Andy, Are You Goofing on Apple?

andyk.jpgFake Steve Jobs, a wildly popular blog written by Daniel Lyons, an editor at Forbes, has been goofing on the real Steve Jobs all year. And now things have taken an odd turn. During the same week that Apple apparently shut down ThinkSecret.com (an Apple rumor site) in exchange for cash, Apple may be applying similar pressure to Fake Steve Jobs. Or maybe not.

If today’s blog post can be taken at face value, Apple lawyers have followed up hard-assed threats with a cash offer (of $500,000) to make FSJ go away. The recent posts all sound convincing. But then you note the references to Andy Kaufman, the master of walking the line between complete sincerity and absurdity. First, there’s the picture of Kaufman getting strong armed during one of his famous wrestling matches with women. Next, there’s the reference to a “Tony Clifton,” which is the name given to a strange bit character Kaufman played during the 1970s (see below).

FSJ is a satire site, and you shouldn’t get fooled. But you do. Just like the inevitable dupe does every April 1. Good stuff.

Ten Discoveries That Rewrote History

tendiscoveries.jpgHere are a few facts to know about the adventurous Patrick Hunt. He’s a Stanford archaeologist who has spent more than a decade trying to unravel the mystery of how Hannibal, the great ancient military leader, crossed the Alps in 218 BCE with 25,000 men and 37 elephants. (Listen on iTunes to the course he gave on this adventure, and get more info below). He has broken more than 20 bones while doing fieldwork, fought off kidnappers, and twice survived sunstroke-induced blindness. And now he has just published an exciting new book called Ten Discoveries That Rewrote History. It’s published by Penguin/Plume and starts shipping tomorrow. I asked Patrick what makes these discoveries ranging from the Rosetta Stone to the Dead Sea Scrolls to Machu Picchu so important. Below he gives us a brief glimpse into what makes each discovery historically significant and fascinating. Read on, and check out his captivating new book for the fuller picture.

Patrick Hunt: “First I should say that not every archaeologist would agree that these are the ten most important discoveries of all time. On the other hand, the ten stories retold in this book are often regarded as among the most exciting archaeological discoveries of the modern era (since 1750). And no one would deny that these ten vital discoveries have forever changed the world of archaeology, transforming how and what we know about ancient history. Let me tell you a little about them.

1) Rosetta Stone: This exciting discovery in 1799 was the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs and unlocking the history of the ancient world texts. It provides a window into the real history of Egypt rather than an imaginary one; all other decipherings of ancient languages since the Rosetta Stone’s initial decoding in 1822 are based on its precedents. (See photo here.)

2) Troy: Its discovery and excavation beginning in 1870 proved once and for all that Troy was not just a myth based on Homer; Troy was a historical site where real people lived and fought. Its earliest excavator, the oft-maligned and often-unethical Heinrich Schliemann has been mostly credited right or wrong as being the “Father of Archaeology” and his techniques became the foundation of archaeological research, however greatly improved, afterward.

3) Nineveh and the Royal Assyrian Library: This riveting find beginning in 1849 by Austen Henry Layard, a sleuth of antiquity, eventually unearthed a whole lost library of cuneiform texts, including ones not only from ancient Assyria but also from far older Sumer, Akkad, Babylon and other great civilizations. This had a very significant impact on world literature, introducing such seminal works as the Epic of Gilgamesh.

4) King Tut’s Tomb: The dramatic opening of this royal tomb in 1922 sought for years by a determined Howard Carter was the first time in millennia a pharaoh’s tomb had actually been found intact; its treasure gave the world a unique opportunity to actually account for staggering Egyptian royal wealth. [Dan’s note: National Geographic has a nice web site on this archaeological find.]

5) Machu Picchu: The remarkable high jungle mountain discovery in 1911 of the remote Lost City of the Inca by Hiram Bingham made it possible for the world to finally see an undisturbed Inca royal city mysteriously abandoned on a mountaintop but neither conquered nor changed by the colonial world. (See photo here.)

6) Pompeii: Preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 and not dug out for almost two millennia, Pompeii (probably accidentally found by a farmer digging a well) is the single most important Roman site in the world; its artifacts offer the largest and fullest record of life in a Roman city. Pompeii’s misfortune is our great fortune. It preserves a city with thousands of objects virtually unchanged. (See images here.)

(more…)

The Final Cut of Blade Runner: Now Out on DVD

Back in October, Ridley Scott released a final and definitive director’s cut of Blade Runner, presenting to audiences the film that he would have made if studio execs hadn’t meddled with things. A short two months later, the final cut is now out on DVD. It was released yesterday, barely in time for the holidays. For more on the making and remaking of Blade Runner, you can listen to this recent interview with Ridley Scott.

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University Podcasts Turn Professors into Stars

The New York Times has a nice piece today on university podcasts and how they’re turning some professors into international stars. The article gives special attention to Walter Lewin, an MIT physics professor, and highlights courses that you’ll find in our listing of free university courses. Just as an aside, the article mentions at least one course that yours truly helped put together.

You can access complete university courses via podcast here. If you want a more comprehensive list of university podcasts (which will give you access to many lectures, but not necessarily complete courses), click here.

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15 Most Viewed Posts in 2007

We dug back through the historical data and isolated the 15 most viewed posts of the year. If you’re looking for a trend, one will leap out. People like numbered lists. Hence another one:

1) 10 Unexpected Uses of the iPod
2) 25 UC Berkeley Courses Available via Free Video
3) 45 Free Cutting-Edge Books … Courtesy of Creative Commons
4) The War of the Worlds on Podcast: How H.G. Wells and Orson Welles Riveted A Nation
5) Our Ancestral Mind in the Modern World: An Interview with Satoshi Kanazawa
6) Free Beethoven and Mozart Recordings via Podcast
7) Life-Changing Books: Your Picks
8) 10 Free University Courses on iTunes
9) Podcast Primer
10) MP3 Music Blogs: For Your Listening Pleasure
11) Ten Discoveries That Rewrote History
12) The Hottest Course on iTunes (and the Future of Digital Education)
13) Ten Podcasts to Build Your Vocabulary
14) YouTube Gets Smart: The Launch of New University Channels
15) The Decline and Fall of the Roman (and American?) Empire: A Free Audiobook

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Yale Launches Open Courses

Click here for 250 Free Online Courses From Great Universities

Yesterday, Yale announced that it is providing “free and open access to seven introductory courses taught by distinguished teachers and scholars at Yale University.” I’ve listed the course lineup below, with links to each course. You can access the homepage for the project here.

With this launch, Yale becomes the latest prestigious American university to give global users access to online educational content. But its approach is rather different. The high profile initiatives led by MIT and UC Berkeley both deliver high volumes of content, and they’re designed to be scalable. (MIT gives users access to mass quantities of course materials created by its faculty, while Berkeley distributes through iTunes and YouTube over 50 courses that the university records at a reasonable cost.) In contrast, Yale’s project is more boutique and high-touch.

Each course features a syllabus, reading assignments, class notes, and polished lectures, which, when taken together, contribute to a more rounded learning experience. The lectures can be downloaded in one of five formats (text, audio, flash video, low bandwidth quicktime video, and high bandwidth quicktime video). And quite notably, Yale has designed the courses to be downloaded fairly easily, which means that you can put the lectures onto an mp3 player if you’re a little tech savvy. This does raise the question, however: why aren’t the lectures also posted on Yale’s iTunes site? This would surely facilitate the downloading of lectures for many users, and it would offer an easy way to drive substantial traffic to the courses.

As some have already noted (see the comments on this page), Yale isn’t offering online courses in the truest sense, meaning you won’t get access to a live instructor here. Nor will you be able to interact with other students. It’s a one-way, solitary educational experience. But there’s a reason for that. Not long ago, Yale experimented with a more comprehensive form of online learning when it created, along with Stanford and Oxford, an e-learning consortium called “The Alliance for Lifelong Learning” (a/k/a AllLearn). For many reasons, the venture (where I spent five years) wasn’t ultimatley viable. And so Yale has opted for another model that has its own virtues — it’s less capital intensive; it’s free (AllLearn charged for its courses); and it will get educational materials into far more people’s hands, which is perhaps what matters most.

As a quick note, let me add that this project was funded by the Hewlett Foundation, and Yale expects to add up to 30 additional courses over the next several years.

To visit Yale’s open courses, visit the following links:

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Betting Against Google’s Answer to Wikipedia

As many now know, Google announced Friday that it’s testing a new content initiative — dubbed “knol” — that it hopes will rival Wikipedia. Realizing that Wikipedia entries rank first on 27% of all Google search result pages, the folks at Googleplex couldn’t resist launching a competitive product. In announcing “knol,” the company highlighted two problems that this new content product will address:

1) “There are millions of people who possess useful knowledge that they would love to share,” but they don’t share that knowledge “because it is not easy enough to do that.”

2) “The key idea behind the knol project is to highlight authors. Books have authors’ names right on the cover, news articles have bylines, scientific articles always have authors — but somehow the web evolved without a strong standard to keep authors names highlighted. We believe that knowing who wrote what will significantly help users make better use of web content.”

How “knol” attempts to solve these problems is fairly straightforward. It will provide experts with user-friendly templates for writing and publishing encyclopedia entries (or “knols”) on the web. And since a picture is apparently worth a thousand words, I recommend that you take a look at a sample screenshot here. Departing from Wikipedia, Google’s project will cater to the individual author, not communities of authors. And it will encourage many encyclopedia entries on the same topic, as opposed to one unified text. Google then assumes that the cream will rise to the top. If 20 people craft “knols” on “string theory,” then the best one — presumably the one that gets the most links from quality sites — will rise highest in the search rankings.

Google’s concept is not altogether bad. But it’s also one of the more ordinary ideas to come out of Mountain View, and I’m guessing that the results will fall short of corporate expectations. Here’s why:

Most fundamentally, the information generated by these “knols” will be substandard compared to what you’ll find on Wikipedia. Although the screenshot provided by Google nicely featured a Stanford University scholar writing on “Insomnia,” the reality is that few experts of this stature will take the time to contribute. Take my word for it. I’ve spent the past five years trying to get scholars from elite universities, including Stanford, to bring their ideas to the outside world, and it’s often not their first priority. They just have too many other things competing for their time. More often than not, Google’s knols will be written by authors with lesser, if not dubious, credentials. The mediocre entries will be many; the great ones, few. And this will leave Google’s content in a weaker position relative to Wikipedia.

To be clear, Wikipedia’s overall talent pool may not be much better. But Wikipedia’s model has an important built-in advantage. A community of writers focusing on the same text will correct one another and improve the overall product over time. The final text becomes greater than the sum of its authors. Meanwhile, Google’s model, which will produce a proliferation of lackluster entries on the same subject, doesn’t include any kind of strong self-correcting mechanism that will improve the entries. The company seems to think that user feedback, name recognition, and a share of ad revenue (which probably won’t amount to much) will do the trick. But that seems like wishful thinking, and I’m basing that on several years of working at About.com, which integrated many of the same elements into its model. Strike one against Google.

If you’re looking for Strikes 2 and 3, let me outline them briefly.

Strike 2 comes down to false premises: When you step back and examine Google’s reasons for creating project “knol,” they don’t hold up to scrutiny. These days, publishing on the web is fairly dummy proof. Free blogging software, Google Page Creator, Yahoo’s Geocities and Wikipedia — these tools have made it incredibly easy to publish to the web. (Somehow, writers have figured out how to post 2,125,453 articles to Wikipedia.) The argument that technology is holding back would-be encyclopedia writers just doesn’t fly. Nor does the notion that we’d get better quality encyclopedia entries if only authors could attach their names to what they write. On the one hand, anonymity hasn’t slowed down Wikipedia at all. On the other, many legitimate experts will see writing “knols” as being a slight step above “vanity” publishing, but not much more. In short, not a good use of their time.

Strike 3 turns on momentum and the lack of game-changing functionality: Not long after YouTube launched and proved the viability of video sharing, Google created its own competitive unit, Google Video. By the next year, Google realized it would never catch up and bought YouTube for $1.65 billion. Wikipedia, in comparison, has had a much longer head start. For six years, it has been refining its model, growing traffic, and gaining user loyalty. That’s a substantial and most likely insurmountable lead. True, once upon a time a young Google came out of nowhere and knocked an established Yahoo out of its leadership role. But that happened when Google brought its game-changing search technology to market. With “knol,” however, there’s no such game-changing technology on display — nothing that substantially changes how knowledge gets created. Google and its engineers certainly excel at managing knowledge and produce many great products (for which I’m personally thankful). But getting into the knowledge creation business may pose new challenges, ones that will require the Google staff to go beyond algorithms and thinking in terms of 0s and 1s.

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Even Ahmadinejad Blogs

Here it is in English. His Christmas wish is charming.

Rumor is that Mahmoud is busy setting up a Facebook page. Stay tuned for it, and be sure to give him a nice little poke.

Full Story here.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.