Sunday, June 29, 2014

Online textbooks are awful. It's time to kill the publishers.

My daughter and I are using “Holt” [1] Mathematics Course 3 for her summer math work. It’s quite a good printed textbook; a used 2007 edition cost about $10 on Amazon.

Her school doesn’t expect parents to buy the used textbook, however. They expect us to use the same material through Holt McDougal Online. Alas, unlike the printed text, the online textbook experience is miserable. Holt is serving up low to medium resolution bitmaps that are barely legible on screen or if printed. Our school district’s acceptance of this awful experience reinforces my fear of their iPad for all learning program. They are not ready for this.

It’s not just the schools that aren’t ready. The big publishers who control school textbooks have had decades to do computer based textbooks — and their products are still lousy.

We need alternatives to the traditional publishers. We need nations, states, provinces and startups to fund new textbooks that are digital from the start. This will kill Holt et al — but we have no choice. They can’t do this. They need to go away.

[1] Publisher names change constantly.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Secular stagnation and the Beveridge curve - the role of frail boomer parents

American unemployment, as economist’s measure it, is back to our post-2000 “norm”. On the other hand economic growth is low; our last quarter would make a fine start to another recession. Krugman et al debate the cause of “secular stagnation” in general, and strangely low labor force participation and Beveridge Curve shift in particular.

The usual suspects are globalization and “IT” (increasingly “AI”, politely referred to as “robots”). I also suspect the dominance of the dysfunctionally powerful modern corporation plays an important role along with the related the rise of economic parasites.

Income inequality is inducing economic distortions that likely also contribute, though I think that effect is partly offset by corporate power. Slowdowns in scientific discovery and technological innovation aren’t helping.

That’s a long list - as one would expect in an eco-econ world where we have to treat economies as ecologies. It takes a lot to change a self-correcting system.

I think we can add more though - including the intersection of demographics and medicine.

Once upon a time, as “recently” (cough) as when I started medical school in 1982, parents died in their 60s and 70s. They weren’t as vigorous as today’s 70 yo’s but they weren’t particularly frail either. They ate poorly, smoked and exercised little — but that’s not enough to make someone frail. It just means that elders died relatively quickly of cancer, heart disease, and organ failure. Dementia was starting to become more common, but it wasn’t universal.

Today’s Boomer parents are different. They stopped smoking 20 or 30 years ago. They’ve had more education and they’ve benefitted from bypass surgery and far better medications for lipid and blood pressure control. Their diets are lousy and they never exercised much — but they’re not nearly as obese as we will be.

So they tend to last — into their 80s. Which is pretty much the end of the road for the human machine. So Boomer parents get to be frail - and demented. That’s an entirely different care burden than any previous generation has known - and it’s hitting the boomer peak of today’s demographic curve. As always, the burden falls largely on women.

The frailty burden is genuinely new. It’s not big enough to explain all of our economic transformation, but I think it plays a significant role.

Fortunately, there’s an obvious fix - and an investment opportunity.

I expect to see massive solar powered robotic dementia care facilities opening across the empty spaces of America — probably as extensions of Google’s data centers. With robotic caretakers, waste water recycling, soy lent green synthetic protein, and high bandwidth connections to companion AIs and VR-integrated remote children this should be quite pleasant.

I’m looking forward to my pod. (Oh, sh*t, I’m in it right no…..)

See also


Friday, June 27, 2014

A warning to family physicians doing educational modules - cultural competency isn't your worst option

The American Board of Family Medicine requires recertification every seven years. The standard modules are rigorous; perhaps absurdly so. They often require answers taken from the medical literature that have a reliability half-life of about 8 months. (That is, half these answers will be incorrect within 8 months of initial publication.)

I'm not warning family docs about those exams however. I'm warning docs who don't actively see patients about something far worse.

If you don't see patients, you need to do one of 3 "alternative modules". As of June 2014 the choices are:

  • cultural competency
  • hand hygiene
  • information management (MIMM)
Emily did hand hygiene. It was annoying and hard on the hands, but pleasantly mindless.

I'm a computer geek, so I thought information management might be interesting.

Oh, fool that I was. I am a broken man on a Halifax pier. Halfway through the exercise I fell sobbing to the floor, begging Emily to end my suffering. By the end, I thought of Winston Smith.  I have foresworn my career. Never again shall I speak of the role of software in medicine. I shall become an itinerant monk, clothed in rags, ranting before the doors of America's medical schools...

Do cultural competency.

You're welcome.

Apple kills Aperture. Observations.

In an alternate universe….

Today in a terse but clear posting on the Aperture web site Tim Cook apologized for the difficult decision to end Apple’s competition in the professional and prosumer photography market. He promised to fully cooperate with Adobe on a migration path to Lightroom that would convert Aperture non-destructive edit metadata to Lightroom format. All image metadata would be preserved. Group, Album and Smart Album functionality would suffer, but Adobe promised to improve their tools to ease the transition. Aperture sales were immediately discontinued. Support through Yosemite and ongoing RAW image updates for new cameras was promised through 2016. Users were saddened but appreciated Apple’s professional approach….

That would be a pleasant universe.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the announcement that Aperture was dead, and that Apple was effectively abandoning professional photography, appeared via Jim Dalrymple’s blog. Aperture remained on sale in the App Store while muddled Apple clarifications showed up in various blogs. Some said saying there would be support through Yosemite, others hinted at helping Adobe with migration to Lightroom. As end-of-life announcements go it was a complete screw-up.

Oh - but users of Logic Pro and Final Cut Pro “should not worry about their apps—they will continue as normal”.


The impact on heavy users of Aperture is heard to overstate. That’s why Gruber’s “that’s the way the cookie crumbles” earned his feed a Gordon-death-click. Maybe I’ll return someday, but The Loop covers the same ground and is a bit less irritating - albeit equally uncritical of Apple. I’m sure Gruber is devastated.

I won’t dwell on the migration path ahead, though it makes my excruciating transition from iPhoto look like a walk in the park. As of today none of my 20,000 or so non-destructive image edits will convert to Lightroom, much less album/image relationships, image/project, folder/image/project, folder/project comments, geo-tags and more. I won’t even mention Videos (which were never well supported in Aperture or iPhoto).

I’m not doing anything for a while, but one immediate impact is that I won’t be buying any camera that Aperture doesn’t currently support. If Aperture will indeed work on Yosemite then I’ve got years to convert — and I won’t be upgrading to Yosemite if there’s any doubt about Aperture support. (Which means no major Apple hardware purchases next year.)

Beyond Apple’s announcement fiasco, I was struck by the generally dismissive commentary — as though it were a trivial move to go to Lightroom. Happily, now that I’ve killed Daring Fireball, I can say the blogs I follow are relatively realistic about the impact of Aperture’s demise.

It’s not just Aperture users who have grounds to worry. Given Apple’s software record over the past 5 years (iBooks, iMovie, Podcast, Aperture 1, etc) what’s the chance Photos will be safe for serious iPhoto users before 2018? iPhoto users are back in Apple photo management limbo.

On a larger front I’ve written before of Data Lock, and of how the “Cloud” is making data lock even stronger. I knew the risk I took with iPhoto 2 11 years ago [1]; a path that has led to the dead end of

The way Apple executed Aperture’s termination is a rich lesson in the consequences of data lock (a risk I understood when I signed up with iPhoto long years ago). Does anyone think it will be possible to move from Apple’s next generation Photo app to Lightroom? That’s a far harder problem than moving from Aperture to Lightroom — and that’s nearly inconceivable at the moment.

I can’t do much about the way Apple handled this transition — other than spare myself the temptation of a camera purchase. I can, however, reduce my purchases of Apple products — especially Apple software. I have no faith in Apple at all.

[1] From my ancient web page on digital photography

Problems: iPhoto 2 through 5

iPhoto has longstanding problems. I knew of them when I started with iPhoto 2, but I took the gamble that the large user community, and the prominence of Apple's multimedia iLife suite, would pressure Apple to improve the product. That hasn't worked. If you're a PC user you should not switch to a Mac for digital photo management, instead I'd recommend Picasa (free from Google). If you're a Mac user, take a close look at iView MediaPro -- though that's a risky choice too (small market, hard for vendor to compete against iLife).

If you proceed with iPhoto, know the risks …

Data Lock - You can check in, but you can't check out.
You can export images -- though it's tricky to export both originals and modifications. You can't, however, migrate your albums, smart albums, comments, keywords, captions, etc. etc. I thought iView MediaPro would take advantage of this and sell and import utility, but they haven't. So when you use iPhoto, you marry iPhoto…

Update 6/28/2014Clark Goble responds with more eloquence

as Apple pushes more and more the lock-in of iCloud, of iBooks, and of iTunes video, why should we trust Apple if they don’t have a way to get the data out? This is the thing that some activists have preached for years and most of us have discounted.5 But now I think it’s a real question Apple has unintentionally made very significant. Why should I trust Apple not to lose interest in iBooks if sales drop? (Which apparently they have) iTunes Music isn’t a big deal because there’s no DRM. But the rest? Why should I store files in iWork?

Can we trust Apple? The cavalier way Apple is responding is telling us, no we can’t. And that’s a shame because they could easily have made this announcement in a way that said we could

I particularly appreciated his footnotes…

… I remember Apple fans ridiculing people trusting Microsoft with Plays For Sure DRM when that product collapsed and people lost their data. Many of those same people are pretty flippant about locked data today. ↩

I doubt rumors of Apple adding a Lightroom export will include being able to port both your raw data files and the adjustments you made to the files. You’ll either have to export as TIFFs or lose your adjustments simply because the math won’t be exactly the same. Heck, I’m skeptical they’ll export anything beyond metadata and files… 

Friday, June 20, 2014

We are older than the universe

There are seven billion humans alive now, each the star of the show.

In a decade we will, collectively, gather 60-70 billion years of experience. The universe, by comparison, is a mere 13.8 billion years old.

Our collective memory is much greater than the age of the universe.

Puny universe.