August 7, 2010


As of tonight, the blog has moved over to a Wordpress installation. Go back to for newer entries.

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Posted in Writing and editing at 11:40 PM (Permalink) |

August 6, 2010

Moving over to Wordpress... theme ideas?

I've decided to shift my blog onto a Wordpress platform. That'll happen in the next few days (weekend project?), but if you're a Wordpress afficionado and have a suggestion for a theme, give a holler in comments.

And speaking of comments, one reason for the switch is the ability to get my comments off the JS-Kit platform, which I've come to hate. I don't know if I'll be able to attach the comments that currently exist: they may be lost. But I'll do what I can.

(The existing entries will remain where they are in the /mt/ directory of my website, so I'll just redirect the main page to the new WP installation.)

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Posted in Random comments at 11:12 AM (Permalink) |

August 5, 2010

"Overcaffeinated value-added enthusiasts" and the public

I've developed a fondness for Rick Hess's phrasing. Whether or not I agree with him, I have to smile when he describes advocates of value-added or bust as "overcaffeinated value-added enthusiasts." This is in the context of the back-and-forth over value-added measures in the District of Columbia teacher filings (see blog entries by Aaron Pallas, Hess, Pallas, and Hess, from which I drew the overcaffeinated term). What we're seeing here is the beginnings of a public dialog over the technical details of value-added measures, whether in DC or here in Florida (see today's St. Pete Times story on two audit reports over Florida measures, plus articles from Jacksonville and Miami over continuing questions).

Or, rather, we're not seeing much of a dialog, more of a he said-she said dynamic. Pallas wrote from what was publicly available (which was as simplistic as what I read about Bill Sanders' techniques in newspapers in 1990s Tennessee), Hess criticized him for insufficient due diligence for an academic blogger, and we're now into round two on who owes whom what on transparency. Florida is slightly different in the actors: most of the critics this summer have been superintendents, worried about whether problems with the underlying test scores or value-added measures will end up shaming their elementary schools (and them) with lower ratings on the state's accountability system. But it's still he said-she said with the auditors saying they found no problems and the superintendents still having reservations.

What we're missing is clear reporting on the technical issues, but don't blame the reporters. In some cases, there is poor planning by state departments of education (or the DC schools, in this summer's news), so there's nothing clear and accurate and easy to communicate. In other cases, as in those jurisdictions using Bill Sanders' techniques, you've got a proprietary model that the public isn't allowed to inspect. And then there's the simple fact that there is no single holy grail of value-added measures and inherent error issues that tend to be underplayed because standard errors and measurement error are eyeglaze-inducing even if they're important. So the reporting is a far cry from the sensawunda reporting on scientists who uncovered BL's lowball estimates of the gusher's output: oh, wow, there are pools of oil under the surface? oh, wow, you can estimate flows from the speed of particles in a fluid? Nothing like that exists on value-added or growth measures.

Some part of the situation is inevitable when a technical apparatus becomes a tool of political discussion. I don't mean the partisan politicization of statistics (though that happens) but the fact that even mildly controversial bills do not pass in many legislative bodies unless there is a certain amount of pathos in the debate, and the exaggeration of debate tends to drown out the caveats for anything. There are plenty of very careful statisticians out there who can tell you the issues with value-added or growth measures. They're not quoted in news stories, because no editor is going to let "mixed-model BLUE algorithms tend to swallow dependent-variable variance before you get to the effect measures" appear in a newspaper. So there's a mismatch between the technical issues and the level of discussion. You shouldn't need someone with the skills of Robert Krulwich to report on technical measures affecting public policy, but that's where we are.

That feeds into the dichotomous debate that is dominated by the "let the measures work" and the "it's imperfect, so toss it out" arguments. As I wrote a year ago,

The difficulty in looking coldly at messy and mediocre data generally revolves around the human tendency to prefer impressions of confidence and certainty over uncertainty, even when a rational examination and background knowledge should lead one to recognize the problems in trusting a set of data. One side of that coin is an emphasis on point estimates and firmly-drawn classification lines. The other side is to decide that one should entirely ignore messy and mediocre data because of the flaws. Neither is an appropriate response to the problem.

When the rubber meets the road, you're sometimes going to get the firmly-drawn classification lines in Florida that lead people to nitpick technical details (I wonder how many of the superintendents griping this summer have bonuses tied to school grades), and you're going to get nebulous debates when systems such as IMPACT are not accompanied by technical transparency. This just doesn't work for me, and it shouldn't for you, either.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:54 AM (Permalink) |

August 3, 2010

Anthologize: a blog-to-book tool

Thanks to the folks at George Mason U.'s Center for History and New Media, who put on the One Week | One Tool "digital humanities barn raising" last week, and the dozen digital-humanities coders and other scholars who worked hard last week, the world now has Anthologize, a Wordpress 3.0 plug-in that will allow someone to pull together blog entries for a book or book-like project.

This entry will discuss both the tool and the process I watched from afar (at least through the #oneweek Twitter entries).

Anthologize as tool

I've had the URL for Anthologize since this morning, and I've had other tasks today, so I didn't get around to installing Wordpress and Anthologize on a directory of a server until this afternoon. WP took a few tricks to install (and about 10 minutes, the double the advertised time but who's counting?), but Anthologize was activated in one click. It's a simplified tool without too many options at the moment, but here's roughly what you do to turn blog entries into one of several output formats:

  • Create a project entry (title and author)
  • Create parts within the project
  • (Optional:) Provide a URL for another blog's feed to pull in entries from the external blog
  • Slot individual blog entries into the parts of the project
  • (Optional:) Edit individual entries within the parts
  • Tell Anthologize what you'd like for dedication, acknowledgments, etc. for the whole project
  • Tell Anthologize what format you want the project exported into (PDF, ePUB, RTF, or TEI) and what size paper (letter or A4).

That's all: 5-7 steps. I gave it a run with two external blogs, one MovableType and one Wordpress, and it pulls in whatever text is in the feed RSS, a file with the latest N entries in a format that the blog administrator chooses. So if you pull in material from an external blog where the RSS feed is only a teaser of longer entries, you don't get the full text. The blogs I chose didn't have images, so I couldn't test the formatting of images, but the tool handled both blogs reasonably well, given that one RSS feed was only teaser text rather than the full entries.

There is a user group available in Google groups, and I suspect various issues will be picked up within the first week of availability. For example, apparently one of the requirements is that the server have PHP5 (a recent version of one of the underlying tools that Wordpress uses). We'll see what else pops up very quickly, since I suspect some people are going to try this for real work projects. Some of the things this could be useful for:

  • Publishing one's own blog that already exists
  • Remixing a set of other blogs in a theme, such as
  • a "current-event instant book" to capture what people were writing about a current event. Because one of the output formats is the Text Encoding Initiative, which is one tool for analyzing text, I can imagine some research projects being assisted this option.
  • Setting up a book-length project. Example: writing a first draft of a text during a semester, bit by bit, and then sending the output to RTF, which can be edited in a word processor, or to PDF for less formal projects (such as making the compilation available to students for free). Yes, this would work for math and other technical fields, since there is a LaTex plug-in for Wordpress.

I'm a little surprised that the group chose a blog-to-book tool since there are other, similar tools for this task compared with some of the other options they were considering. But the alternative that I've tried (Feedburner) is more difficult to manage and doesn't allow the reformatting/importing/remixing that Anthologize makes available. And it's available to anyone who runs a Wordpress site without too much additional technical knowledge. Another feature I think is specific to Anthologize: TEI as an output format.

One more item: Because of the community of coders that this team is connected to, I suspect that it will become more polished and useful over the next year or so. (My personal request: a checkbox-and-arrow system to allow group selection of entries to move to the book's catalog of items.) That community is available because of the social environment of its creation.

One Week | One Tool as proof of concept

The weeklong work to create Anthologize was possible because of funding from the National Endowment of the Humanities and its Office of Digital Humanities, organized by one of the best-known digital-humanities centers as a summer institute/workshop. In some ways, it was a proof of concept: can a short-term gathering produce a useful tool? The answer is obvious to anyone who knows individuals or small teams who have produced software in a short time. But this was done on a different theory of action, not knowing what might be produced, a get them to come, and they will build IT model. Was it wise for NEH to bankroll a humanities BarCamp with a mission? I think you can consider the concept proved in the Christopher Marlowe sense if not a mathematical-proof sense.

There are a handful of blog entries written by One Week participants, but because they kept the tool under wraps until today, the entries are less detailed than I hope to see in the next week or so. One critical question: how did the group make the decision to create this particular tool? The first day was apparently devoted to brainstorming ideas, which the participants narrowed to six finalists and then the eventual project. I know the other finalists, and I thought three other possibilities were equally viable: a timeline tool (or extension of existing software to create timelines), geotagging for archival databases (such as the Omeka online exhibit package), or a "Ken Burnsish video in 5 minutes" tool, the multimedia equivalent of Anthologize. You'll see outsider/nonparticipant feedback last Tuesday morning on the finalists in the Twitter feed (#oneweek), which appears split between academic and public historians, with the academics more interested in the blog-to-book and timeline possibilities, and the archive/museum world interested more in the others. Maybe my heart is partly in the public-history world, but I thought the group would go for the geotagging or Burns-o-matic options, if only because there were well-known tools for the other tasks. In particular, I was guessing that an Omeka geotagging plug-in would be the choice, or maybe something to add timelines to .kml files. So I'm intensely curious: what was the reasoning of participants to make Anthologize rather than the other finalists?

Another question, which Tom Scheinfeldt has been writing about: how do you manage an impromptu team for an urgent task, and how does the team work? In some ways, this is the micro-question to match the macro-politics of open source (see Steve Weber's 2004 book, The Success of Open Source). Suggestion for the next One Week | One Tool workshop (and, yes, I'm betting that there'll be a second edition): invite an urban anthropologist. (Anyone written an anthropology of a physical barn-raising recently? I vaguely recall there being an article from the late 1950s on Amish barn-raising, but I suspect its authors are no longer available.)

Bottom line: Anthologize is interesting both as a package in itself and as a test of academic short-term projects in the humanities.

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Posted in The academic life at 3:17 PM (Permalink) |