Monday, December 18, 2006

Idiot instructors

I've had some great instructors at the University of Calgary, but they're certainly in the minority.

When I wrote that The U of C Sucks, I really thought I was going to school at a particularly bad university. Yet on the internet I've been seeing a lot of discontent about the quality of post-secondary education throughout North America. Here's one example:
On the first day of class, she struggled for a full five minutes trying to turn on the computer...

...despite repeated help and instruction from others in the class, Gabrielle just couldn't get it right. She started ever page with a BODY tag instead of the proper HTML tag, and insisted that it made more sense that way because HTML was "the language" and not a part of "the code." Her "proof" of this was that, thanks to Internet Explorer's forgiving nature, the pages rendered just fine.

Gabrielle's grasp of "documents" versus "programs" was just as painfully embarrassing. After editing an HTML document, she'd always say, "OK, I'm now saving my HTML program and will run it in Internet Explorer." I won't even get into how much Gabrielle struggled with doing actual web development in PHP.

Now I suppose this story is one that can describe just about every struggling Computer Science student that will eventually change their major to Communications. There's only one difference: Gabrielle was not a student in the Web Development course. She taught it.
Now, perhaps the story itself is a fabrication. Or not. But what's interesting is the high degree to which those in the forum identified with the story. It's believable because it rings true. Some of the responses:

"Honestly, this sounds about par for the course for a Community College / Junior College instructor. I had a couple of real boneheads in the comp sci department -- and this was at a *silicon valley* JC -- supposedly one of the best in the country, at that."

"That's like every 4th CS teacher I've had."

"The year I was appointed to the faculty, I taught a 4th year, or maybe it was graduate level, independent study course on X programming because the prof (my boss) was over-extended. I was all of 18 or 19 at the time, had never programmed in X and wasn't the greatest C programmer in the world. He knew I'd figure it out (and I did), but it could have gone horribly wrong, too. And this was at a good school. I can easily imagine a lesser school having someone like Gabrielle teach a web class."

"I used to work as both a lecturer and as tech support at a pretty decent CS university, and honestly there were some staff there who made two short planks look like a computer (...). Typically they start our as students who cheat their way through an undergrad degree (...) and get hooked on the lazy academic lifestyle. [...] they come back for a postgrad degree, take a decade to get through a PhD and wind up with a vague understanding of one very narrow field of CS and absolutely no idea about any others. The universities themselves don't help because they are all about bringing in money from research, and that's the direction they push the staff. Teaching undergraduates is generally treated as an annoyance they have to do to satisfy government requirements to keep all the lurks and perks associated with being a university..."

"For my OS Theory class, they couldn't find anyone to teach it. So the first night, the CS Chair came in and explained that to us. The second night, we got our professor..."

Well, you can imagine where that last one is going. Yup, something's rotten in the state of our schools.

Why Qwerty, and What's Better?

If you're curious about where our standard keyboard layout came from, have a look at my paper about its history and what's better. I wrote it for a class, but I promise it's better than typical classwork.

Here is a mirror at Geocities. I wonder if it's time to start paying for web space...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Stealing Fair Use, Selling It Back to you

EFF sums up how Hollywood is using the U.S.'s crappy DMCA to prevent consumers from doing what would otherwise be legal:
"Apparently, Hollywood believes that you should have to re-purchase all your DVD movies a second time if you want to watch them on your iPod." That's what we said last week, commenting on the Paramount v. Load-N-Go lawsuit, in which Hollywood studios claimed that it is illegal to rip a DVD to put on a personal video player (PVP), even if you own the DVD.

Well, this week the other shoe dropped. According to an article in the New York Times:

"Customers who buy the physical DVD of Warner Brothers' 'Superman Returns' in a Wal-Mart store will have the option of downloading a digital copy of the film to their portable devices for $1.97, personal computer for $2.97, or both for $3.97."

So you buy the DVD, and if you want a copy on your PVP or computer, you have to pay a second time. Despite the fact that you bought the DVD, and you have a DVD drive in your computer that is perfectly capable of making a personal-use copy. Imagine if the record labels offered you this "deal" for every CD you bought -- pay us a few dollars extra, and you can have a copy for your iPod. And a few more dollars, if you want a copy on your computer, too! As LA Times reporter Jon Healey puts it in his blog: "So from the perspective of the studios and federal officials, consumers have to pay for the privilege of doing the sorts of things with DVDs that they're accustomed to doing with CDs (and LPs and cassettes)."

This latest bitter fruit from Hollywood is brought to you by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which treats "protected" content (like the encrypted video on DVDs), differently from "unprotected" content (like every audio and video media format introduced before 1996). Thanks to the DMCA, Hollywood believes fair use personal-use copies simply do not exist when it comes to DVDs.

Let's hope Congressman Rick Boucher is listening and will reintroduce his DMCA reform bill first thing next year.