Hurricane Sandy

October 30, 2012

Science can watch, measure anticipate plan, and protect. But Hurricane Sandy reminds us of the limits of human power over nature

The world watches the unfolding path of destruction unleashed by Hurricane Sandy. It seems appropriate that the hurricane arrived on the Western seaboard of the United States in time to disrupt an increasingly fractious campaign to elect the next President there.

Instantaneous updates

Most news sources seem to be communicating the primary information instantaneously. Wikipedia, for example, is as powerful a source of information as the older media. I did not expect it to be so.

Politics briefly on hold

President Obama has said that he was worried for the American people and that “The election can take care of itself for next week”. But whatever he says remains a political statement.

After the deluge

After the deluge the stocktaking. By late Monday [October 31st, 2012] the ‘end of the beginning’ was glimpsed on the Eastern seaboard. Weather maps still showed the red alert danger warnings across New York, New Jersey, and much of New England. The Washington Post turned attention to the future

Storm-ravaged residents of New York and New Jersey began urgent recovery efforts Tuesday after a nighttime pummeling from Hurricane Sandy, which caused widespread flooding, raging fires and broad power outages and left at least 40 people dead from Connecticut to North Carolina.

It’s not politics, but…

The harder President Obama avoided politics, the more political each move seemed. His visits to stricken New Jersey and his rapport with Republican Governor Chris Christie illustrate this point

The Book with a Hundred Authors: Technology’s New Place in Education

October 29, 2012

Valerie Harris

The “book with a hundred authors” was reviewed in a earlier LWD post. It is just one manifestation of how technology is reshaping the way that creativity and education are processed by students

While many parents may find themselves wishing that interactive gaming, Facebook, and smartphones had never been invented, these and other technologies can have beneficial effects on classroom learning and lifetime education.

Students today are encountering Internet-based technologies in school in ways unimaginable even five years ago. On the whole, education policy makers and teachers alike have generally been impressed by the ways in which computers can enhance student learning in most disciplines.

Effects of Technology on Classrooms and Students

The United States Department of Education said in a report titled Effects of Technology on Classrooms and Students:

“Technology use allows many more students to be actively thinking about information, making choices, and executing skills than is typical in teacher-led lessons. Moreover, when technology is used as a tool to support students in performing authentic tasks, the students are in the position of defining their goals, making design decisions, and evaluating their progress”

Such learning is often interactive. While computer programs and learning models are no substitute for careful lesson plans and curricula, they can work together quite powerfully.

iPads in the classroom

The growing use of iPads in the classroom is one example. High School English students are able to read novels on their devices, then add comments and chat with their classmates about major themes and plot developments in real time — often outside of school hours.

Older students have also proved the worth of an iPad for to foreign language instruction. The wealth of language resources available through specialized apps and mobile-enhanced programs has made it easier than ever to interact with and learn from native speakers.

Even primary school children as young as kindergarten are benefiting from this form of interactive technology. According to a 2012 Time magazine special report, students with early exposure to classroom iPad use have an increased rate of literacy and better mathematical abilities by the time they reach the third grade than peers in more “traditional” classrooms.

App development

App developers have been quick to follow this trend, creating a range of education-driven programs to appeal to teachers and parents both. In fully wired classrooms, teachers can give students space to explore new subjects or areas on their own, but all while monitoring their progress. For Math activities a teacher can direct all students to complete a basic task through an app on their tablet computers, then remotely track students’ progress through a calibrated “master” screen. This gives the teacher the opportunity to spend more time with those who are struggling, while offering more challenging problems to those who need something harder—all without sacrificing time in class, or “dumbing things down” for the benefit of the whole.

Technology is also making several ground breaking changes to delivery and assessment of education including:

• International connections and links between virtual classrooms. Rural students are often able to leverage video technology to stream lessons. Places where it is difficult to find and attract quality teachers—remote villages in Africa, for instance, or war-torn parts of Southeast Asia—often benefit the most from these sorts of arrangements.
• The ability to take standardized tests on computer. Graduate school exams like the GRE and the GMAT are increasingly being offered as computer-adaptive tests. Mainstream exams like the SAT and grade level exams may soon follow. Adaptive tests serve questions based on real-time student performance, and are usually able to give at least an unofficial score immediately on completion.

The integration of technology with classroom learning is already showing great promise for future developments.


Valerie writes for Masters Degree On Line, which discusses graduate-level online education for prospective students. The book with a hundred authors was reviewed in LWD in 2009.

Pick up a Penguin

October 28, 2012

Pearson, which owns Penguin and the Financial Times, has been holding talks with Bertelsmann, the owner of Random House. But will Rupert Murdoch come to the party?

The new this week, [October 25th 2012] of talks between Penguin and Bertelsmann, could lead to a reshaping of book publishing, if it came about.

This one is a biggie

The industry sector is undergoing a revolution as e-publishing gathers pace. Mergers are likely. This one is a biggie. Splitting out the publishing figures shows that Penguin currently has annual sales of almost £1bn, and Random House £1.4bn. The merged company would become a top-six player in book publishing.

Enter stage right

But as the news broke, fresh stories from The Australian that Rupert Murdoch is interested in bidding for Penguin.

And that would make the tale even more interesting.

The merger between Pearson and Random House was rapidly confirmed. By Monday [October 29th 2012]

According to sharecast:

Under the terms of the agreement, Penguin and Random House will combine their businesses in a newly-created joint venture named Penguin Random House.

However, it will not be a merger of equals, with Random House’s parent firm, Bertelsmann, to own 53% of the joint venture and Pearson taking 47%.

Bertelsmann will nominate five directors to the board of the new company and Pearson will nominate four.

Marjorie Scardino, Chief Executive of Pearson, said the combination would “greatly enhance” Penguin’s fortunes and its opportunities.

To be continued

BBC chief Entwistle quizzed by MPs over the Jimmy Savile scandal

October 27, 2012

The Director General of the BBC, George Entwistle, went before a select committee of MPs at Westminster recently, arising from concerns about what had become known in the UK as ‘The Jimmy Savile’ affair. It was an unedifying event, part showboating, part inept and ill-informed interrogation

Do you know what a chief brewer, a chief engineer, a chief chemist, or a chief journalist does? Outside a specific business sector, the labels are misleading. Each designation refers to a head of a group of professionals within an organisation. These are important leadership roles. The more generic label for the role is that of COO or Chief Operating Officer, which is a director level function. A COO has ultimate responsibility for the professional operations in a company, including line-management responsibility for the effective functioning of more junior professionals.

A conflation of roles

In some organisations, the role of COO gets mixed up with that of the better-known one of CEO or chief executive officer. For example, at the BBC, George Entwistle turns out to be chief journalist, and also its Director General, bringing with it responsibilities roughly approximating to those of the CEO more common in in private sector organisations.

The Jimmy Savile affair

[October 2012].
Jilly Savile, a high profile TV personality over a period of decades, famed for the long-runing children’s programme Jim’ll fix it. Since his death in 2011, stories had begun to leak out over alleged child molestation within the BBC, but also extending far more widely. He had been knighted for services to charitable causes, although his charity work had become seen in hindsight as a cover for more sinister and predatory activities.

A potential cover up

The story had been broken by a TV programme from ITV which told of a possible cover-up at the rival state-owned BBC, which had cancelled a planned investigative piece on Savile being prepared for its Newsnight programme. The decision appeared to have been for influenced by a wider tribute to Savile which was imminent, and which was under preparation as a Christmas special.

The Director General gets embroiled

The newish Director General George Entwistle would always have been embroiled. But Entwistle had also been an editor of Newsnight at the time of another BBC debacle involving the documentation of Weapons of Mass Destruction during the Iraq war. More pertinently, he had also been head of the broader division at the BBC [‘Vision’] when the Newsnight piece on Savile was being prepared.

Another twist

A few days before he was called before the committee, there was another twist to the story. The current Newsnight editor Peter Rippon wrote in the BBC’s ‘Editors blog’ justifying the editorial decision he made to stop the broadcasting of the Savile item.

However, by then, investigations into the Savile affair ordered by Entwistle had begun internal to the BBC. Rippon’s blog was re-corrected’ . and Peter Rippon went on a spell of gardening leave.

At the committee hearing

At the committee hearing, The Director General repeatedly explained that he had been aware of a dilemma of leadership: either to get involved in the operational details [as chief journalist] or remain disinterested as Director General, a backstop ‘above’ those who might eventually have to be evaluated for their operational decisions.
Righteous indignation.

His performance gave the committee members opportunity to work up a head of righteous indignation about Entwistle’s ineffectiveness, The committee seemed to consider his approach” lacking of curiosity. Several of the MPs used the term, which suggested that rather extensive discussions had taken place in advance, and that consensus had been reached.

Not enough like Archie

Archie Norman, former CEO of a retailing organisation, was held up as an example of a hands-on leader, famed for ‘getting on to the shop floor’ . This fitted the prevailing ‘map’ of the MPs better than the more nuanced view being offered them by Entwistle.


The performances seemed to smack of showboating. Perhaps the interrogation of the Director General could have shown some flicker of understanding about the points he reiterated. It was possible that the MPs were genuinely unable to bridge point he was making at the same time as holding on to their pre-prepared lines of attack.

More charisma needed?

Their posture said it all. The MPs were looking for more charisma in a leader. They would not have behaved in such an inept fashion if they had been leader of the BBC. Or maybe they were in search of a scapegoat for the Savile affair. In either case, it was an unedifying performance.

It is mostly a simplistic notion of what a leader should do when faced with a crisis. He (presumably a he) must immediately and personally show who is in control, even if there is a case for holding back and recognising the dangers of impulsive action which, in this case would deny anyone else at the BBC space to take some leadership responsibilities.

Their view of Entwistle’s performance and competence was mostly echoed in the press the following day.

Will twitter change the course of history and swing the Presidential election?

October 24, 2012

Another too-close-to-call Presidential campaign. And a pivotal moment is being identified as the first Presidential debate, which seems to have caught out team Obama by the influence of a whirlwind of tweets on reshaping political opinion

ABC’s Michael Brissenden suggested it did.

In his post Twitter frenzies shake up traditional debate tactics, he suggests that “In politics Twitter might be proving to be a new and somewhat unpredictable complication”. I have summarized his analysis below:

Impact of the first televised debate

If Barack Obama does lose this election, the first TV debate of this campaign will take on a historical significance that will be studied by political science undergraduates for years to come and no doubt writ large in campaign strategists’ offices for decades.

The frenzy of online engagement is like performance algebra – a jumble of characters, symbols and short, sharp calculations that somehow end up reaching a conclusion, faster and more efficiently than the old-school campaign long division.

As a result 90 minutes of prime time TV became a political eternity. In cyber space no-one can hear you scream but they can sure tell if you’re off your game. They used to say you could tell who won a TV debate even with the sound turned off – but no-one can control the volume of instant messaging. And politicians all over the world are being caught flat-footed by it.

It was 90 minutes the Obama campaign could never get back. The dynamics shifted decisively and now we have a contest that some think could end up being one of the closest presidential races ever.

Two more weeks

Two more weeks of relentless politics, increasingly targeted on the handful of ‘swing states’ whose uncommitted voters are believed to hold the key to the election. Two more weeks of attack ads. Do they influence anybody? And if not, why are funders spending billions of dollars on an expensive turnoff? The pollsters have been predicting a close race for some while.

To be continued

How will Google deal with the threat of the smart phone?

October 21, 2012

Google’s biggest threat may be from changes to personal search habits triggered by mobile phone users

Weaknesses revealed in the Facebook financial model at its Initial Public Offering [IPO] recently, are now suggesting related problems at Google.

Google’s business model under scrutiny

For Facebook, the weakness in the valuation of its shares was considered by commentators as difficulties in converting its billion or so friends into means of selling advertising opportunities to commercial clients. Google’s business model has also come under scrutiny, after last week’s embarrassing leak of its financial figures [18th October, 2012].

A tipping point?

A minor operational error at Google last week involving a premature release of poor financial figures resulted in a stock-market blip. But the blip is now being taken more seriously. and has been tagged on to wider criticisms of the Company’s business model. If you believe in tipping points (and I’m not sure I do), it’s a tipping point.

The doom scenario

Such times call forth the doom scenario. On 20th October 2012, The popularist Daily Mail newspaper in the UK asked whether Google could disappear completely

As Google suffers a catastrophic nose-dive in its market value, analysts are already predicting its demise as the world’s lead Internet search engine.
Advertising revenues are falling — and will continue to fall — for Internet companies because consumers are increasingly migrating to mobile applications and advertisers aren’t willing to pay as much for [advertising through mobile phone platforms]

Realisation is dawning

Realisation is dawning that what is happening to Facebook is part of a wider economic shift.

“I keep saying Facebook isn’t the only one that has a mobile issue — Google does, too,” Colin Gillis, an analyst for Boston Consulting Group, told “I keep saying Facebook isn’t the only one that has a mobile issue — Google does, too. If you are an investor in Facebook, ‘mobile’ is priced into earnings. I don’t think mobile in Google is priced in.”

The deepening story

The deepening story this week brought news that a dispute in Brazil has resulted in Brazil’s National Association of Newspapers [ANJ] saying that all its 154 members are following its advice to ban Google News from accessing content free.

Since 2010, the ANJ had experimented with giving Google News free access to its first few lines of stories. Google had sold them the idea that the arrangement would grow traffic for the Brazilian sites. But it turned out that it has, if anything, reduced traffic.

If the ban continues, Brazilian Internet users will still be able to find content if they use Google rather than Google News in searches. But Google says newspapers and news aggregators should be able to reach a negotiated solution to the problem.

Charging the taxi driver

Google’s Public Policy Director, Marcel Leonardi, suggested that the ANJ’s demands are like charging a taxi-driver for taking tourists to eat at a particular restaurant. But Google says newspapers and news aggregators should be able to reach a negotiated solution to the problem.

Page remains upbeat

Unsurprisingly, Google co-founder Larry Page was more upbeat, telling investors [19th October, 2012] that the company was uniquely well-placed to exploit mobile phone technologies, which he saw as in a transitional stage leading to multiple screen usage.

Page was making his first public speaking appearance since June 2012, a silence which had begun to produce health rumours.

Google executive arrested in Brazil

In another story, a senior Google executive in Brazil was arrested [Sept 26th 2012] for failing to comply with a judicial order to take down You Tube materials ruled to be in violation of the country’s electoral law.


August 17 2018

The turbulent events covered in this post may (or may not) have contributed to the restructuring of Google into Alphabet

Anti-capitalist group Anonymous targets another Bank website

October 20, 2012

The Anonymous anti-capitalist group claims to be behind the recent disruption to the HSBC bank websites

On Thursday 18th October, another denial of service attack on a Bank’s website occurred. The group of computer activists known as Anonymous claimed responsibility. Anonymous appears to be loosely linked network of activists. This particular attack seems to be claimed by a UK-based part of the wider network, although the description as a ‘splinter group’ seems inappropriate.

Aggrieved activists

The Anonymous messages, partly via Twitter, appear to show that the activists are particularly aggrieved that the attack may may be claimed by other militant groups. This addresses the assumption that the attack was by Muslim hacktivists as part of campaign of denial of service attacks against US banks last month in protest against the controversial Innocence of Muslims video.

As some of you may be aware HSBC bank suffered several DDoS attacks on the named sites in the past hours they were all brought down by@FawkesSecurity. Before any claim fags attempt to take ownership of this attack, the proof is all in our Twitter account, Targets, time and date 🙂 @FawkesSecurity

We are Anonymous
We are legion
We do not forget
We do not forgive
Expect us

To be continued

Starbucks’ tax arrangements store up trouble for the brand

October 16, 2012

This week Starbucks was identified as a company that has used creative accounting to avoid paying any tax in the UK for three years, a period in which sales reached £1.2bn, and when its senior executives were on record as praising the UK financial performance

A special report by Reuters explains how the accounting scheme works:

We have identified three cunning, although legal, methods by which Starbucks has been able to avoid paying taxes to Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC), Britain’s tax authority. They involve payments between companies that fall under the greater Starbucks corporate group. By charging subsidiaries high-priced royalty fees on intellectual property, requiring chunks of funds be allocated to other subsidiaries in the supply chain, and shifting money to low-tax areas via inter-company loans, Starbucks has been able to essentially make its reported profits in the U.K. vanish into the foggy London air.

The practice of charging royalties on intellectual property is a method pioneered by tech companies like Google and Microsoft, and is used by Starbucks to drastically reduce the amount of taxable income it must report. Starbucks charges its international operations, including its U.K. unit, fees in order to use various elements of the corporation’s intellectual property, such as its brand and business processes.

Starbucks’ high ethical standards

LWD had been following Starbucks as an example of a company placing diversity at the heart of its corporate values. Its own website reads:

“Aside from extraordinary coffee, Starbucks has made a business out of human connections, community involvement and the celebration of cultures. We’re committed to upholding a culture where diversity is valued and respected. So it’s only natural that as a guiding principle, diversity is integral to everything we do.

Starbucks is dedicated to creating a workplace that values and respects people from diverse backgrounds, and enables its employees to do their best work. We honor the unique combination of talents, experiences and perspectives of each partner, making Starbucks success possible. As such we expect our partners to act with a spirit of kinship, tolerance and humanity toward all customers making our brand welcoming to everyone.”

The welcoming brand

Starbucks places ethical standards at the heart of its operations. It leaves it more vulnerable to damaging attacks on its integrity through stories of its global financial arrangements.

Felix Baumgartner gives Red Bull more wings

October 15, 2012

On 14th October 2012 a new global hero was acclaimed, as Austrian Felix Baumgartner stepped from a balloon-borne capsule 128,000-foot above the Earth’s surface

The feat which broke multiple world records was backed by Red Bull as the Red Bull Stratus project

The ultimate extreme sport spectacle

As Teressa Iezzi, editor of Co.Create put it:

“Red Bull’s idea of risk is that one of its sponsored athlete’s bodily fluids will turn into gas as he plummets 24 miles from space at 800+ miles per hour while his parents, girlfriend, and the rest of the world watch, live. With the Red Bull Stratos Project, the energy drink brand-turned-media company brought extreme sports spectacle to new heights and redefined the idea of content marketing, PR stunt, and brand utility”.

A fitting tribute

The story is a fitting tribute to Chaleo Yoovidhya the inventor of the Red Bull energy drink, who died in Bangkok at the age of 89 earlier this year. Nor is it unexpected that the Company which is headquartered in Austria was able to find an Austrian to play the starring role.

Yoovidhya came from poor origins in the northern province of Phichit, moving to Bangkok in search of work. Showing entrepreneurial flair, he was employed as a salesman before starting his own pharmaceuticals company drawning on Eastern and Western medical traditions.

One of his products was a tonic drink aimed at keeping factory workers and truck drivers awake through long shifts. It was called Krating Daeng, Thai for Red Bull and comprised a complex mix of sugars, vitamins, and health supplements.

In 1982, his business took off after an Austrian entrepreneur Dietrich Mateschitz discovered Krating Daeng on a sales trip he was making to Asia.

The Independent outlined the development of the Red Bull product

“According to the company’s website, Mateschitz tracked down Mr Yoovidhya, and the two men became business partners, setting up the Red Bull company to take the Thai drink to an international market. In 1987, Red Bull was launched in Austria. Twenty-five years on, it is sold in more than 79 countries”.

An international entrepreneur sees the potential for a product, and helps form a partnership. In Austria the potential was seen for developing the brand through Formula 1 racing, and now through the most outrageous of creative marketing projects.

Sir John Gurdon’s Nobel Prize and his No hope School report

October 12, 2012

When John Gurdon shared the 2012 Nobel Prize for medicine for work on stem cells, one much reported story was of a school report which rated him very unlikely to succeed as a scientist. It becomes the latest in a line of predictions of future failure including those for the young Churchill, Einstein, and Edison

In October 2012, the news broke that Sir John Gurdon was to share the 2012 Nobel Prize for medicine, for work on stem cells. One part of the story revealed that a school report had rated him very unlikely to succeed as a scientist. It becomes the latest in a line of predictions of future failure including those for the young Churchill, Einstein, and Edison.

The ridiculous idea

According to the report from Eton College, his biology teacher wrote:

“I believe he has ideas about becoming a scientist. On his present showing this is quite ridiculous; if he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part, and of those who have to teach him.”

Duffers who did well

An article in The Mail gave an excellent list of schoolboys and a few schoolgirls, mostly British, who were deemed duffers at School only to confound the expectations of their teachers. Among the names were Winston Churchill, Stephen Fry, Ian Fleming, John Lennon, and an excessive number of actors and actresses. In most cases the individuals were rebellious in the eyes of their teachers, although perhaps strong-minded might be another description of them.

What about Edison?

One name worth adding would have been that of Edison, who was sent home from school as someone who was inherently incapable of benefitting from education. The Independent compiled a similar list and mentioned Marcel Proust [“Pas intelligent” according to his Professor].

Discouragement or a valuable wake-up call?

The argument can be framed as one supporting the benefits of no-nonsense direct feedback. However, another perspective is that students of a strong enough self-image are able to achieve their potential despite ill-judged feedback.

A question of pedagogy

The Mail argued that there is too much euphemism and false positivity in feedback to school pupils. Perhaps a blunt ‘wake-up call’ had been good for the young Gurdon. It’s a popular and ancient argument still heard in discussions of leadership style. “Some people need an arm around their shoulders, others need a kick up the backside”. It’s a version of situational leadership.

Maybe the Mail has a point

Maybe the Mail has a point. Perhaps there has been a movement towards avoiding the more robust forms of direct feedback to students. However, there are a few nuances to consider.

Or maybe

There is also the possibility that such blanket assessments are hopelessly wrong. Teachers who dismiss some (many?) pupils as being inherently inferior and unlikely to amount to much, suffer from a blinkered view of potential. My suspicion is that wrongly diagnosed ‘failures’ such as Sir John survive such feedback , rather than succeed because of it.

The pupils who went on to achieve great things were those of strong self-image and less likely to be damaged by assessments which could be harmful to others of weaker ego strength.