Monday, January 26, 2009

Don't Be So Cheap!

Letter to the Editor of the Time & Transcript, sent January 26, 2009.

We all know that guy, the guy who is always trying to save every dollar and every dime.

He buys the cheapest clothes and shoes he can, but he pays over and over because nothing ever lasts. He bought a tiny tin car that's always in the shop for repairs. Nobody ever goes out with him because he'll always try to evade the bill.

Ironically, it costs him more money in the long run because he's always replacing or repairing the substandard products he buys.

It's an unpleasant way to live, and makes him a disagreeable person. Nobody want to be around him, and nobody depends on him to do a good job, because he's always cutting corners, always looking for the cheap way out.

Our newspaper writers appear to want Moncton City Council to be that guy.

They want council to buy a cheap school that will need to be replaced in 30 years (or less) instead of paying twice the amount for a better school that will last much more than twice as long.

They want Moncton to save money with a regional police force instead of spending on the RCMP. Cities like Saint John and Halifax may pay less for their police, but they struggle with the cost of much higher crime rates. Their citizens may face gangs and organized crime, but they pay less for their police!

The newspaper writers urge Council to look for ways to cut spending on public transit, reasoning that the needs of the 7000 people who use the system don not warrant the expense. But do they consider the cost of 7000 more vehicles on the road? The inconvenience faced by tourists? The costs to the people who take the bus to work?

An editorial recently attacked the salaries paid to teachers in the city. In a province that has difficulty attracting and retaining professionals, salary cuts are exactly the wrong strategy. What is the cost to the city when businesses locate elsewhere because they cannot find qualified people to work in their shops and offices?

The whole philosophy of trying to save every dollar and every dime is misguided. It is harmful to the city, harmful to its people and harmful to our image.

Don't be so cheap! Buy quality. Pay people what they're worth. It will save us money in the long run, and will make the city a more pleasant place to live in the meantime.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Seven Things You Don't Know About Me

I was tagged by a couple of people - I wasn't going to do this, but then I read Christine Martell's and realized it may help people to understand me a bit.

1. I have sleep apnea. I've had it since I turned 30, but it was only about four years ago I started using a CPAP to allow me to sleep. The CPAP has given me a new lease on life. I always fight fatigue (the CPAP isn't perfect) but I now have a stable heartbeat and my throat is no longer raw when I wake up.

2. I have tinnitus. I can tell you exactly when it started - I was lying on the couch in the house on Massey Ave after coming back from a French test at Memramcook, in 2002. My tooth had erupted overnight, I had gotten zero sleep (I had no painkillers with me) and after the test came home, took a pile of ibuprofen, and tried to sleep. I have had a ringing in my ears ever since. Sometimes it's really loud, other times it's just background. I've had my hearing tested; it's perfect. It just rings.

3. I was a Boy Scout, and it's still a bit part of my identity. Not that I'm active or anything like that. But I participated in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts and did a whole bunch of outdoor type things, like camping (even winter camping, which is a whole other experience), sailing, canoing, and the rest. I went to scout camp at Camp Opemikon for a couple years and was a camp counselor there for two more years.

4. I am not religious. It's not for lack of effort. I was confirmed Anglican and attended United and Pentecostal services. I went to a Pentacostal youth camp in Peterborough for a weekend. A huge amount of goodwill and camaraderie. I took many many religious studies courses in university, and could have minored in it if I had declared it (it simply never occurred to me to do so; I kept taking them out of interest). I've read the Bible several times, studied TM, am well versed in Buddhism and Taoism (which is what I'll say I am if people insist), have attended wiccan ceremonies, and more. But for all that I have had zero religious experiences, and for me, faith must be substantiated by at least some shred of evidence. I don't take it personally; I understand if people have had religious experiences or have religious faith, and I'm supportive of that. But I get bit snippish if religious people judge me based on my lack of faith: I live a morally upright life, feel that honour and altruism are the highest calling, and live a life of service. People can believe what they want, but they should let me believe what I believe.

5. I have my own discipline, or so I tell myself. It is that area where media, education, philosophy and computers intersect. And I have the requisite ten years of experience in each to make me an expert. Media: I started my own newspaper when I was a kid, called the Eagle Report. I spent six years working on the university newspaper in Calgary, the Gauntlet. Plus another two years as publications chair at the GSA in Edmonton. Education: I have a decade worth of teaching experience. I was staff trainer at GSI. I taught in a variety of modes for Athabasca University for seven years. Another year at Grande Prairie Regional college, various courses for the University of Alberta, and night school at Assiniboine Community College. Not to mention being a camp counselor and of course the Connectivism course last fall. Philosophy: five years to earn a BA (first class honours, University of Calgary), one to earn a Masters (Calgary), and four years of PhD studies at the university of Alberta. Plus a lifetime of reading science fiction. Computers: I took some night courses, then a full year of studying computing at Algonquin College in 1979-80, where I learned Pascal. Then I worked for Texas Instruments for a year and a half - I taught myself Basic, among other things. Some more night courses at SAIT, studying Fortran. Then I bought a computer and, working in Basic, programmed games. With a new 386, I bought myself Turbo C and learned that. Then two years learning LPC and doing MUD programming. I started doing web programming in 1995 and learned HTML, Perl and Javascript.

6. I have a rich mental life. I suppose most people do, but to me mine feels especially rich. I did not listen to a lot of music as a child - my parents were listeners of CBC radio (which is playing now as I type this). And I read a great deal as a child (still do). So I have a constant inner dialogue talking place. My mind is always talking to itself, to me (the only time we get together is when I write). That's not to say that I 'think in words'. I don't - I think in formless patterns (see below). The dialogue is just me talking to myself. It is possible for me to be lonely, but it is never possible for me to be alone - I always have my inner voice, an endlessly fascinating recounter of memories and stories, creator of scenarios, conductor of dialogues, and more. My inner voice isn't always helpful, and I have had over the years to attend to what it says and how it says it. It can sometimes be very negative and hurtful. I have had to learn to apply the same sort of scepticism to my inner voice as I would to any person.

7. I have an IQ of 166. At least, more accurately, I have tested, twice, to 166. In neither case was I sober, so the actual number may be higher - or lower, depending on whether you think my capacities were artificially improved. Both tests were many years ago, and I'm not sure what I would test at now (and I don't care to find out). I have recently gone through a whole process of thought around the question of the possibility that (some) other people are smarter than me. Because I am frequently right about things, I am used to being right about things, and so I have to make an effort to consider that other people may be right and I am wrong. But there are undeniably some very brilliant people in the world, and their facility with complex material (such as mathematics of software) is daunting. I have an excellent memory, but I don't remember everything (I am in particular very bad at faces and names, I suspect because most faces look alike to me). My strength (and weakness) as a thinker, though, is in pattern recognition - I jump very swiftly to commonalities, I see similarities in disparate phenomena, I can imagine entire bodies of knowledge as a flow.

OK, I hope you enjoyed that. I don't tag people, so I'll allow my branch of the meme to end here (not worried though; the remaining people tagged I'm sure will carry it forward just fine).

Friday, January 09, 2009

GMap Photo

Testing an embedded Google Maps photo... also testing Facebook link...

Types of Meaning

I don't want to spend a whole lot of time on this, but I do want to take enough time to be clear that there are, unambiguously, numerous types of meaning.

Why is this important? When we talk about teaching and learning, we are often talking about meaning. Consider the classic constructivist activity of 'making meaning', for example. Or event he concept of 'content', which is (ostensibly) the 'meaning' of whatever it is that a student is being taught.

What are we to make of such theorizing in the light of the numerous ways that words, sentences, ideas and constructs can have meaning? What does 'making meaning' mean we we consider the range between logical, semantical, and functional meaning?

The idea - often so central to transmission and transactional theorists of learning, that a word or sentence can have a single meaning, or a 'shared meaning', is tested to the extreme by an examination of the nature and constitution of that putative meaning.

In any case, it is always better to show than to argue. Herewith, a bit of an account of some of the many different types of meaning:

Literal meaning - the sentence means what it says. Also known as 'utterance' meaning (Griffiths).

Logical meaning - the meaning of the sentence is determined by (is a part of) a set of logical inferences, such as composition, subordination, etc. Also called 'taxis'. (Kies)

Denotative meaning - the sentence means what it is about. The 'reference' of a sentence, as opposed to its 'sense'. (Frege)

Sematical meaning - meaning is truth (Tarski - 'snow is white' is true iff snow is white)

Positivist meaning - the sentence means what it says that can be empirically confirmed or falsified (Ayer, Carnap, Schlick)

Pragmatic meaning - the relationship between signs and their users. (Morris) Includes "identificational meaning, expressive meaning, associative meaning, social meaning, and imperative meaning." (Lunwen)

Intentional meaning - the sentence means what the author intended it to say. Also known as "sender's meaning" (Griffiths). - John Searle, often includes conversational implicatures

Connotative meaning - the sentence means what readers think about when they read it. Sometimes known as 'sense' (Frege). Also sometimes thought of as 'associative' meaning. (Morris) Includes 'reflected' meaning (what is communicated through association with another sense of the same expression, Leech) and collocative meaning (Leech)

Social meaning - "what is communicated of the social circumstances of language use" (from Leech; Lunwen)

Metaphorical meaning - the meaning is determined by metaphor, and not actual reference

Emotive meaning - related to connotative - the type of emotion the sentence invokes

Functional meaning - the sentence means what it is used for, what it does (Wittgenstein, meaning is use; Austin, speech acts). The 'mode' of a sentence is the function it plays in channeling communication - what degree of feedback it elicits, for example, of what degree of abstraction it considers. (Cope and Kalantzis)

Type meaning - the sentence's meaning is related to what it doesn't say, to the range of possible words or sentences that could be said instead (Derrida). Gillett writes, "Part of the meaning of a word is its 'register'. Which types of language is the word used in: letters or reports, spoken or written, biology or business etc?"

Deictic meaning - meaning is determined with reference to the situation or context in which the word is used. Griffiths writes, "Deixis is pervasive in languages." Common deixic frames include common understandings related to people )'the boss'), time ('tomorrow'), place ('nearby'), participants ('his'), even discourse itself ('this' article).

Relevance, significance or value - "what is the meaning of life?"

Accent - the manner in which the word is pronounced or emphasized can cnage its meaning.

Intralingual meaning - (Morris) intralingual meaning (the relationship between different signs; it includes phonological meaning, graphemic meaning, morphological or lexemic meaning, syntactic meaning, and discoursal or textual meaning).

Thematic meaning - "what is communicated by the way in which the message is organized in terms of order and emphasis" (Leech; Lunwen)

Some links:

Learning Vocabulary: Dealing With Meaning, from Using English for Academic Purposes, Andy Gillett, School of Combined Studies, University of Hertfordshire
Hatfield, UK.

An Introduction to English Semantics and Pragmatics
, Patrick Griffiths.

Powers of Literacy, Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis

Strange Attractors of Meaning, Vladimir Dimitriv

The Grammatical Foundations of Style
, Daniel Kies, Department of English, College of DuPage

Foundations of the Theory of Signs, Charles W. Morris

Seven Types of Meaning, Geoffrey Leech, in Semantics, pp. 10-27.

A Semantic Analysis of the Different Types of Meanings in Translation, Lunwen

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Critical Thinking Redux

Responding to this post from Ken de Rosa:

De Rosa writes,

> Critical thinking skills are domain specific.

This is false.

From the very source he cites:

> Critical thinking is effective in that it avoids common pitfalls, such as seeing only one side of an issue, discounting new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning from passion rather than logic, failing to support statements with evidence, and so on.

What makes these *common* pitfalls is that they exist *independently* of domain or discipline,and the habits of attending to them - that is, critical thinking - is therefore *also* independent of domain or discipline.

De Rosa offers an example:

> If you want to think critically about the American Civil War you unfortunately need to know a lot of stuff about American history

Not so. Let me give you an example.

Suppose some history article said:

"If Custer's misunderstanding of Sioux culture had led him astray, then we would expect him to take the Dakota trail, not the Nebraska train. And he did take the Dakota trail, marching into the heart of Sioux territory. So his error was not a military blunder, it was a cultural blunder. He misunderstood Sioux culture."

Sounds great, right? This may or may not be historically accurate. Who knows? The reader would have to look it up.

But a person equipped with critical thinking skills does not need to know one whit of American history to know that the inference is a bad one. He or she would recognize the argument form called 'affirming the consequent' (If A then B, B, therefore A) and would know not to trust the author's assertion that Custer did not understand Sioux culture.

There is a range of common forms of reasoning and inference, and these are as well known and well supported as mathematics. You wouldn't say that American history uses a special mathematics that operates only within the domain of that discipline. Nor would you say that it uses a special sort of reasoning.

It is unclear to me what the political motivations are for the assertion that critical thinking skills are domain specific. But some people - this blog included - evidently have a significant stake in it. But it's a false assertion. And so whatever body of thought rests on this premise is also unsupported.


Why is there such a campaign to discredit critical thinking? Maybe it's because critical thinking gives non-experts the capacity to do this to bad theories and propaganda.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

What Not To Build

I get to play a government scientist on the internet. As a result, a large part of my work involves being exposed to new and interesting technologies, whether they are the latest military simulators, academic papers delivered at scientific conferences, or product proposals being promoted by aspiring developers.

My sort of environmental scan is a bit different from what you'll get from consultants and venture capitalists. Don't ask me what companies are developing what products, how industry stocks are performing, or where all the 'smart money' is going. I don't know and I don't care.

What I can tell you, though, is what technologies are working, what technologies are flopping, and what technologies are fads. It's practical, down-to-earth advice. For example, if you are a technology developer, you already know that you should not try to build a new operating system, a new word processor, an online store or an auction site, for example. These have ben built and have established a mainstream presence. You would need thousands of engineers and billions of dollars to compete with them.

The rest of my advice is like that, only more nuanced. It's obvious to everyone that they should stay out of the operating system market, yet much less obvious that they should avoid building a new content management system. It's less obvious, because these things are harder to see, but it is none the less certain.

So, here is my advice on what not to build. Actually, it's a bit more than that: it's a list of what not to build, a list of some things that people are working on now, some fads to avoid, and some indication of what's out there for the taking, if you can get your act together in a hurry. And what lies beyond that? The domain of real innovation and progress.

What Not To Build

Don't build a destination website

People are still building destination websites. They expect to build *the* location to find such and such. It's somewhat surprising to see in 2009, given that every company, every school, every library, every museum, and every other organization, product, service and even many pets have websites. Even if you have an original website idea, your site, unless it is *very* special (like, say, the Dead Sea Scrolls) will quickly be swamped by the noise and verbiage that is the web, your only traffic search engines and spammers. Even if you have original content and original ideas, don't just build a website.

Don't build a CMS

Unless you have an established market of community and content web sites, you have no business building a content management system (or, for that matter, a learning management system). There is a wide range of choices for people out there, everything from Drupal to Blackboard to SiteScape. And people looking for hosted content can use Blogger, WordPress or LiveJournal. And even more to the point, basically every large scale operation that is going to want a content management system aready has one. You will be facing tremendous competition as every new and existing client will be choosing from a range of well-funded commercial and open source products.

Don't build a platform-specific app

2009 is likely to be a year in which everyone is building Facebook apps, Flickr apps, Twitter apps, iPhone apps and Second Life apps. But this is a market you want to avoid. For one thing, it is already saturated. Indeed, any time something becomes popular these days, it is designated as 'a platform' (in homage to web 2.0) and a horde of app-builders descend upon it. The platform remains popular for a while, but as it declines (as it inevitably does) it takes the entire set of platform-specific applications with it. And you risk, a any moment, the platform proprietor building competition for your app and putting you out of business (this applies to Android too, in case you're wondering).

Don't build a Java application

This is a bit of a special case of the preceding recommendation. Java is the original 'platform' application. What that meant was that you had to have Java installed (and, as time went by, the *right* version of Java installed). Java has been around for ages now, and yet most computer users could count on one hand (or, in many cases, zero hands) the number of Java aplications they use. The situation is a bit better now that Java is built into some operating systems. But java's day has come and gone - everybody is into the platform-building game now, and most have learned from Java's mistakes.

Don't build a framework

This is one of those bits of advice tat would not apply if you could actually do it - that is to say, if you *could* build a framework, then it may be worth doing, but for the most part, you probably can't. It's advice the Perl Parrot and Radaku projects should probably have heeded ages ago, advice the Ruby on Rails people should keep in mind today. People involved in those perpetually running framework projects are tossing good money after bad. Basically, if you are working in any well-known computer system - Microsoft, Java, Javascript, Python, whatever - a number of frameworks already exist. Javascript, for example, supports a number of frameworks for doing web 2.0 stuff - JQuery, etc. Now - you may say, the framework doesn't do everything we want. Maybe not. But that's not the lesson. The lesson is, if a framework already exists in your domian, your domain has been commoditized. Get out, get out now.

Don't build an educational game

This bit of advice is pretty specific and probably does not apply to most people (since most people would not dream of doing this in the first place). But the question to ask yourself is, what is a game doing for you that a straight-forward presentation of the information is not? If it is specifically an *educational* game, the answer is, "nothing." You're not getting new users, you're not presenting material in any way that's easier to understand, you're not adding to motivation. You're simply disguising the old 'teach and test' methodology as a game. Nobody will be fooled well, except maybe purchasers of fad educational products.

Don't build a new standard

People are still proposing to develop, or work on, new standards, be they metadata languages, vocabularies, application profiles, and the like. back in the days when no standards existed, this may have been a good idea. But today, the standards landscape is full. There are standards for every domain under the sun. Things that probably should not have standards - like carrier pigeon messages - have standards. What's worse, few of these standards projects made any effort to work with or cooperate with existing standards. So the standards landscape is a mish-mash of convoluted over-engineered and competing standards. Unless you absolutely have to, don't add to this landscape. Work with what's there and extend it (even if the rules say you can't).

Don't build a new social network

First we had several dozen social networking sites, like Friendster and Orkut and MySpace and Facebook. These became platforms (see above) and then we had social network multiplier sites, like Ning. And now (so-called) social network websites are multiplying like, well, websites. These social network sites are nothing more than reworked mailing list sites (like Yahoo Groups and Google Groups) and content management sites. And the blog-based social networking sites, like MyBlogLog, have already been commoditized. The irony is, as he number of these social network sites increases, their usefulness decreases. How many people are now refusing invitations from new social networks? Right - that would be everybody.

Don't build a wiki

This is a special case of the social network site. A wiki requires a community of people to work together to provide a common base of content or services. In order for a wiki to work, the contributors have to massively outnumber the spammers and the griefers. This works well if (a) the site is sufficiently massive, like Wikipedia, or (b) the site is sufficiently obscure. The Wikipedia project could be duplicated a few times before the pool of potential contributors is sufficiently diluted. That time has ling since passed. Your wiki will be either (a) obscure, or (b) filled with spam.

Don't build a travel site

This is another special case. What it refers to is not the travel site specifically - though this market is saturated with the likes of Expedia - but the web services sites generally. The 'travel site' was always the paradigm example used to promote web services. But, just as it would be foolish to try to build another travel site, so also it would be foolish to try to build most web services applications. The point is, when you choreograph multiple applications, the market fills up very quickly. One travel site, for example, basically has a lock on hotels, airlines and car rentals. Web services sites are category killers, and most categories have already been killed.

What is there? Stuff everybody is working on

These are not things I would say you should avoid outright. The market is not saturated, there is room for innovation, and new products will be appearing over the next few months. But beware - a lot of people are already working on these things. If you have to start from scratch, you will have a lot of difficulty catching up. Your best bet right now is a niche play somewhere at the margins.

Alternative interfaces

Nintendo scored a huge hit last year with the alternative Wii interface and their success is drawing a lot of attention. People are now looking at all sorts of ways to control a computer game or computer interface. Webcam interfaces appeared a few years ago. Motion-sensitive and orientation interfaces are featured on things like the iPhone. I've seen gesture-based interfaces (with and without data gloves). I played a game with a heart-beat monitor last summer. And I've even seen a game based on a brain-wave detector.

Portability / cloud / smart cards

Cloud computing has attracted so much attention recently that it's a candidate for fad status. But behind the fad is a set of concepts that have legs - the idea of computational portability. By this I don't mean mobile devices (though obviously they play a role) but rather computers that can plug into other computers to allow you to move your data, software, authentication, and whatever else you want. We have smart cards in our credit cards now, but why can we have our web browser, email application, and social network in our smart cards? The answer is: we will.

Calendaring / coordination / events

There is a range of applications we might call Kantian applications - they depend on time and place. Historically, Apple and Microsoft have kep calendaring to their proprietary little selves, but this logjam is breaking, and calendar-based applications are becoming available in our personal lives as well as our business lives. Which is good, because everything from social events to concerts to television listing to anniversaries depend on time. Finding new uses for time - that's an opportunity that will not go away any time soon.

Location-specific applications

The second group of Kantian applications are those that are taking advantage of publicly available GPS to create location-based services. These should become widely mainstream as mini-GPS systems are built into cameras, phones, PDAs, laptops, cars, belt buckles, keychains, and more. I personally could have used a GPS based keychain locator this month - I don't even know what city my keys are in. And keeping track of children, vehicles and pets will pass from quirk to mainstream over the next few years.

Intelligent apps / recommenders

We want in our everyday lives what is already available in some aspects of our professional lives - the ability to pick the best product or service in a given environment. Expedia, for example, allows me to pick hotels quite efficiently, and while it can be fooled by unscrupulous proprietors, the service is getting better over time. No such system exists - reliably - for consumer electronics, for rental accommodations, for cars, for food. Imagine, for example, a system that created my grocery shopping list for me, so I simply didn't need to figure out what I needed and wanted. Or that reliably recommended (and delivered, for free) books and music. Moreover, there is not only room for an extended range of recommenders, but there is also scope for increasingly reliable recommenders.

Connected applications (walls, desks, fridges, toasters)

OK, maybe not toasters, unless you really value weather maps on your morning toast. But with ambient wireless in an increasing number of homes it has become feasible to connect appliances to the internet. This creates a whole range of possible products - paper-thin displays that hang on walls, desks with smart, interactive surfaces, fridges that keep track of your food, automatic light switches that switch off when the room is empty, health monitors, and more. And it's not just that these applications are connected to the internet, it's that these applications can access your data, remember choices you've made, and interpreted and project your needs. What needs? That is where the room is for innovation.

Sensor networks and sensor data processing

A lot of work is being done in the field of sensor networks these days. There is a number of obvious emergency-related applications: fire sensing, flood sensing, intruder detection. Weather reporting should evolve in short order from a small number of central weather sites to a dense grid of home and business weather stations - and these, in turn, by making their data public will allow businesses to better manage staff, stock supplies and anticipate markets. Sensors already manage the flow of traffic in cities, and will increasingly manage the flow of goods and people. Room for innovation here includes coming up with new things to measure and developing algorithms that analyze and understand large grids of related data.

Summarizing, data extraction, decision support / workflow support

Business intelligence services already monitor and analyze web and internet traffic in support of corporate and military intelligence. But there is room for personal intelligence services - wouldn't it be nice to know about that patch for your Zune, for example, before it suddenly freezes? And there is a need for people to be able to make sense of an increasingly diverse information space - especially as the traditional media can no longer be trusted (if it ever could) to describe events fairly and faithfully, or to report on obscure or unpopular disciplines.

Predictive data visualization

Data visualization will become even more useful when it becomes predictive. We already have a sense of this: we use predictive visualization every day in order to understand what the weather will be like (and despite widespread criticism our weather predictions are surprisingly accurate). Being able to predict crowds, shopping trends, stock prices, fads and fashions, and more, will become an increasingly lucrative industry. Imagine how Air Canada could respond if it had a reliable way to visualize the mess that would develop as holiday travel merged with a series of blizzards.


Green computing

Green appliances have been identified for a number of years with an "energy star" designation, a system that worked mostly because there was little business advantage to proclaiming oneself green. That has all changed. Consequently, titles and labels will be of little value as being "green" becomes a marketing ploy rather than an indicator of energy conservation.


The key sign that the iPhone is a fad is the fact that most of the attention being paid to it has to do with applications and games, not telephony. In addition, the market for iPhones saturated itself within a few months of its initial release: pretty much everyone who wants an iPhone has one. Finally, other vendors - and in particular, Research In Motion, which has survived American patent protectionism - are matching (and sometimes exceeding) Apple point for point with product and service.

Cloud Computing

The interesting thing about cloud computing is that almost nobody in the public knows what it is. This makes it ripe for fad status. But to survive, cloud computing will have to actually be used - and people who don't know what it is won't be using it.


Online instruction system

It has always been the holy grail of the e-learning industry: a totally automated system that manages instruction for you. There will be no end to the number of people who say teachers are indispensable, but if the social function of teachers can be replaced by community, and the informational function by software, then a stand-alone online instruction system is possible. And that's what we're seeing people try to build, step by step, with learning objects, competences, and the rest.

Distributed systems

The idea here is to have a thing - a concept, an idea - that rests on, and floats above, a non-specific computing environment. This was the thinking behind the connectivism course we ran last fall. The idea is that the 'course', via its constituent teachers and students, simply grasps whatever computing environment is convenient and available, creating communications channels between those environments, and hence establishing a virtual presence above those environments. Most human organizations can exist in this way, and become much more robust and flexible when not tied to a specific system.

Out there for the taking

By its very nature, most genuine innovation can't be predicted. But there are some obvious targets out there for the taking - extant problems which, if solved, would revolutionize the marketplace.

Marketing that works

To be clear: marketing works already. That's why vendors pay millions of dollars to television channels and radio stations. But as these media shrink, and as marketing money becomes more scarce (the demand from R&D is ever increasing) vendors are looking for a new definition of 'works': marketing that is welcomed, even requested, by potential customers, marketing that is not wasted on people who will not buy, marketing that is viewed as positive and helpful, not vile, crass and commercial. Product placement (been thinking of Cherry Chapstick lately?) is the new nirvana, but is still hit and miss.

Intelligent radio/television (live conversation / events)

Television and radio had show a surprising resilience in the face of the internet onslaught, and the reason for this is that they're easy. Turn it on and it will entertain you without pause until you turn it off (or until it shuts down for the night, an oddly archaic practice that still exists). Shows featuring online content - such as CNN's replaying of YouTube videos - have been, well, awful. But there's so much out there, and so much we could do for ourselves. If we had internet-enabled television or radio that programmed itself, that was personalized, that let us interact with it (in a meaningful way), imagine the future. Talk radio, for example, that is a conversation with people around the world that you find interesting.

Personal presence / personal health / personal learning

Personal heath records, personal learning environments, personal publishing and printing, personal presence: all of these are ways of imposing the personal on the technical, about making these tools about *you* instead of about them. This is essentially a combination of technologies - of smart cards and their mobile ilk, of content analysis and presentation, of connected applications, of distributed systems. From the point of view of the internet, 'you' are a concept - the one thing in the whole system that isn't actually a part of the system. How to leverage that will be the stuff of genius and innovation.

Simulation / immersion

It's easy to do simulation and immersion if you have a lot of money. I have been in flight simulators that are absolutely convincing. But they cost millions to build; nobody is likely to have one in their living room any time soon. But in the field of affordable immersive simulation is a wealth of opportunity - imagine being able to experience 3D environments from the *inside* (and not just viewed through a screen) without leaving the house. We had reading rooms and TV rooms in the past: the device that creates the Sim room of the future will make somebody rich.


The problem ith representative democracy is that your representative is often looking out for someone else's interests. Often his own. Internet technology creates the possibility for direct democracy, but this in turn requires a way of rethinking how we manage society. We want to connect people to government - but only those parts that affect them directly. We want to create mechanisms that allow people to govern themselves - but not to govern others. Collaborative and community-oriented systems for resource management and decision-making will be a fertile field in the future.

Energy nets

As energy becomes increasingly scarce, we will look not only to alternatives in power generation, but also better ways to manage transmission. We already have an energy grid, but as events have shown, the grid is unstable and liable to cascade failures. It also depends unreasonably on a small number of very large power sources, such as coal or nuclear powered generating plants, hydro dams, and the like. We want to be able to manage energy nets of the future using distributed sources - wind and solar powered, for example. Such systems would be tasked to minimize transmission load, insulate against cascades, and promote diversity of sources.

Dead tech


By the 'telephone' I don't mean voice-to-voice communications generally - people will always want to talk to each other - but about telephony in particular (and in particular, dedicated lines and switched services). The reason is simple: it is simply too much overhead to maintain an entire infrastructure premised on the possibility that any given person may require a direct audio link to any other given person. We want to use the wires for other things. And the overhead required to support switching is immense and expensive. The closest thing we'll see in the future is something like bandwidth guarantees for specific services .


Television is so close to being over we can almost taste it. Once digital television comes into households (2009 in the U.S., 2012 in Canada), the previous monopoly owned by the cable companies will be broken. Televisions will no longer be tubes, they will no longer have channels (increasingly, we'll just program numeric selections), and we will no longer watch networks (increasingly, we will watch providers - Fox, Gawker, Google, CNN). Yes, we will continue to have background audio and video displays in our room - often more than one - but we will no longer be 'glued to the tube'.


Radio is rapidly ending its life as an electronic transmission medium. Today, it is almost as common to listen to 'radio' stations online (through iTunes, for example) as it is to pick up signals from the air. As broadband becomes ubiquitous, we will more and more frequently simply pick up ambient internet and stream audio - whatever that entails. Satellite radio was the last harraugh of a medium that depended on mass broadcasts.

Print / paper

Paper is a resource-intensive industry and will become more and more expensive over time. Already, we are seeing the shut-down of pulp mills in remote regions of Canada, ostensibkly because they are "inefficient" but in realiuty because the market simply isn't there for their product. Bookstores are filling their shelves with trinkets, DVDs, toys and games. newspapers are losing subscribers in droves (mostly as they die off). The affordability of electronic combined with the wastefulness of paper makes this an easy prediction.


It has for the last few decades been cheaper to transport goods around the planet than to manufacture them where resources and labour are more expensive. Similarly, it has been cheaper to transport people from their pleasant homes in the country (or pseudo-country) than to live and work in the same location. This all changes as transportation becomes increasingly expensive. We will live and work in closer communities again, which means that systems that support local self-sustainability will be in demand. Can we build apartments that are as comfortable as homes? Can we grow our own grapefruits and coffees? Can we design specialized production systems that do not depend on cheap labour?