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Book Review: MOOCs, by Jonathan Haber

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Title: MOOCs

Author: Jonathan Haber

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-0-262-52691-3

Length: 227

Price: $13.95

Rating: 90%

I purchased a copy of this book for personal use.

MOOCs, or massive open online courses, offer free classes to anyone with internet access and a willingness to learn. As author Jonathan Haber notes in his recent MIT Press book MOOCs, this educational innovation is working its way through the hype cycle. First touted as an existential threat to traditional “sage on the stage” lecture-based learning, the media has inevitably turned to highlighting the platform’s flaws. How MOOCs evolve from their freemium model remains to be seen.

Haber is an independent writer and researcher who focuses on education technology. This book is based in part on his attempt to re-create a philosophy undergraduate degree by taking free online courses and, where necessary, reading free online textbooks. In MOOCs, Haber captures the essence of the courses, both through his personal experience as well as his encapsulation of the history, current practice, and impact of MOOCs in the social, educational, and corporate realms.

MOOCs as a Learning Environment

The allure of MOOCs centers around their ability to share knowledge with students who might not be able to attend MIT, Georgetown, Stanford, the University of Edinburgh, or other leading institutions. Students can watch videos on their own schedule and, if they’re not concerned about receiving a Statement of Accomplishment or similar recognition, they don’t have to turn in homework or take quizzes on time or at all.

Most videos are 5-10 minutes in length, though some courses that present complex content can have videos that stretch to as long as 45 minutes. Production values range from a professor sitting in their office and facing a camera (often with PowerPoint slides displayed at least part of the time the professor speaks) to videos including animations and location shots that take significant time and budget to produce.

MOOCs offer three general grading policies: quizzes and tests with multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank questions, computer programs submitted to an automated grader (very common in machine learning courses), and peer grading. There’s no possible way for professors to grade essays or computer programs from thousands of students, so they have to rely on objective mechanisms and peer grading to carry the load. Objective tests are acceptable, but many students dislike peer review even in cases where it’s clearly necessary.

Institutions sponsoring MOOCs go to great length to distinguish students who complete a MOOC from their traditional students. Certificates or Statements of Achievement stress that the holder is not a Wharton/Stanford/MIT student and that the certificate conveys no rights to claim such status. Most MOOCs also use much looser grading standards than traditional courses. For example, students are often allowed multiple attempts at homework or exams and the total grade required to pass a MOOC is often in the 60-70% range. These relaxed requirements make certificates easier to earn and probably increase retention, but the end result is a much less rigorous test of student ability.

Controversies

As with any disruptive technology, MOOCs have generated controversy. The first question is whether, despite their huge enrollments (some courses have more than 100,000 students registered), the courses’ equally huge drop-out rates. As an example, consider the following statistics from the September 5, 2014 session of the Wharton School’s course An Introduction to Financial Accounting, created and taught by Professor Brian Bushee (which I passed, though without distinction):

Number of students enrolled: 111,925

Number of students visiting course: 74,599

Number of students watching at least one lecture: 61,130

Number of students submitting at least one homework: 25,078

Number of students posting on a forum: 3,497

Number of signature track signups: 3,953

Number of students receiving a Statement of Accomplishment: 7,689

Number of students receiving a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction: 2,788 (included in total receiving SoA)

The ratios that stand out are that only 54.6% of enrolled students watched at least one lecture, 22.4% submitted at least one homework, and 6.87% of students earned a Statement of Accomplishment. That pass rate is fairly typical for these courses. While the percentage seems miniscule, another MOOC professor noted that, even with just 5,000 or so students passing his online course, his 10-week MOOC cohort represented more students than had passed through his classroom in his entire career.

Another concern is who benefits from MOOCs. Students require internet access to view course movies, at least in a way that can be counted by the provider, so there is a significant barrier to entry. Surveys show that the majority of MOOC students are university educated, but there are still large groups from outside the traditional “rich, Western, educated” profile. So, while many students appear to come from richer, Western countries, the courses do overcome barriers to entry.

Finally, MOOCs raise the possibility that courses from “rock star” professors could replace similar offerings taught by professors at other schools. For example, San Jose State University licensed content from a popular Harvard political philosophy course taught on edX with the intention that their own professors would teach to the acquired outline, not their own. The philosophy faculty refused to use the content and wrote an open letter to the Harvard professor complaining about the practice. A similar circumstance led Princeton professor Mitchell Duneier, who created and taught the vastly popular Sociology course offered by Coursera, to decline permission to run his course a second time. Coursera wanted to license his content for sale to other universities, which could save money by mixing video and in-person instruction. Duneier saw this action as a potential excuse to cut states’ higher education funding and pulled his course.

Conclusions

Haber closes the book with a discussion of whether or not he achieved his goal of completing the equivalent of a four-year philosophy degree in one year using MOOCs and other free resources. He argues both for and against the claim (demonstrating a fundamental grasp of sound argumentation, at the very least) and describes his capstone experience: a visit to a philosophy conference. His test was whether he could understand and participate meaningfully in sessions and discussions. I’ll leave his conclusions for you to discover in the book.

I found MOOCs to be an interesting read and a useful summary of the developments surrounding this learning platform. That said, I thought the book could have been pared down a bit. Some of the discussions seemed less concise than they might have been and cutting about 20 pages would have brought the book in line with other entries in the Essential Knowledge series. It’s hard to know what to trim away, though, and 199 small-format pages of main text isn’t much of a burden for an interested reader.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Microsoft and Minecraft

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It appears likely that Microsoft will announce it has finalized a deal to acquire Mojang, the Swedish company that created Minecraft. I think it’s a great idea.

Minecraft is huge–players of all ages build creations that demonstrate their creativity and test the limits of the platform. Business analysts have asked why Microsoft would want to buy Mojang. The game is available on the PC but not Windows Phone because of the latter’s 2.5% market share, but it doesn’t seem likely that a single game, even a tremendous hit, would bring $2.5 billion in added revenue to Microsoft.

It’s true that Minecraft won’t make Microsoft a mobile front-runner, but Mojang’s insights into the Minecraft community’s wants, needs, and emergent behavior could be worth much more than the hefty purchase price. Microsoft has made strides toward listening to and acting on user input, such as by altering Windows 8.1 and, if leaked screen shots are to be believed, Windows 9/Threshold to be more in line with user preferences. Bringing in the Mojang team could provide similar insights to teams across Microsoft, allowing the folks in Redmond to incorporate what they learn into future products and giving them a fighting chance of thriving in the mobile world.

Book Review: Cataloging the World

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Title: Cataloging the World

Author: Alex Wright

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-0-199-93141-5

Length: 360

Price: $27.95

Rating: 93%

 

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

I don’t normally read biographies. Books about the dead are often unnecessarily complimentary or disparaging, while stories about the living (especially individuals under 40) suffer from the same flaw and have to fill pages with irrelevant details and repetition. What’s worse, I find personalities to be the least interesting part of technological development.

I don’t care for a dry recounting of events, either, so it’s refreshing to find a biography that melds personalities, conflict, and interesting technology into a compelling story. Alex Wright’s book Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age, does just that.

Library Science and Beyond

I’d never heard of Paul Otlet, but friends who studied library science at the undergraduate and graduate level were familiar with his work. Born in 1868 in the French-influenced part of Belgium, Otlet was educated outside of the traditional school system. His father was a successful businessman, so Otlet and his brother traveled with him and attended lectures and received private tutoring as their father’s travels allowed.

Intellectually advanced but socially unskilled, Otlet suffered when he attended a traditional school starting at age 14. Perhaps taking pity on him, a priest who taught at the school asked Otlet to help in the library, filling student book requests two days a week and reading the rest of the time. The assignment fit the young student’s temperament perfectly and perhaps pushed him onto the path of attempting to coalesce the world’s knowledge into a single, searchable system.

The Mundaneum

Otlet is best known for his struggle to implement his vision for a universal knowledge classification and dissemination system, which after early work in the area was embodied by The Mundaneum. The Mundaneum, a collection of facts gathered from printed literature by volunteers around the world, was intended as a repository that individuals could query to get information they needed for research or on subjects they wished to learn more about. Using individual contributors in what would now be called crowdsourcing occurred in other major projects, such as the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Mundaneum and related efforts to classify information reflected Otlet’s utopian internationalist ideals, which led him to argue that making the world’s information readily available to anyone would lead to world peace. Such idealism, when combined with the struggle to secure public and private support for such a large endeavor, made it a natural base for Wright’s narrative.

The last two chapters of Cataloging the World describe how Otlet’s work at organizing, linking, and sharing information presaged hypertext and the World Wide Web. Many concepts I attributed to Vennevar Bush’s Memex information linking and retrieval system were, in fact, created by or known to Otlet. Wright also points out that Bush was “notoriously stingy” in giving credit to his sources of inspiration.

Conclusions

Cataloging the World brings the work of Paul Otlet from the specialized literature of library scientists to the general public. I enjoyed Wright’s work immensely and am glad he struck a skillful balance among personality, ideas, and events. I recommend Cataloging the World to the general reader, but it would be especially useful to anyone involved in information design, documentation, and presentation.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

See, Think, Design, Produce: Jonathan Corum’s Presentation

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We all have different ways of refreshing our perspectives and energies. I’m not a public person and don’t care much for gurus, but I saw the See, Think, Design, Produce seminar, organized by Edward Tufte and presented at the Westin Seattle on August 7, as a terrific opportunity to gain insights into leading professionals’ design thinking patterns.

The day’s program featured four speakers: Jonathan Corum from the New York Times; Maria Popova, curator of Brain Pickings; Randall Munroe, author of the xkcd online comic; and Edward Tufte, the design and communication guru. I got a lot out of the day — three of the four sessions were well worth my time and the other, unfortunately, reinforced criticism I’d heard from attendees of other events.

Jonathan Corum designs information visualizations for the New York Times. His work runs the gamut from seemingly simple graphics to full-on productions incorporating video and interactive web programming. He was first attracted to design work when he was quite young, when he used his pattern matching skills to see and recognize a person in the distance after a glance even though he couldn’t see that individual’s face. This event, as simple as it seems, eventually led him to see the possibilities of communicating by designing effective visualizations.

As an example, he showed illustrations from an Audubon Society book on bumblebees. The book’s graphics showed the pattern, variation, time, and location of numerous bumblebee species. The graphics were compact, easy to understand, and contained a lot of information. Corum moved onto thinking about visualizations, which in his case means sketching possible designs to communicate a concept, underlying data, or both. He emphasized that sketches are not commitments and showed a New York Times visualization that had gone through 265 iterations. “You try different things,” he said, “so that you can find something your brain recognizes, remember that aha moment, and communicate your understanding.”

Regarding design, he begged us to do more than collect and visualize trivia — whatever we display should add up to something and show meaningful patterns. As a data journalist (my term, not his), he emphasized that visualization does not equal explanation. We have to add an extra layer of explanation to be sure that our intended message gets across. When it comes time to produce a visualization, you have to learn to embrace the limitations of your medium and, in some cases, design the content to meet those restrictions.

Because video recordings of Olympic events are owned by the International Olympic Committee, for example, the New York Times had to display images of half-pipe snowboarders and downhill slalom skiers using a series of overlaid still photographs. Embracing that limitation resulted in a compelling composite image complete with callouts indicating the physical techniques the competitors used to execute a maneuver and set up for the next one.

Corum’s role as a journalist requires him to think of a broader audience, rather than just designing for an audience of one. It all comes down, he stated, to having respect for the reader or viewer, and to remember what it’s like to encounter a topic for the first time when you design a visualization.

Reasons for Playing Chess

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Chess is a rewarding but maddening game. You can build up an overwhelming position for the first 40 moves and then make a simple tactical error that lets your opponent back into the game or, in extreme and highly embarrassing cases, even win on the next move.

Interviewer: So, tell me…does throwing away a win hurt?

Curt: Yes. Yes it does.

You see golfers going crazy over their rounds, alternating between self-loathing over the short putts they missed and self-praise for the 150-yard shot that ended up a foot from the hole. I played golf occasionally for a few years and can testify to that effect. Some of my friends play 18 holes just so they can feel the satisfaction of hitting one good shot.

Some days they have to play 36 holes.

A golfer having a bad day still gets in some physical exercise. What about chess players? As with many endeavors, it depends on why you’re playing in the first place. You always get to exercise your brain and look over the consequences of your moves, which keeps you sharp and might fight off the effects of aging, but what else?

If you’re playing with someone who’s about your own strength, you get the benefit of an equal competition and, very likely, enough wins to keep things interesting. Playing someone stronger than you helps you learn and winning every so often helps keep you going. Playing a weaker player lets you win more often and teach the game, even if only indirectly.

What’s often overlooked is that chess can be a social game. If you play blitz chess, where players have to make all of their moves within three or five minutes, you can get in a lot of games and try many different types of positions. Playing a longer game lets you think more deeply, and playing without a clock lets you approach the game more casually.

You can also take time to analyze your game with your opponent. Serious players often try to identify the move where the winner got an advantage and what the loser missed. When done with a spirit of exploration and sharing, post-game analysis can be fun and helpful.

Chess as metaphor

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Games have long played a part in literature, representing a competition between humans or supernatural beings. Chess features prominently in many stories. The game’s intellectual nature lends itself to such depictions, with the idea being that if you can beat someone else at chess, you are the better man.

Other games, both real and invented, serve similar roles. For me, the best example is the game Azad from Iain M. Banks’ book The Player of Games. The game of Azad is a vast undertaking, with high-level matches often taking a month to play. There are several boards, a combination of team and individual play, and so many pieces as to nearly defy description.

In the story, the game was developed as a metaphor for the structure and values of the Empire of Azad. It was part pastime and part civil service exam. The Azadian home world held a tournament every so often, with the winner crowned emperor. The better you did in the tournament, the higher your position in the government.

The premise of the story is that another civilization, the Culture, sends its best game player to compete in the tournament. Banks was known for a political bent to his stories; The Player of Games is no exception. On its surface a simple diplomatic exchange, our player’s participation and continued success brings the conflict between the two civilizations and their values into sharper relief.

It’s telling that the Culture’s hero only starts to play at a high level when he takes on aspects of the Empire’s philosophy in his own play. Banks manages that conflict magnificently.

Chess is an abstract game with arbitrary but well-balanced rules that allow for a wide range of successful strategies and tactics. Though it doesn’t approach the (admittedly fictional) resolution of a game like Azad, it has long played a role as a metaphor for accomplishment and brilliance. As such, it provides a terrific instructional base.

Chess and Motivation

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To paraphrase the Great Oz, “I’m a good man, but a very bad chess player.” I can beat almost any non-serious player in a casual game, but I’m in the lower half of  those of us who pay to play on the Internet Chess Server.

And yet, even though I lose a lot more than I’d like to, I enjoy the game immensely. In some sense, I like the idea of being a chess player…there’s a certain nerdy caché to the game that fits my personality. I also enjoy my occasional successes (I wouldn’t call them brilliancies) where I’ve seen just a bit farther or evaluated a position more accurately than my opponent.

My rating, the number that indicates my relative strength as compared to my fellow competitors, swings up and down within a range that runs from kind of impressive to “maybe I should go back to Candyland.” Sometimes I feel strong, like I’m concentrating well and see the outcomes of move sequences, while at other times I make the first move I see and hope I get lucky. I’m not sure why my concentration varies so much, but it’s an interesting phenomenon.

So why, if I’m not a very good serious (or even semi-serious) player, do I keep playing? What are the psychic benefits I get from banging my head against 32 pieces and 64 squares? Sure, the game’s fun in and of itself, but what specifically keeps me coming back?

I’ll address these questions in more detail in my forthcoming series of posts, but I’ll start out with a note on what my motivation is not. A friend once said, when I was furious at myself for a series of embarrassing losses, “It would be a shame for you to give up the game after you’ve put so much into it.”

She was right in a way, but her statement is an example of the sunk cost fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy says that the investment (of money, or time, or whatever) you’ve made in an endeavor should affect future decisions. In fact, if you have no way of reclaiming the money or time you’ve invested in something, those “expenses” should in no way affect your future decisions. All you should care about is whether future investments are worth the cost.

I keep playing, so I obviously must think it’s worth my effort to continue. Chess is a rich game, after all, one that rewards its players for their efforts beyond rating points or games won. I look forward to examining it more closely.

Performers, Releases, and Misrepresentation

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I straddle two professional worlds — technology and performance. Those fields overlap in more ways than you might expect, especially when it comes to the types of contracts we’re asked to sign.

Note: I am not a lawyer. The following statements are not legal advice. If you have any legal questions about a contract or its terms, consult an attorney who is licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.

Contracts are put in place to codify an agreement between two or more parties. Almost all contracts have an “entire agreement” clause, which states that the written document is the sole representation of the agreement between the parties. That means that any side conversations, verbal agreements, or even written statements not included in the contract are non-binding and unenforceable. They don’t count. What matters is the signed document.

Because contracts matter so much, each party is motivated to negotiate an agreement that is most favorable to them. Reality television show contracts, created by the production company and to be signed by the individuals appearing on the show, are some of the most one-sided contracts available. Terms include the right of the production company to misrepresent a person’s statements, actions, or motivations for the sake of drama. I probably don’t have to tell you that this provision is slightly weighted in favor of the producers.

Recently, Maker Studios’ Polaris unit started taping footage for GAME_JAM, a reality show intended to run on YouTube. The show was set up as a team competition (like Top Chef or The Amazing Race), so there was some tension to the scenario. Polaris offered one-sided contracts to potential participants, with mixed results: some people signed them, some negotiated better deals, and some refused to sign but were allowed to participate anyway. That last consideration is telling…would the show have gone forward without their participation? Were not enough qualified programmers interested?

The GAME_JAM project came to a crashing halt when a production company employee attempted to create controversy by asking if teams with female programmers were at a disadvantage. After one day, the individuals who were not under contract walked away from the project, forcing it to shut down.

The lesson for employees, independent contractors, and performers is obvious. You can decide which projects to take on and under what circumstances. If you’re offered a contract, have a lawyer or (if you’re a performer) an agent look it over and get their advice on how to make it better. Yes, you have to pay for their services, but it’s often worth it. If you don’t have an agent when you’re offered a role, don’t worry. If you approach an agent with a contract offer in hand, you are giving them a shot at 15% (or the rate you negotiate) of a relatively sure thing. Even if it’s just for that single deal, having an experienced attorney or agent on your side gives you leverage and removes you from the negotiations, allowing you to concentrate on your performance.

And you can always walk away.

Review of Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies

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Title: Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies

Author: Kristie Macrakis

Publisher: Yale University Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-0-300-17925-5

Length: 392

Price: $27.50

Rating: 91%

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

 

Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies, a book by Christie Macrakis, provides an interesting look into the history of invisible ink and other forms of secret writing. Much has been written about cryptography, including such classics as David Kahn’s The Codebreakers and Bruce Schneier’s Applied Cryptography, but relatively little had been published about invisible writing.

Prof. Macrakis is a professor of history, technology, and society at Georgia Tech. She’s written a number of other books on espionage-related topics, so it makes sense that she would turn her attention to invisible writing.

More Complicated than You’d Think

The problem with this sort of book is that everyone thinks invisible ink is a simple topic. Everyone who has ever owned a beginning magic book or a chemistry set knows that you can use lemon juice and a toothpick to inscribe a message on a piece of paper that only appears when the paper is heated over a flame or a lightbulb. For many years, the science of invisible writing was in fact limited to a number of easily obtained substances and the use of heat or simple developing fluids that reacted with the ink.

The study of natural magic, instituted in the Middle Ages and a precursor to the Scientific Revolution, led to number of discoveries that were of use to the prisoners, lovers, and spies named in the book’s title. During the late 16th century, the partisans fighting on behalf of Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, and even Queen Mary herself, used invisible ink in their attempts to communicate secretly with their supporters.

Skipping forward a few centuries, invisible ink played a huge role in every war from the American Revolution to World War II and beyond into the Cold War. The scope and breadth of mail censorship and interception, all with the goal of discovering both indiscreet and discreet communications, was staggering. Even with the tens of thousands of letters going through the British Imperial Censorship office in Bermuda and the American stations in Miami and Puerto Rico, a total of 339 letters with secret writing were intercepted.

After the end of World War II, the Germans instituted a new means of secret communication: the microdot. These tiny circles, which could be hidden in a book as the dot on an “i” or a period, could contain a substantial amount of information for the time. As World War II ground to a close and the Cold War started, microdots played a significant role in covert communication. That’s not to say that invisible ink and secret writing went away. In fact, the author leads off the book with the story of how she came to acquire a carefully hidden East German Stasi formula for invisible ink through an archive request at the German Cold War library collection. It was a story worth waiting for.

Further Considerations

Macrakis covers specific historical periods in each chapter. She states in the introduction that she wrote the book so that anyone could dip into it and read about the time they were interested in. That choice, which is eminently reasonable, means that there is some noticeable repetition when you read the book in one go, but it’s not too distracting.

What I find particularly interesting, in addition to the art and science of the writing itself, are descriptions of the organizations put in place to detect, develop, and exploit information from secret writing. The scope of the mail interception effort during World War II is impressive. Although the author doesn’t make this comparison explicit, I can’t help but wonder what the level of effort would be in relation to current National Security Agency efforts to intercept secret communication.

The last chapter of the main part of the book gives a brief overview of steganography, which is the process of hiding a message within another file. For example, one could use the least significant bits of an image file to encode a message without changing the image’s appearance to the casual observer. Of course there are tools to detect steganographic writing, but experts in the field are extremely reluctant to talk about what they do. That means the chapter on steganography is a bit disappointing, but it’s hard to blame the author for her sources’ lack of forthrightness.

The appendix contains a number of formulas that can be used to create and reveal invisible ink. Some of the substances can be harmful to humans, so creating any of the inks or developing agents would be done strictly at your own risk. I’m glad the publisher didn’t shy away from providing these recipes, though—they’re an important part of the subject’s history and the book would be incomplete without them.

Recommendations and Conclusions

Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies is a worthwhile book for anyone with an interest in espionage tradecraft or who just thinks that secret writing is a fun and interesting subject. I fall into both camps, so I enjoyed Prof. Macrakis’ work. Recommended.

 

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

NASCAR, Scrutiny, and Success

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There aren’t a lot of NASCAR fans in Portland, OR. I grew up in Rockingham County, Virginia, which is about four hours from Martinsville Speedway and within an hour’s drive of at least a dozen regional and local tracks. I enjoy the competition and, even though some races look like a bunch of guys going fast and turning left for three hours, there’s a lot of strategy and tactics to get right if you want to be successful.

I also enjoy Formula 1 racing, which sets designers and drivers an entirely different set of problems. In open wheel racing, touching another car often means irreparable damage to you, the car you touched, or both. In NASCAR, you can rub, bump, bang, and beat on each other a lot more without necessarily compromising your chances. Formula 1 and NASCAR cars (and drivers, for that matter) also have different weights, aerodynamics, and handling characteristics. Some drivers can race successfully in both types of cars, but most competitors specialize.

Car racing is also a male-dominated sport. There have been some successful female drivers, such as Janet Guthrie who raced competitively at the Indianapolis 500 (an open wheel race), but until recently there hasn’t been a marquee name moving from open wheel to NASCAR racing. All that changed when Danica Patrick, who raced successfully through the junior open wheel series in Europe and in Indy cars in the U.S., made the jump to NASCAR.

Patrick is a skilled racer who has paid her dues, but she’s had a rough transition to the Nationwide series (the second-tier NASCAR circuit) and the Sprint Cup. She’s also a marketer’s dream, with amazing good looks, a winning personality, and the discipline to balance racing and promotional duties effectively. Some commentators claim Patrick was hired for her appearance and not her abilities, but I don’t think that’s a valid criticism. NASCAR, like all major sports, is driven by media coverage. People (and I am a people) like looking at attractive individuals and studies show we remember their messages longer. With media coaches and mandatory sponsor mentions during interviews (“I thought the #666 Dogecoin Chevy SS team put me in a good position to win today…”), criticizing a driver for capitalizing on their appearance is nonsense.

As for racing results, Patrick has struggled. She led the Daytona 500 and finished well in a few races, but her average finish is in the low 20s (out of 40 or so drivers) and she has only a handful of top-10 finishes. Kyle Petty, a moderately successful NASCAR driver, son of driving legend Richard Petty, and media commentator, had an interesting take on Patrick. He was quoted in the USA Today as saying:

“She can go fast, but she can’t race. I think she’s come a long way, but she’s still not a race car driver. And I don’t think she’s ever going to be a race car driver.”

Asked by interviewer Matt Clark why Patrick wouldn’t ever be a race car driver in Petty’s eyes, the eight-time race winner said it was “too late to learn.”

Petty admitted that, even though he won eight top-tier NASCAR races, he never figured out what it took to be a great driver. Even so, he has a point. Drivers such as Tony Stewart and A. J. Foyt grew up running everything they could get their hands on, so they learned general racing skills as well as tactics for each type of car and track. Patrick spent her formative years concentrating on open wheel racing on road courses, so her development was more specific.

Even so, I’ve noticed her car control and race sense have improved. Rather than running consistently at the back of the pack and getting caught in (or causing) avoidable incidents, she’s obviously working hard, listening to feedback, and improving. Will she ever win? Hard to say. There are a lot of really good drivers out there. Will she challenge, especially at Sonoma and Watkins Glen? Probably. As long as she keeps improving and maintaining a positive image for her and her sponsors, she’s likely to have a ride. In the context of NASCAR and its surrounding media environment, that counts as success.

I can tell she wants to win, not just race. She won at every level moving up and, even if she doesn’t have the NASCAR-specific skills required to win consistently at the top level, she’ll keep giving it all she can.

Kyle Petty also characterized Patrick as a “marketing machine” rather than a racer. Her commercial success has certainly outpaced her results on the track, but there’s no public-facing industry where looks and talent don’t operate in tandem. We’re all working so we don’t have to work any more, so I offer Patrick the same advice Darrell Waltrip gives to drivers right before a late-race restart: “Go out there and getcha some.”