Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Twitter Dream or TwitterMare?

The flow of information over on Twitter has become a raging torrent these days. This is not a bad thing. I love diving in and out of the information flow,playing tag with bits and pieces of conversations and news blurbs. As an information consumer, this pattern of Twitter usage feels comfortable and is not overwhelming in the least. I follow a little over a thousand people and for the most part just use the standard web interface.

From an information dissemination point of view, this becomes problematic. Although I have more than a thousand followers, no single tweet gets seen by all of my followers. With people dipping in and out of the river, only DMs or @s are persistent and will be seen by followers across time - other tweets flow past. To paraphrase Heraclitus , "you can not read the same Twitterstream twice".

When I am asking a casual question such as "what is a famous brand of rootbeer", or " please recommend a web development company for non-profits", then I am likely to get a small handful of answers and solve my dilemma. I do not need to reach all of my followers at once to get the information I need.

But if I am trying to use Twitter as a marketing tool for an event or a project, the number of my fllowers who will see ( and potentially re-tweet) my otice is small at any given point in time. Add to this the concept of twitter groups becoming more common, and how long before we see a mass Twitter tol that is a Marketer's dream? More importantly, wil this tool be useful for the twitter masses as well, or will it become a twitterMare?
Here is the vision:
Log into a web page ( or use a desktop client) set up and config your groups.
Type in the 140 characters ( or less) of your message.
Select the group and click "updateGroup"
The twitter mass mailer will then auto @ your message to each of the members of the group. ( up to some groups size limit, due to API limitations...)

Do you see this as a potentially useful tool, or the next Magpie Tweetmare ? Tell me what you think.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Selling Scientists

In a previous incarnation, I was involved with gender equity research in science education. You can see examples like this:

Scantlebury, K., Green, N., & Kahle, J. B. (1989, July). Teacher as researcher: A case study of collaborative research. National Coalition of Sex Equity in Education, Lowell, MA.
or this
Scantlebury, K., Green, N., & Kahle, J. B. (1989, July). Developing science skills. National Coalition of Sex Equity in Education, Lowell, MA.

I am afraid they were published well before the nifty development of web based publications, so they are unfortunately not easily accessed. I also did reviews and studies of science text books for most of the major US textbook publishers, checking for gender equity in the representation of scientists in the book illustrations. There were a lot of studies that showed that if students saw pictures of people who they could identify with, they more easily conceptualized themselves as scientists. In the same manner, if the pictures showed female scientists as well as male then the female students has an easier time visualizing themselves as scientists.

It all makes good sense. We want to make sure that we are not isolating any potential group of science or engineering students from being able to dream of this career. Regardless of sex, race or religious persuasion, anyone is capable of being a scientist if that moves them. The critical years are late elementary school and middle school, with continuing support through high school. This is especially true for girls, who drop out of math and science as electives in droves about halfway through middle school.

What triggered all of this ancient history?? I was watching this Nova Vodcast profile of Karl Iagnemma, who is a scientist and a writer. Karl is an amazing, intense, hard working human. And all those years of work an research came flooding back to me. Here is the dilemma. At about 6th grade, hormones and neural re-routing take over in humans that shift their priorities and focus. Peer groupings and acceptance become one of the single largest factors in their decision making process. No matter how much support structure they have at home, it is a rare teen who will ignore their peers at age 12 and pursue their passions. Yes, It does happen. Yes, you probably have a story of someone like that. I do too. But not the majority. Not at the percentage that we are aiming for if we want to continue developing enough scientists and engineers to grow our technology driven dreams.

So, we attempt to make science "cool". We have the Mythbusters and rock star scientists. We try to make it look like lots of fun and infuse science with prestige. This works for a while, then students still drop out.

The truth is, science DOES take hard work. It does take incredible drive and focus. To be perfectly honest, the people who are wildly successful really ARE a little bit odd when compared to the rest of the population. You have to have focus for long periods of time. You spend lots of time thinking-alone.. or observing- alone. Then you think a bunch more. Maybe there are equations involved, or test tubes or baby mice. But there are not giggling groups of friends in the long long hours. This is not a bad kind of weird-if you are an adult. But at 13 or 14, any kind of weird is difficult. Passions that drive you to spend time alone are anathema.

So. At what point do we admit as society that it takes a special and wonderful kind of person to be a researcher or a creative engineer, and not everyone is cut out for this. Maybe we will never push the percentage of science majors above a certain percentage becuase there are just not that many people interested in that lifestyle.

Is this bad? Should we try to change or alter something about the nature of research or how reearchers behave to create more scientists? Should we be facing the fact that our scientist population will always be limited and start to prioritize what we work on rather than whine about not having enough scientists? Or is there still an untapped group of scientists that I am overlooking?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Eating outside of the box

Todays article on the choices being faced by the unemployed to eat or to pay other bills got me thinking that maybe it was time to tackle the problem with a little outside the box thinking. There is no doubt that the food stamp program does unimaginable good for the recipients. The editors of the NYT Times recently pointed out that not only does the food stamp program feed people, but it also does direct good to assist with stimulating the economy as well. While there are a lot of people starting to emphasize with those struggling to make ends meet, including a CNN reporter trying to live on the SNAP ( food stamps) budget for a month, I have not seen many people trying to address the problem raised by one woman in the CNN article:
"Sears stretches her food budget by buying cheap and sometimes fatty meals. She said she doesn't like doing that but can't avoid it. With food prices high, she said, grocery shopping is stressful.

"We get like the mac and cheese, which is dehydrated cheese -- basically food that's no good for you health wise," she said. "Everything is high in sodium and trans fats ... and that's all we basically can afford. There's not enough assistance to eat healthy and maintain a healthy weight."

Advocates for the hungry say many people on the food stamp program opt to buy less-healthy foods because they can't afford fresh fruits and vegetables on such a tight budget."

What if we look at other method for getting food into people's hands and on their tables instead of just looking to spend more money at the grocery stores ? We are lucky to live in a nation with a long growing season and lots of good soil. Even in the depths of cities, there are many gardens and green areas. Because of this, the American Community Garden Association lists 120 community vegetable gardens in New York City alone. What if we added funding and support for gardening to the fod stamps program? Let the program help pay for staff that can assit, mentor, and administrate the gardens (people need jobs, right?) and people who volunteer in the gardens get a portion of the harvests. They get fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs for a few hours of work each week. The peak growing season is summer- when students are out of school. This would also provide and activity that even younger kids can participate in and they will learn useful life skills as well.

Don't live in an area with a community garden? Allow food stamps to pay for seeds, basic gardening tools and items that individuals in rural and/or suburban areas could use to plant provate gardens. Allow regional areas to purchase and loan out garden tillers that folks who want to plant in their yard can use. If we are worried about enough people being able to use a tiller, or the tillers getting abused or stolen, then again- hire people who can travel the rounds of food stamp recipients' houses to till a garden.

Want to make the impact really lasting? Build a social media site and some print pamphlets with gardening tips, cooking tips, recipes and information on canning and preserving food. It would need to have some non-online resources as not everyone can afford to be online, or has the time to cruise the net at the library every week.

Want to really surprise people? Make it easy for home gardeners to band together to sell excess food in small farmer's markets, or to trade zucchini that they grew for carrots that someone else had success with.

This is not an unprecedented idea. During World War I and II, the Victory garden program called for people to grow food at home or close by to assist with the conservation of oil being used by the war efforts. Today, the Liberty Garden program also calls on individuals to grow food in backyard gardens to help conserve energy and to make eating more eco friendly.

By implementing a "garden growing" portion into the SNAP program, we will not only alow people to eat in a more healthy way, we will also add jobs and be more eco friendly. Seems like a certain win on all facets.