data entry and data processing. However, we still think of computers from that perspective. That’s what we grew up with, it’s what we know. What we also know is that computers are now primarily used as communication devices. We communicate with each other via computers. Not just “a” computer, but multiple computers. Optimizing the efficiency of data processing (data entry, storage, retrieval and calculation) is no longer the focus. We are instead trying to optimize the conveyance and construction of ideas between people. Therefore we need to be sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of people in relation to each other and of the effects of the tools on those relations.

“It took a long time, but as computers became more powerful and we learned more about how people used them, eventually, we started catching on to the idea that, instead of designing software to work in the fashion that works best for the machine, we could design software to work in the fashion that works best for the people who use it…” (Jesse James Garett). We are still learning how to do this. We have many bad habits to unlearn.

I see the iPhone, iPod Touch and the iPad as the first significant steps in this direction. We are finally moving beyond the desktop/file cabinet metaphors and developing new ones. Naturally, there will be resistance from those with vested interests in the old paradigms and those who have trouble managing change. Physical tools have an important characteristic that computer applications don’t have: you can see them. That is, the tool and its interface can be seen as separate entities. A computer application has only its interface to present to its user. There is no material object a person can look at to gain clues as to the application’s purpose or operation. This means an application’s interface carries a heavy burden. It needs to convey its purpose and operation in a language its users understand without the benefit of a physical presence.

The purpose of any tool, whether it is a car, can opener or computer application, is to facilitate the goals of the tool’s users. As much as possible the tool should “stay out of the way” while it mediates the task at hand. Phrased another way, the tool users should be looking at and thinking about what it is they are trying to accomplish; they should not be looking at or thinking about the tool being used for the job. A well designed tool directs cognitive effort through itself, not into itself. That is, the effort goes into an object (the thing on which the person is acting) via the tool. The tool then, is the vector that propagates the operator’s effort to produce the result in the object desired by the tool operator. The tool operator’s focus is on the goal to be accomplished, not the tool used to accomplish it. A poorly designed tool in contrast, attracts attention to itself and so distracts the person from their goal. By enabling people to focus their attention on what they are doing, the device seems to disappear. This raises the question, what causes this illusion to break?

Focussing specifically on learning, I want the ability to annotate whatever object I see on the screen. That is, just like a book, magazine, newspaper, journal article or any other physical object, I want to be able to write on it, have those writings saved automatically and re-presented automatically to me when I return to that object. The “getting ready” step should be very small, just like on paper, where one need only pick up a pencil or pen and start writing. And just like on paper these writings should be private until I decide to share them. They should also be searchable and backed up as part of any syncing process.

Where my interest comes from: http://zpd.stormlantern.ca/papers/VirtualMargin_Thesis.pdf

Teaching, and eLearning in particular, suffers from a transmission/presentation model. So far, the vast majority of digital interfaces perpetuate this flaw. As I see it, we need to move towards more of an interaction model. Where students can work more directly with their study materials. Even though it’s possible for PDFs to have annotations in them, I’d wager most people who use them don’t know that. The annotation interface does not readily lend itself to use. People who want to make annotations on such documents print them first. What I want is a device where people don’t feel the need to print PDFs in order to make annotations. What I want is an interface that is so good that writing annotations on the device is the obvious and natural thing to do.

I’m not so interested in specifications or hardware accoutrements, what I’m interested in is functionality that supports learner’s interactions with ideas, that enables them to ‘talk it out’ and develop their own thinking. We aren’t there yet. On the bright side, students are starting to make the case for it:




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Why you have a computer

Jeff Utecht asks Why do I get a computer? and lists some concerns around this question. I had an immediate reaction to several of his concerns:

Will they use it appropriately?
‘Appropriately’ meaning ‘in an acceptable fashion all the time’? The short answer is ‘no.’ Does everyone use their pen appropriately all the time? Should we take them away from everyone because someone might be using it inappropriately?
How are we going to make sure they use it?
If we need to make sure they use it, we are probably expecting them to use a wrong tool. How do we make sure teachers and students are using their pen? Shouldn’t the question be, how do we make sure they are using their mind?
What if they screw around and get off task?
Let’s hope so. We want them to be creative and think for themselves. Don’t we? Well?
What happens if it breaks?
Of course it will break, every electro-mechanical device will at some point. It simply gets replaced.
How are we going to measure its effect on learning?
Students will be doing new things we couldn’t have planned for.
How are we going to measure its effect on teaching?
Teachers will rebel if they are told they have to give them up.

Really, these concerns seem like a solved problem to me. Businesses went through a similar process thirty-plus years ago(!) when they started putting desktop machines on everyone’s desks. Can you imagine the uproar if you even suggested taking them away today? Workers are doing things that they couldn’t otherwise do, it will be the same with students. The work metrics of 20 years ago don’t even begin to account for the types of work that are being done today. Our current assessment methods are similarly inadequate for the work students will be doing once teaching assumes students have a laptop and not just a pen.

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owning knowledge

The fundamental problem is that no one can own an idea piece of information. You either keep it to yourself, or you share it. You can’t distribute an idea and keep it to yourself. That is non-sensical. Knowledge as property is just as non-sensical. Property rights are about restricting access. Knowledge is about expanding understanding. The two are directly in conflict.

Physical property laws have been around for centuries and on the whole work pretty well. The concept of an idea as being valuable is comparatively new. Lots of people have made lots of money by using physical property laws to their advantage. It’s not really surprising that they would try to apply those laws to a potentially lucrative new area. But the economic models are entirely different. Physical property laws came into being to manage scarcity, rival goods in the parlance. The issue being that I can have a piece of land or you can, we can’t both at the same time (partnerships excepted of course). In order for you to have the land, it must be taken from me, and then I don’t have it. Ideas are non-rival goods. I can have an idea, and tell it to you, and I haven’t lost the idea. I still have it intact. What I lost is the exclusive knowing of the idea. The reason this matters is ownership confers privileges–who may traverse your land for instance. In general the owner of a thing gets to decide the terms under which others may use the thing. That use might have a price tag associated with it.

In business knowing something before someone else does can be a big competitive advantage. However, that kind of knowledge comes with a short window of opportunity to use it. Knowledge that can be packaged up is of a different kind. It has a longer shelf-life, so to speak. So here’s the paradox: the fewer people who know something the more money potentially can be made from it, but the less useful it is. The more people who know something the less money can be made from it it, but the more useful it is. Physical property law applied to knowledge is an attempt to solve this dilemma by forcing knowledge into the physical property box where we have established norms for dealing with it. But as I’ve shown, it doesn’t fit. We need new laws to cover the realm of non-rival goods with zero-marginal cost of replication. So far, intellectual property laws, aren’t making it.

We cannot hold a torch to light another’s path without brightening our own.
— Ben Sweetland

is the school system educating or training?

This posting put me in mind of this posting. I haven’t been able to get my mind around the idea of ‘the learner is the product of education.’ It seems to me, the product of each grade (from k-11) is students. Each slightly more advanced than the last. The product of grade 12 is either a potential employee or another student, for university or college this time. After university, the product is another potential employee. Ideally, a wiser more capable employee, but an employee none-the-less. There are some students who are exceptions to this model, they’re exceptions. But that’s the point isn’t it? The fact that they are exceptions shows that they are not what the system is intended to produce.

What if the product of education were not a potential employee? How would that work? Our economic system wouldn’t function. Ok, but the result shouldn’t be just employees. They should be what? Trained for work, but educated too? Which gets to the heart of the matter: What does it mean to be educated? I think we understand what it means to be trained: You’re employable. Are potential employees sufficiently trained after grade 12? are they sufficiently educated? How do we know? A sufficient number of students become employed shows that they are sufficiently trained. A sufficient number of students become, or are …? What? What shows that they are sufficiently educated? Or conversely, what shows that they are insufficiently educated?

Study detail

The following is the Study Detail document approved by SFU’s ethics board. I’ve lightly edited it to remove identification of the particular courses my subjects are taking.

Outline for Patterns of Virtual Margin usage in semester-long mixed mode courses research proposal


In the transition from paper based to web based communications we have lost the ability to write on, or annotate, the messages we exchange. Paper margins have long been used for this purpose as an aid in people’s remembering. Therefore it might be useful to add annotations to web-based discussions which are now heavily used in many distance and mixed-mode courses.
A “scratch” writing space removes the ‘publish it or lose it’ ultimatum. Thoughts can be returned to which allows a collection of work to be built up over a period of time prior to making them public.
Previous studies have looked at the Virtual Margin interface and its usage for one Knowledge Building exercise. This study will cover a whole semester and a whole class to see if students find additional uses for it, and if those uses change over time.
The core purpose of the virtual margin is to aid people’s remembering. The thinking is that it would be a useful learning tool.


My MA thesis research suggests that the Virtual Margin would be very useful in Knowledge Building, and in some surprising ways. This study will investigate how this potential plays out in two courses through a full semester.
Students will access the Knowledge Forum, KF, application via a proxy that mediates the student’s web browser and the KF server message exchanges. The proxy will add the Virtual Margin to the KF notes and views. The Virtual Margin will be part of the interface, it but can easily be ignored. It will be the students’ choice whether to use the virtual margin. What we want to see is what uses students make of it, and how do those uses change over the course of the semester. Our expectation is that if the Virtual Margin is not useful, students will tend to not use it. If it is useful, they will use it.
Whether it is useful to a particular person is likely dependent on their studying style, learning style and comfort with technology. Every book and journal has margins. Most people most of the time ignore them. But some people choose to use them for various purposes. I anticipate the same will be true for the Virtual Margin.


Masters students and PhD students in Fall 2009.


The students’ online discussion contributions, and their Virtual Margin annotations. Interviews with masters students concerning their annotations and use of the Virtual Margin.
Because I am one of the students in the PhD course, I will not view the annotations of the other class members prior to the end of the semester. One of the attributes of the Virtual Margin is the privacy of one’s annotations. By refraining from viewing my fellow classmates annotations until the semester is over, this privacy is preserved.
The data will be stored my supervisor’s office on a password protected server computer that will remain in this office at all times. The office will be kept locked unless my supervisor is present.
The data will be kept for two years, or six months after the defence of my dissertation, whichever is longer.


We don’t really know what to expect. We’re still at the point of finding out what happens when people try it. We’re not at the point where we think we can demonstrate that it aids learning. We’re trying to demonstrate usefulness, and what those uses are, what potential uses might be, and how it might be made more useful (if indeed it is).

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