My Conspiracy Theory Theory

X files the lone gunment

Frohike, Byers, and Langly are skeptical of this rant.

I grew up with some of the classics. Unique gems like aliens hidden at Area 51, dozens of variations on the JFK assassination (aliens did that too), faked moon landing, Watergate. Today it seems as everything in the news is automatically attributed to some kind of conspiracy.

Well, I have a theory about that.

For each additional person who knows the details of a particular conspiracy, the likelihood of it being successful and secret declines by 5%. As the odds approach zero, the plan is either revealed or falls apart.

Let me explain.

Any conspiracy, by definition, begins with at least two people. A one-person plot is in the realm of lone-wolf, evil genius territory, and talking to yourself (or the fourth wall) doesn’t apply.

Every time you add a co-conspirator, henchman, girl friend1, lacky, nerd hacker, or janitor to the mix, the chance of someone making a mistake or becoming a disgruntled whistleblower increases. If the plan is hot enough, the temptation of book deals and screenplays gradually appear in the distance.

So, if you assume the beginning odds of success for any conspiracy at close to 100%, it only takes the involvement of twenty people to drive the chances to zero. I figure most of these things probably start far below 100% and thus require far fewer people to fall apart.

And of course, every theory needs a corollary…

As the odds of a conspiracy in some way related to President Obama, Hillary Clinton, or the New York Times approaches zero, the chances that it will be adopted by a Fox “news” host, continuously flogged on air, and believed by their viewers approaches 100%.

Yes, the truth is out there. Just not on Fox.


Ultimate conspiracy theorists, The Lone Gunmen were one of the best parts of the X-Files. Sometimes their stories made a whole lot more sense than the main narrative.

1. I’m not being sexist. Conspiracies are almost always a guy thing. Most women I know are too smart to get involved in this crap.

Being Transparent About Being an “Ambassador”

Posters

Remember about five months ago when the ed community was all a twitter over a New York Times article about teachers with a side gig as “brand ambassadors” for edtech companies? It was good for a few weeks of tweets and posts discussing the ethical issues around these “teacher influencers”.

And then what happened to all that outrage and introspection?

I ask because we’ve just been through a burst of big edtech conferences in the UK, Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania, another is coming up in California next month, and ISTE, the largest US event, is not too long from now in June. All of them feature big vendor floors and many sessions showing off the hot, new shiny tech stuff.

Has there been any change in the number of educators using their credibility to market these products and services since that burst of interest?

Just based on my Twitter feed, I doubt the number has declined. So instead, a better question would be, are these educators, the companies they work for, and the organizations running the events being any more transparent about the relationships?

Out in the real world, governments and journalists are taking a closer look at “social media influencers” and their relationship with the companies whose products they endorse. No surprise, they’re discovering that it’s no accident that some celebrity is a big fan of a new health product, restaurant, or vacation spot.

The Federal Trade Commission has published a set of basic guidelines for both companies and the influencers, recommending not only that “endorsements must be honest and not misleading” but that any connection between the endorser and the company be made clear.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with getting paid for an endorsement. That’s why big name movie stars are paid big bucks to appear in advertising. But on Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, you rarely, if ever, get the text required for television and print stating that they are a “paid endorser”.

In the edtech world, any relationship between a well-known educator raving about a new app or web service in a conference presentation, tweet, or Facebook post and the owners is often even less obvious. Are the teachers featuring this product in their session here because the company covered their travel expenses? Is the person who just did their three minutes at a demo slam being compensated for it?

Educators acting as brand ambassadors should read those FTC guidelines and take steps to be far more transparent about their endorsements. Their social media profiles should make clear if they are being compensated, including receiving free products, for promoting it to their network.

Anytime they post something as part of that ambassador role, it should be clearly labelled. If they present at a conference as part of an agreement with an edtech company, that arrangement should also be made clear, both in the conference program and during the presentation.

It’s also important that these relationships are disclosed to the school or organization that employs them, as well as their co-workers. They also need to be honest about why they are selecting particular tech tools for their students to use. And that decision must be based on a clear educational need.

Despite a lull in the discussion, I doubt that this issue is going away. And I really don’t object to teachers who want to moonlight selling edtech products. As long as everyone is transparent about how and when that is happening.


The picture is of the poster area at an ISTE conference. Even in these informal sessions, I sometimes wonder about potential “brand ambassador” relationships.

Edit Your Photos. Please.

The video embedded above may not appeal to everyone but it could be interesting for anyone who takes a lot of photographs. It’s a short (6-1/2 minutes) testimony to the relationship between National Geographic photographers and their editors, and offers some insight into the editing process at a professional level.

I’ve had a number of opportunities in recent years to participate in workshops and other sessions led by professional photographers, including some from Nat Geo. The editing process is one important topic that always comes up and, it turns out, the photographer does very little of that editing by themselves. That’s why they have editors. 

However, those professionals use the term “editing” very differently than most regular picture takers.1 For them, editing photos is about cropping the image, maybe applying a filter or two, changing the brightness. Or just clicking the Auto button to see if the software can improve things. Professionals refer to those changes as “processing” the images.

For professional photographers and their editors, editing is the process of reviewing a relatively huge number of photos and selecting the relatively few that will be used in a project. At Nat Geo that can mean taking 40,000 images (or more) and finding fifteen or so that will best enhance the story.

I can’t imagine that job. It’s hard enough when I come back from a trip with 800 photos and have to pare them down to a collection that my friends and family will actually want to view. Part of my editing also involves writing a title (instead of IMG-1171), a short description, and adding a few keywords for each image I post online to Flickr and/or my SmugMug sites.

I also love viewing photos taken by others but I really wish more of them would do a better job of editing of their pictures. Too many people simply post almost everything they take to their social media channels with little or no culling of the lesser images. As a result, the narrative in those pictures can get lost.

Spend some extra time on editing those photos and they will tell a better story. Thank you.


1. I mean absolutely nothing negative in that phrase. I’m also a “regular picture taker” who is working to improve my skills and I love helping others do the same.

A Modest Cure For The Overload of What Looks Like Information

I have a confession to make. I have not watched television news for more than a year. Not the so-called cable news stations, not regular network programs (morning or night), and not the local broadcasts.

Not only do I feel better, I think I’m also better informed than the people who binge on that stuff. Certainly better than anyone who watches Fox “news”.

It started just before the 2016 election when I took off for a week in Cuba that just happened to include election day. After learning of the results (the family we were staying with was very sympathetic), I decided I needed a new media diet, one that actually contained useful information, instead of hour after hour of “analysts” with little information and grids full of screaming heads.

My information stream may not work for you but it might give you some ideas on how to craft your own break from TV.

I start with suggested content from a few curated sources. Curation is that thing editors of television news, newspapers, and magazines used to do when they had 24 hours or more to consider events and decide which ones were worth including in their limited space. They didn’t always get it right, but trying to find instant value as you watch the stream is even worse.

My current favorite curators include Next Draft (by one person Dave Pell) and Quartz’ Daily Brief. Every weekday, both deliver a short collection of links to the stories they consider most important, along with some interesting stuff of less import. Plus very brief and sometimes humorous commentary.

I also receive a few weekly collections. From writer and edtech critic Audrey Watters (for a jolt of reality and much to consider), writer and artist Austin Kleon (for some inspiration), and UK-based educator Doug Belshaw (for education-related ideas).

None of these sources takes long to scan through, and I certainly don’t read the stories at the end of every single link. Very often the commentary is enough to get a general idea, especially when it comes to political news.

The articles and posts I do want to read usually get sent to Instapaper, an incredible service that aggregates anything I send to it and then delivers the information in a simplified format (re: no ads!) on any device I happen to be holding when time allows for some reading. It also offers some good highlighting and note taking features for when I want to rant about something in this space.

So, there it is. My simple, curated flow that takes less time and delivers more information than whatever passes for news on television. Chances are, if there is something worth viewing, one of these sources will link to the video anyway.

And what, you say, about “breaking news”?

I maintain that there’s no such thing. Most of what is given that label by the news channels is not of immediate importance and they often have very incomplete (often incorrect) details on what happened anyway. They offer even less on why it’s important. Besides, my Twitter feed will tell me if something big has happened in the world, and I can then choose to follow one of the tweeted links. More curation.

Anyway, that’s my system of keeping up with the news. As I said, it may not work for you. However, I would argue that most people would be far better informed with a buffer of time and thought between the actual event and the report of it. And a few good curators.


The graphic is by Jessica Hagy who has been posting these wonderfully insightful charts every weekday morning at her site This is Indexed for more than decade.

The Surveillance Classroom

During the 2016 holiday season, Amazon’s Alexa devices were huge sellers. Google was second in the category with Home. Apple just started shipping their Siri-enabled Homepod and they will probably sell a bunch of them.

So now tens of millions of homes have always-listening internet-connected microphones listening to every sound, and more are coming. This despite the many cautions from privacy experts about allowing large corporations to have access to a new continuous stream of auditory data. 

But who cares if the artificially intelligent software powering these devices is buggy? Does it matter that Amazon, Google, and Apple are vague about how they are using that information and who has access to it? Let’s bring these boxes into the classroom!

Michael Horn, co-author of Disrupting Class, the hot education-change book from a decade ago, says Alexa and her friends is “the next technology that could disrupt the classroom”.

It’s not entirely clear why Horn believes a “voice-activated” classroom would improve student learning. Other than that the superintendent he has interviewed is concerned that kids “will come in and will be used to voice-activated environments and technology-based learning programs”.

That’s nothing new. For a few decades (at least) we have been throwing technology into the classroom based on the premise that kids have the stuff at home. That approach hasn’t been especially successful, and Alexa is not likely to change that.

But these days, a major reason for using many, if not most, new classroom technologies is collecting and analyzing data.

These devices could also send teachers real-time data to help them know where and how they should intervene with individual students. Eastwood imagines that over time these technologies would also know the different students based on their reading levels, numeracy, background knowledge, and other areas, such that it could provide access to the appropriate OER content to support that specific child in continuing her learning.

Maybe I’m wrong but I think it’s better to have a teacher or other adult listening to kids.

Anyway, Horn presents a lot of questions about the use of Alexa and her peers in the classroom but his last one is probably the most salient: “What is the best use of big data and artificial intelligence in education?” Before ending, he also very briefly touches on the security of that data – “And there are bound to be privacy concerns.”. As I said, briefly.

But the bottom line to all this is whether we want Amazon, Google, or Apple surveillance devices collecting data on everything that happens in the classroom. Horn seems to think the technology could be disruptive. It sounds creepy and rather invasive to me.


The image is from an article about a contest Amazon is running for developers, with cash prizes for the best Alexa apps that are “educational, fun, engaging or all of the above for kids under the age of 13”.