All entries for Monday 24 October 2005

October 24, 2005

Pedestrian crossing conundrum

Every day on the way to work, I cross two pedestrian crossings, one on the Kenilworth Road, and one (well, two) across the A45. The time it takes for them to change the lights for the cars is variable; mostly it's around a minute, but sometimes it's about 15 seconds, and just very occasionally, it's immediate – pushing the button changes the light to amber straight away.

Since I have no choice but to wait a while, I find myself wondering how the crossing decides how long to detain me. I can think of a few possibilities:-

  1. It knows what time of day it is and makes me wait longer when it's rush hour.
  2. It knows, somehow, what the actual volume of cars on the road around the crossing is right now and makes me wait longer when the volume is larger.
  3. It knows how long it is since the last pedestrian used the crossing and makes me wait longer if it's been used recently.
  4. It knows what the traffic lights further up and down the road are doing and makes me wait whatever time works best for it to be in useful sync with its brethren traffic lights.
  5. It contains a random number generator.

Does anyone know how the decision is actually made?

iTunes at Stanford

Writing about web page

Stanford University has done a deal with Apple to host a collection of audio files at the Apple iTunes store. Here's what the Stanford home page looks like in iTunes:-

You can look for yourself if you have iTunes installed by following this link. It's not entirely surprising that Stanford would be doing this, since they're located close to Apple headquarters, and historically they have worked with Apple on other projects. And in fact, they're not the only, or even the first, university to do this; Apple mentions Duke and Brown universities as other institutions which are distributing content via the iTunes store. And quite a few individual academics have created podcasts and distributed them via the iTunes store (try going to the Podcasts page of the store and then searching for "university").

So what kind of content are Stanford distributing? Here's a screen-grab of the lectures that are currently available:-

It's a mixed bag, but there's some reasonably heavyweight stuff in there as well as some more general-interest oriented content. So why would Stanford – or any HE institution – want to distribute content in this way? I think there are pros and cons:-

  • At the moment, they're clearly trying to reach not just current students, but alumni and anyone with an interest in the institution. But it would be perfectly possible to deliver content which is restricted to a smaller audience such as current students or just students taking a particular module.
  • Right now it's just audio. But as iPod screens get bgger and better, I bet that future iterations will include images such as PowerPoint slides or photos, or even video.
  • But isn't it a bit risky to distribute on such a locked-down platform? The iTunes store only works if you use the iTunes client and the client in turn only syncs with an iPod. So these aren't podcasts which just anyone can use; only iTunes using, iPod owning students can play. Bought a Sony MP3 player? Tough.
  • Set against that, though, is the beautiful end-to-end experience that using the iTunes store gets you; students will be able to subscribe to series of podcasts (eg. all the lectures in a course) and whenever iTunes starts up it'll go and look for new episodes and download them automatically, and when they plug their iPod in, the content will immediately be synced.
  • Plus they'll get the benefits of Apple's very well-distributed network to serve their content; Apple use Akamai to make sure that iTunes content is replicated at lots of servers around the world, so Stanford's content will presumably be similarly replicated.
  • It's not clear to me whether the content that's being created is being recorded specifically for distribution in this way, or whether they're just recording ordinary lectures and other teaching events. If it's the latter, then I wonder whether the absence of the blackboard or the OHP or the PowerPoint will matter. If it's the former then I wonder how easy it will be in the long term to keep academics enthusiastic about this additional task of creating iTunes content.

So I'm not sure whether it's a smart choice or not. The same content could have been delivered as podcasts from Stanford's own servers almost as easily, and then there wouldn't be this iTunes/iPod lock-in. But they've had some good press about the deal; more than any of the many institutions who make audio files of lectures available for download in the boring old-fashioned way. The test, I guess, will be in a year or so, if they're still going strong and have grown the library as much as they currently say they plan to.

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