Wednesday, October 07, 2009

From the Reading File

Some encouraging news—and some discouraging news—in this week’s news clippings.

First—the good news:

  • In Soon, Bloggers Must Give Full Disclosure, published in the New York Times, October 5, 2009, Tim Arango reports that the US Federal Trade Commission will start to require that bloggers who receive free samples and other consideration from companies when blogging about a product will be required to disclose this relationship. This provides readers with an important piece of information in determining the extent to which the blog entry is credible. In the research community, having a stake in the outcome is considered to be an important source of bias. In legal circles, it’s called a conflict of interest, a concept that Howard Levitt, writing in the October 7, 2009 Financial Post calls “infidelity,” because it suggests a dual loyalty. Read about the new regulation at

  • In Rethinking the Shape of Everyday Life published in the New York Times, October 4, 2009, Alice Rawsthorn explains how the hardware and software of information and communications technology have revolutionized everyday products like the telephone in the past few decades, and suggests five areas for similar revolution in the coming years: autos, lighting, street furniture, e-readers for books, magazines, and newspapers, and even computers. Read all about it at

Now, for the discouraging news:

  • Although new FTC regulations will help consumers better decide the credibility of blogs about products by requiring that authors disclose their relationships with suppliers if such relationships exist, consumers in other areas still need more protection. One area is prepaid debit cards. These cards perform an important services, as they provide people who would otherwise have no access to such cards (or credit cards) with the service. But these people often pay excessive fees for these cards—and the fees are not clearly disclosed to them. Read about the problem in Prepaid, but Not Prepared for Debit Card Fees, available at the New York Times online at
  • Similarly disturbing was an article on page FP12 of the October 7, 2009 National Post. On the surface, the article had encouraging news—hiring in information technology fields is growing now, even as other fields continue to shed jobs. But hidden in this good news article was a piece of disappointing news; the article lists a number of specific IT jobs and their salaries. Technical writing was listed—but it’s the lowest paid on the list (and there were 27 jobs on the list). And it’s not just that the jobs were the lowest paid—the next lowest job paid 14 percent more. That may result from the fact that, in Canada, most IT jobs require a bachelor’s degree and most technical writing credentials in Canada come from community colleges, who only offer associate’s degrees. But given some of the employment issues with technical writers in the US, I have a feeling that the low salaries might result from a more serious issue about the perception of—and presumed skill base of—technical writers. The related article is available online at But the list of jobs and salaries is only available in the print edition.

  • • If I thought that my job as a tenured university professor was safe, the article, College for $99 a Month, Kevin Carey’s recent piece for Washington Monthly, suggests otherwise. He describes a StraighterLine, a relatively new online learning service that intends to provide online versions of large section undergraduate classes . So why should I worry about that? I primarily teach graduate-level courses. Carey explains how these large section courses are the cash cows of universities, subsidizing other courses. And although accreditation problems will limit the impact of this service for now, when those accreditation problems are resolved (and Carey asserts that they will be solved and I tend to believe him), the effects on academia could be as devastating as the current defection of news readers from paper to the Internet has been for newspapers. He also suggests that university indifference to poor teaching quality in these economically vital courses will only make the StraighterLine more attractive when accreditation makes it a viable replacement for classroom instruction. Read the entire essay at

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