Welcome!

After 20 years at the University of Oregon, I have retired. So, I will begin posting about my new experiences here and hope you find them interesting.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Extending the Learning Environment: Virtual Professors in Education

A technology resource article by  © 2005

For those of you interested in artificial intelligence development, here is an archive copy of a presentation I gave in 2005 (I'm consolidating my online contributions!)



Extending the Learning Environment: 
Virtual Professors in Education

By Mary Harrsch
Network & Management Information Systems
College of Education, University of Oregon
[2005]

Six years ago [1999], my sister was telling me about a fascinating History Alive Chautauqua event she had attended near Hutchinson, Kansas.  The program brings a reenactor portraying an historical figure into schools and communities for an educational presentation and question and answer session.  I thought to myself, “It’s too bad more people can’t take advantage of such a unique learning experience.”  Then, the technologist within me began to wonder if there was a way to create a virtual Chautauqua experience online.  As I pondered this possibility, I realized that if I could find software that could be used to create a “virtual” person online, I could not only recreate the experience of the Chautauqua, but provide a tool faculty could use to answer course-specific questions.  It could even be used to provide information about the professor’s personal interests and research to enhance the sense of community within the learning environment.

My quest led me to a website that included links to a number of different software agent projects.  I learned that the type of agent I needed was commonly called a “chatterbot”.  The first “chatterbot” was actually developed long before the personal computer.  In the early 1960s, Joseph Weizenbaum created “Eliza”, a virtual psychoanalyst.

In his efforts to create a natural language agent, Weizenbaum pointed out that he had to address the technical issues of:

  • the identification of key words,
  • the discovery of minimal context,
  • generation of responses in the absence of keywords

As I began to explore different agent implementations, I found that, in addition to these issues, the application needed to be able to prioritize keywords to discern the most appropriate response.  Several agents I evaluated, including Sylvie, a desktop assistant, developed by Dr. Michael ("Fuzzy") Mauldin, Artificial Life’s Web Guide , Carabot 500 developed by U.K. company, Colorzone,  and Kiwilogic’s Linguibot, used slightly different methods to set the priority of subject keywords to select the most appropriate responses.  The response with matching keywords under the subject with the highest level setting was “fired” – displayed to the user.  However, when editing their script files, I found keeping track of subject priorities was challenging.

Another problem with many script-driven agents I evaluated was the use of left-to-right parsing sequences that did not compensate for a variance in the order of keywords in a question. Each query had to be evaluated for subject and for matching character strings, based on left-to-right word order with the use of various “wildcard” characters to indicate placement of keywords within the overall question.  Therefore, you often had to have multiple script entries to compensate for different word order.  For example, if a student asks “How do I change my password in e-mail?” you would need one script entry. If the student asks “How do I change my e-mail password?” a different script entry would be required:

* email * * password * as well as
* password * * email * to trap for either wording.

Although this attention to script design resulted in improved response accuracy the scripting knowledge required for these agents was not something I would expect a faculty member to have the time or desire to learn.

A third problem with several of the agent applications I used was the necessity to unload and reload the agent each time the script file was edited.  If students were actively querying the agent, you could not save any script changes until the script file was no longer in use.

When I invested in the Enterprise Edition of Artificial Life’s WebGuide software, I also realized the importance of a logging feature that I could use to study and improve my guide’s responses.   I recognized the importance in a virtual tutoring environment of having the ability for a student to print out a transcript of their tutoring session for future study.  Not only was this feature absent in the agents I evaluated, but the responses produced using Javascript or Flash would not allow the user to highlight and copy responses to the clipboard either.

One day, I explored UltraHal Representative, developed by Zabaware, Inc. I liked the ability Ultrahal provided to program the agent through a web interface.  It had the capability to include links to related information.  It could be customized with personalized graphics.  It logged interactions.  Best of all, it had a straightforward approach to editing - no scripting – just type your question three different ways then type your intended response. 

But, I soon discovered that without the ability to identify keyword priority, I found that the results using whatever algorithm was built into the agent engine were too inaccurate for a virtual tutoring application.

I needed a product that could be programmed to be “omniscient”. 

“Effective ITS require virtual omniscience -- a relatively complete mastery of the subject area they are to tutor, including an understanding of likely student misconceptions.” (McArthur, Lewis, and Bishay, 1993)

I needed a virtual professor that could be “programmed” by real professors, the individuals who would have a mastery of the subject and an understanding of student misconceptions. But all of the chatterbots I had encountered, so far (with the exception of Ultra Hal), required knowledge of scripting that most faculty members do not have the time to learn.  I would not have the time to provide one-on-one time with faculty developers and paying a programmer to work with a faculty member is also too expensive.  (I noticed most developers of commercial agents actually relied on the scripting needs of their clients for their primary revenue stream.)  So, I decided to attempt a radically different approach to agent design.

I am an experienced Filemaker Pro solutions developer and one day I was reviewing some of Filemaker’s text functions and realized that the position function could be used to detect key words in a text string.  The beauty of the position function is that the keyword can be identified anywhere within the target text.  It is not dependent on a left to right orientation.  Filemaker is also not case sensitive.  Also, the new version 7 allows most scripting calls for text processing to be used with their Instant Web Publishing interface. I realized this would greatly simplify web integration.

So, reviewing my experiences with the agent applications I had used, I developed a list of features that I wanted to incorporate:

Web functionality:
Multiple agents controlled by a single administration console
Web-based query interface
Web-based editing interface
Multiple graphic format support
Web accessible logging function for both agent editor and student user
Ability to display related resources

Query processing functionality:
Question context awareness (who, what, when, where, why, how, etc)
Ability to weight keywords by importance without user scripting
Ability to return an alternate response if a question is asked more than once
Ability to use one response for different questions
Ability to process synonyms, international spelling differences, and misspellings
Independent of word order
Not case sensitive

Structural Design:
Modular design to enable importation of knowledge modules developed by others
Agent specific attributes to customize the interface and responses such as a personal greeting, the opportunity to use the person’s homepage as a default URL, information about area of expertise and research interests for alternative agent selection criteria, custom visual representations, etc.

I began by designing my response search criteria.  I programmed the agent search routine to categorize responses by the first word of the query – usually What, Where, Why, How, Who, Did, Can, etc. to establish the question context. Then I used position formulas to test for the presence of keywords.  I then developed an algorithm that weighted the primary keyword or synonym and totaled the number of keywords found in each record.

I designed the search function so that when the visitor presses the button to ask their question, the database first finds all responses for the question category (who, what, when, etc.) containing the primary keyword (or its synonym).  Responses are then sorted in descending order by the total sum of keywords present in each response.   The first record – the one with the most keyword matches – is displayed as the answer. 

If there are no category responses containing the primary keyword, then a second find will execute to look for all responses with the keyword regardless of category.  In working with other agent products, I have found that if you return a response with at least some information about the keyword, even if it is not an exact answer to the question, the student assumes the agent recognized their question and may learn auxiliary information that is still helpful to them.

For example, if a visitor asks my virtual Julius Caesar if he really loved Cleopatra, he will answer “Cleopatra…ah, what an intriguing woman.”  Not only is this more in character with Caesar (most of his female dalliances were for political reasons) but the answer could also be appropriate for a different question, “What did you think of Cleopatra?”  My search routine would find it in either case because of the weighting of the primary keyword, Cleopatra.

If there are no responses containing the primary keyword, a third find looks for any generic category responses.  For example, if a student asks who someone is and you have not programmed your agent with a specific answer for the keyword (the person they are asking about), the agent will reply with an appropriate “who” response such as “I’m afraid I’ve never made their acquaintance.” 

If a student’s question does not begin with any words set as category words, the last find will return a generic “what” response such as “I may be a fountain of knowledge, but I can’t be expected to know everything.”  Programming the agent with default generic responses, ensures that the agent always has something to say, even if it knows nothing about the subject.  I developed a small database of generic responses for each question category that is imported into an agent database each time a new agent is created.  The faculty member can go through the responses and edit them if they wish.
Next, I turned my attention to the faculty’s content editing interface.  I wanted the faculty member to enter a proposed question, designate a primary keyword and synonym, supply any other keywords they thought were important to identify more precisely the desired response, and the desired response.  

I also provided a button that enables a faculty member to quickly generate a different answer for the same question or a different question for the same response.  

I created a field that is populated with a different random integer on each search.  By subsorting responses by this random integer, it enables the agent to offer a different response to the same question if the question is asked more than once.  This supports the illusion of the agent being a “real” person because it will not necessarily return the same identical response each time. 

“Believable agents must be reactive and robust, and their behaviors must decay gracefully. They must also be variable, avoiding repetitive actions even when such actions would be appropriate for a rational agent. They must exhibit emotion and personality. Ultimately they must be able to interact with users over extended periods of time and in complex environments while rarely exhibiting implausible behaviors.” – Dr. Patrick Doyle, Believability through Context: Using “knowledge in the world” to create intelligent characters

With the “engine” of my agent developed, I turned my attention to the visual representation of the character.  In their paper, The Relationship Between Visual Abstraction and the Effectiveness of a Pedagogical Character-Agent, Hanadi Haddad and Jane Klobas of Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia, point out the divergent views of information systems designers outside the character-agent field with those developers within it.

Wilson (1997) suggests that more realistic character-agents may introduce distraction associated with the user’s curiosity about the personality of the character and overreading of unintended messages because of presentation complexity.”

Unlike detailed realistic drawings, sketches help focus the mind on what is important, leaving out or vaguely hinting at other aspects. Sketches promote the participation of the viewer. People give more, and more relevant, comments when they are presented a sketch than when they are given a detailed drawing. A realistic drawing or rendering looks too finished and draws attention to details rather then the conceptual whole (Stappers et al, 2000).

“On the other hand, research by psychologists suggests that people may put considerable cognitive effort into processing abstract representations of faces (Bruce et al. 1992; Hay & Young 1982). It is possible, therefore, that response to anthropomorphised character-agents, and especially their faces, may differ from responses to sketches. Gregory and his colleagues (1995) conducted studies on human response to faces at the physiological level. They demonstrated that humans are particularly receptive to faces. In terms of recognition, participants in their studies were more responsive to real faces than to abstracted line faces. They speculated, however, that people spend longer studying abstracted line faces and may find them more interesting (Gregory et al. 1995). If this is so, then contrary to theories of information design, an abstract face may introduce more distraction into the communication than a realistic face.”

Filemaker Pro 7 provides multimedia container fields that enable me to include still images, animations, or even video clips.  However, not only is creating a unique graphic for each response time consuming, motion video files can be quite large and slow down the delivery of response information over the web.  Working with other agents, I had noticed that just the slight eye movement of a blink can be enough to reinforce the illusion of a sense of presence. This approach straddles the two opposing theories described above.  I would utilize a real face to capitalize on the human receptivity to a real face but keep animation to a minimum to reduce distraction.  I also think the use of a real faculty person’s face serves to reinforce the bond between the instructor and the student. A blink is also very easy to create from any faculty portrait.

I use an inexpensive animation tool called Animagic GIF Animator.  I begin with a portrait of the faculty member.  I open it in Photoshop (any image editor would suffice) and, after sampling the color of the skin above the eye, I paint over the open eye.  Then I open an unedited copy of the portrait in Animagic, insert a frame and select the edited version of the portrait.  I then set the open eye frame to repeat about 250 times and the closed eye frame to repeat once.  Then loop the animation.

I created a related table that stores all unique information about each agent including their default image, their default greeting, their login password, their area of expertise, their email address and their homepage URL. I also developed a collection of alternate avatars to use for agent images in case some faculty were camera-shy.  These were created with Poser using their ethnic character library.

Finally, I designed the login screen where the student selects the tutor to whom they wish to converse.  Upon selecting the tutor and pressing the button “Begin Conversation”, the student is presented with the query screen including the individual greeting for the tutor selected.  

I also provided a button for the faculty to use to login to edit their agent.  It takes them to a layout that prompts them for a name a password. 

Famed World War II cryptographer, Alan Turing, held that computers would, in time, be programmed to acquire abilities rivaling human intelligence.

Alan Turing at age 16.
“As part of his argument Turing put forward the idea of an 'imitation game', in which a human being and a computer would be interrogated under conditions where the interrogator would not know which was which, the communication being entirely by textual messages. Turing argued that if the interrogator could not distinguish them by questioning, then it would be unreasonable not to call the computer intelligent.” – The Alan Turing Internet Scrapbook 


My virtual professor may not be as sophisticated as agents that have been developed to pass the Turing Test but I hope I have provided a framework for the development of a rigorous inquiry-based learning system.

“Effective inquiry is more than just asking questions. A complex process is involved when individuals attempt to convert information and data into useful knowledge. Useful application of inquiry learning involves several factors: a context for questions, a framework for questions, a focus for questions, and different levels of questions. Well-designed inquiry learning produces knowledge formation that can be widely applied.” - Thirteen Ed Online.

References:

McArthur, David, Matthew Lewis, and Miriam Bishay. "The Roles of Artificial Intelligence in Education: Current Progress and Future Prospects".  1993.  Rand. <http://www.rand.org/education/mcarthur/Papers/role.html#anatomy >.
Doyle, Patrick. "Believability through Context Using "Knowledge in the World" to Create Intelligent Characters." Trans. SIGART: ACM Special Interest Group on Artificial Intelligence. International Conference on Autonomous Agents. Session 2C ed. Bologna, Italy: ACM Press    New York, NY, USA, 2002. 342 - 49 of Life-like and believable qualities.
Haddad, Hanadi, and Jane Klobas. "The Relationship between Visual Abstraction and the Effectiveness of a Pedagogical Character-Agent." The First International Joint Conference on Autonomous Agents & Multi-Agent Systems. Bologna, Italy, 2002.

Wilson, M. "Metaphor to Personality: The Role of Animation in Intelligent Interface Agents." Animated Interface Agents: Making them Intelligent  in conjunction with International Joint Conference on Autonomous Agents. Nagoya, Japan, 1997.

Stappers, P., Keller, I. & Hoeben, A. 2000, ‘Aesthetics, interaction, and usability in
 ‘sketchy’ design tools’, Exchange Online Journal, issue 1, December, [Online],
[2004, August 3].

Bruce, V., Cowey, A., Ellis, A. W. & Perrett, D. L. 1992, Processing the Facial Image.
 Oxford, UK, Clarendon Press.

Hay, D.C., Young, A.W. 1982, ‘The human face’, in Normality and Patholgy in
 Cognitive Function, Ellis, A.W. ed., London, Academic Press, pp. 173-202.

Gregory, R., Harris, J., Heard, P. & Rose, D. (eds) 1995, The Artful Eye, Oxford
 University Press,Oxford.

"Thirteen Ed Online: Concept to Classroom".  2004.  Educational Broadcasting Corporation. 8/9/04 2004. <http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/ >.

Hodges, Dr. Andrew. "The Alan Turing Internet Scrapbook".  Oxford, 2004.  (3/15/2004):  University of Oxford. 8/09/04 2004. <http://www.turing.org.uk/turing/scrapbook/test.html >.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Importance of Capturing Family Oral Histories

A history resource article by  © 2015

My Dad, Joseph W. Turner Jr., with his beloved Indian motorcyle about 1934.
Just got an email from Baylor University today reminding me how important capturing family oral histories is for future generations.

“One thing almost all Americans share is regret that when we were children, we did not listen better when our parents, grandparents and older relatives or friends told stories about people and places alive only in their memories,” said Lois Myers, associate director of the Baylor Institute for Oral Studies. “Such oral traditions may be the most fragile links to our family history.”

With high-quality sound or video recordings, people can uncover and preserve the origins of family rituals — such as Christmas celebrations, common sayings or even recipes, Myers said.

“Today’s technology makes it possible to record the voices of your family storytellers, not only to keep the story alive but also to preserve accurately their version of the story in their own words,” she said. “Recordings allow family historians to capture the stories of those reluctant relatives who may never write their stories. Recording also inspires creatively sharing with younger generations through web presentations and audio or video documentaries.”

Myers suggests:

    Encourage the storyteller to concentrate on one memory at a time, describing sight, sound, smell, touch or taste.
 
Generate stories from word association prompts, such as emotions, “firsts” (first car, job, home, date, vote) or “favorites” (book, food, movie, TV show or hobby).
 
Create personal stories using life stages alongside a chronology of significant historical events over the decades.  What was it like being a child during the Cold War? What music did you listen to in the 1970s?
 
Devise a memory map of important twists and turns in the road of life — events, decisions, people or possessions.
 
Even with family members, it’s wise to develop an interview agreement form acknowledging the informant’s voluntary donation of information, transferring the interviewee’s rights to the researcher and addressing permission or restrictions for publication and distribution.
 
Whenever possible, make your family oral history an intergenerational experience. Invite young family members to contribute questions or do the interviews. Interview the children.
 
For a relaxed, candid interview, allow the informant time to prepare. Fully explain the purpose of the interview.
 
Prompt memory recall through challenging and perceptive inquiries. Ask broad, open-ended questions; be a good listener; and allow the interviewee time to think.
 
Introduce every recording with a statement of the date and place of the interview, the full names of the interviewer and interviewee and the purpose of the project.
 
 When difficult situations arise, use tact, persistence and respect. Allow narrators to give their own interpretations.  Avoid burdening the story with your own perspectives, which may not reflect the narrator’s life and times.
 
Think far into the future about who will take care of the histories you collect. Since most family history also contains stories of community interest, consider placing interview copies in a local archive or library.

By the way, my Dad wrecked that Indian motorcyle and wound up with blood poisoning.  Put a dent in his semi-professional soccer playing so he enlisted in the Navy and made a career out of it instead!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Hit Men in concert at Three Rivers in Florence, Oregon - Oh, What a Night!!

A music review by  © 2013

Last year my sisters and I had such a great time attending a performance of "Jersey Boys" at Keller Auditorium in Portland that when I saw some of the original "Four Seasons" had formed a new group called "The Hit Men" and were to perform at the Three Rivers Casino over on the coast in Florence, Oregon I couldn't resist booking some tickets.

I was certainly glad I did.  The show sold out and when the group started playing, everyone in the audience, including me, could hardly resist singing along with them and I think there was even dancing going on in the aisles!  They started out with a Four Seasons medley that included the Four Seasons classics "Dawn", "Rag Doll" and "Working My Way Back to You".  Then they kept knocking out hit after hit after hit.



Many of the songs were from the Four Seasons repertoire (some of my most favorite dance music from the 60s and 70s) but the group also includes members who have played with Tommy James and the Shondells, Elton John, Carly Simon and Jim Croce so we were treated to spirited renditions of "Mony, Mony", "Hanky Panky", "Crocodile Rock", "Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown" and "You're so Vain", too.

Apparently, the musicians were inspired to get together again because of the phenomenal success of "Jersey Boys", the Broadway play that tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and includes many of their hit songs.  Lee Shapiro on the keyboard, who got the Hit Men together, and Gerry Polci, on the drums, were members of The Four Seasons until the 90s.

Gerry Polci was also the lead singer on one of the Four Seasons greatest hits, "Oh, What a Night!".  The song, written by Bob Gaudio and his wife Judy Parker, was originally about the repeal of Prohibition and entitled "December 5th, 1933but after a lyric rewrite at the urging of Franki Valli, the song became a nostalgic remembrance of a young man's first affair with a woman and the rest is music history.When the group performed that song during the concert, Polci once again sang the lead and it sounded as terrific as it did when The Four Seasons first recorded it all those years ago and released it as a single in December 1975.

Not only did the songs sound as good as I remembered but the musicians were all obviously having a great time, too.

“It's really amazing to be reliving my greatest moments in music with the the guys who were there.”
– Gerry Polci, Hit Men drummer and former Four Seasons.

I was also totally blown away by the energy exhibited by the band members as many were at least as old as I am. Russ Velazquez who has not only performed with Sting, Carol King, LL Cool J and Paula Abdul but is a four time Emmy-nominated composer and arranger for his work on TV's Sesame Street,was just all over the stage and had an amazing vocal range.

Larry Gates sang a particularly mean "Mony, Mony" and supplied the distinctive falsetto in many of The Four Seasons' songs. Jimmy Ryan, who has received gold and platinum records playing alongside Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Cat Stephens, Jim Croce and Carly Simon was in absolutely top form, too! Of course as a close friend of Carly Simon, he sang the lead in "You're so Vain." Ryan also frequently told little stories in between sets about the early days of rock-n-roll that were really interesting and certainly turned up the nostalgia factor!

One of Ryan's stories included a memory about a performance when the power went out and they had to sing without amplified instruments.  To show us what it was like, all of the men walked up to the front of the stage leaving their instruments behind, except for Ryan's unplugged guitar.  Then they sang "Silence is Golden", first released by The Four Seasons in 1964.  Their harmony is so sweet they didn't really need their instruments anyway.

I noticed that Don Ciccone, another member of the Four Seasons, is featured in some of the Hit Men videos on YouTube.  He has also appeared with them but did not come on this particular tour.  In addition to The Four Seasons, Ciccone sang with Tommy James and the Shondells and is probably the reason the Hit Men include songs from that group, like "I Think We're Alone, Now", "Hanky Panky" and "Mony, Mony" in their performances.

If you see an advertisement in your area for an appearance of "The Hit Men", by all means, don't pass it up! You, too, will be saying "Oh, What a Night!!"




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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Slitherine Games capitalizes on "Gravity" success with Buzz Aldrin's Space Program Manager

A gaming resource article by  © 2013

In my Slitherine Ltd newsletter today I see that the game developer is capitalizing on the wildly successful space drama "Gravity" starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney by preparing to release a new strategy game entitled "Buzz Aldrin's Space Program Manager".

"Buzz Aldrin's Space Program Manager (SPM) is the ultimate game of space exploration. It is the mid 1950s and the biggest nations in the world, in an effort to conquer outer space together, have established the Global Space Agency (GSA). You are in charge. It's your duty to carefully manage the agency's budget by opening programs, spending R&D funds on improving the hardware, recruiting personnel and astronauts and launching space missions in this realistic turn based strategy game. 
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, ScD 1963 (Cou...
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, ScD 1963 (Course XVI) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In sandbox mode manage your agency, recruit and train technicians, astronauts, flight controllers, scientists and engineers. Research and develop thousands of components for hundreds of missions, all the time balancing your budget. Then watch your missions launch with thousands of beautiful renders of these amazing spacecraft. In Campaign mode do all this while also dealing with politicians and their short term goals. 
Develop the X-15 Space plane, the Sputnik satellite, the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo manned spacecrafts and in later episodes on to Mars! You are not limited to the missions that did launch - you can also try out many that were planned but that never left the drawing board. For example, instead of sending men to the Moon using the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) approach used by Project Apollo in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you will be able to rewrite history and use either the alternative Earth Orbit Rendezvous (EOR) or Direct Ascent schemes. The number of options ensures every game will be different and there is huge replay value. 
To ensure the accuracy and authenticity of the game it is being developed in consultation with Dr. Buzz Aldrin, former U.S. Air Force combat pilot (66 missions in Korea) and NASA astronaut, who took part in the first Moon landing mission and became the second human being to walk on the Moon." - Slitherine Games
When I was a school girl back in the 60s, inspired by Gene Roddenberry's original "Star Trek",  I dreamed of being the first female astronaut.  I ended up on a very different career trajectory! But maybe this game is my chance to experience the space program after all!
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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Sears Shop Your Way Rewards a Joke!!


A consumer resource article by  © 2013

I don't usually rant online but today I have to vent about my frustration with Sears "Shop Your Way Rewards" program.  Like many retailers, Sears jumped on the rewards program marketing scheme last year.  I was encouraged to sign up for the program when my husband and I happened to be in Sears shopping for tool accessories.  I thought, "Why not?" so I filled out the application and signed up for email alerts.

One day I received an email from Sears Shop Your Way Rewards offering me a free piece of apparel if I bought one other piece as long as it wasn't outerwear or a leather item.  I had been into Sears earlier in the week and saw a blouse that I liked so I printed off the coupon and headed to the Sears store in town.  I found a couple of blouses I wanted and went to the checkout counter with my coupon.  The sales clerk scanned the coupon but it wouldn't register.  She called the department manager who also scanned the coupon and didn't have any better luck.  She then read the coupon fine print and said it was intended to be used at a Sears catalog outlet not a Sears retail outlet.  I told her that was ridiculous since it was not obvious to a customer they meant it was only good at a Sears catalog store and not a retail store.  I also pointed out that Sears catalog stores also have very little apparel if any in stock so essentially what good was it then!  She finally agreed to honor it but admonished me that I'd better not try to "pull" this again as if I was trying to swindle them or something.

I decided then and there that I would virtually ignore future mailings as they were essentially worthless.  But, today I noticed that my GE refrigerator filter warning light came on and commented to my husband that I guessed I would have to drive in to Sears (where we bought it) and pick up a new one.  Those filters are always very expensive - about $40 each.  I remembered seeing one of those emails from Sears Shop Your Way Rewards in my inbox so I checked it out and it was offering me $12 in points if I bought something from Sears before the end of the week.  So I logged into Sears.com and checked for the refrigerator water filter I needed.  I saw the regular GE brand filter I always bought at the store for the usual $40+.  But, I noticed a generic filter that was compatible with my refrigerator for only $22 so I put it in my shopping cart instead.

When I went to checkout I couldn't find anyplace to indicate I wanted to use my points on this purchase even though I was logged in with my Rewards ID.  So, I called customer support.  The service representative told me that on the last page of the checkout process there would be a choice to redeem points.  I told him that I saw they would accept Paypal and wanted to use it but I knew that once I clicked the Paypal option, I would be taken directly to Paypal to finish payment authorization and knew there would be no option to apply points there.  The service representative admitted I was right and said if I used Paypal I could not redeem points.

At that point the service representative offered to complete the order for me so I gave him the information he needed (shipping and billing address, payment information, etc) and we progressed to the final check out page.  When he attempted to redeem my points, he was told that points could not be used on that purchase because the item I had selected was shipped from a third party and not directly from Sears!!  At this point I was totally frustrated and sputtered "Each time I try to "Shop My Way" with your rewards program you [Sears] always have some reason why the points can't be used!  What good are they then, anyway!!!"

The service representative said he was sorry and offered me a 10% discount on my order ($2).

Maybe Sears designed their rewards program after an airlines rewards model.  Between black out dates and constantly increasing the number of points it takes for a ticket, airlines have perfected the "illusion" of value with their frequent flyer programs.  But Sears should keep in mind who their competitors are.  Amazon's rewards program works beautifully and I have used it so often and so successfully that I regularly reach for their rewards card each time I make a purchase.

I read on the web that Sears may go the same way as Montgomery Wards.  The article I read said the only thing that was keeping Sears viable was its tool sales.  Well, it certainly isn't their rewards program!!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Are lewd gestures a legitimate update to West Side Story in the 21st century?

West Side Story
West Side Story (Photo credit: thejcgerm)
I loved the 1961 movie "West Side Story" and even learned the lyrics to all of the songs when my older sister Pam bought the LP album.  So I was excited when I found out that "Broadway Across America" was going to present "West Side Story" right here in Eugene at The Hult Center.  I bought my ticket months in advance and eagerly anticipated my chance to see the play.  I even got a ticket in the very front row!

So, when I arrived at the theater I was anxious for the performance to begin.  The theater company had their own orchestra and the music was as marvelous as I remembered.  As each scene unfolded the performances of the actors playing Anita, Maria, Riff, Bernardo and Action were very professional.  The actor playing Tony seemed a little hesitant but his singing, though, was quite strong.  His projection was a little uneven in the first song but he seemed to settle down after that.  I wondered if he would be able to pull off singing "Maria" as this song requires so much range but he absolutely nailed it!


I was surprised, however, by the bedroom scene with Tony and Maria and the simulated gang rape of Anita as neither was present in the movie (that I could remember).  But I figured that was considered updating the story for a 21st century audience more familiar with far more vicious gang behavior.  I willingly accepted these changes as well as much more Spanish in the song lyrics (obviously a nod to the much higher percentage of Hispanic peoples in our population now). But, I must admit I was appalled by the addition of lewd gestures during the performance of the song "Officer Krupke".  The gestures seem less obvious in the clip from "YouTube" or maybe it's because I was sitting just a few feet away from the actors in the front row.  I suppose the change in choreography could also be considered updating too, but I felt the crudeness was unnecessary and somehow cheapened the performance.  I also found the gangs' openly disrespectful behavior toward "Doc" who ran the drug store where the teens socialized to be very uncomfortable, too - definitely not the atmosphere portrayed in TV's "Happy Days" and definitely not the behavior I would like to see viewed as acceptable.

Robin Williams
Robin Williams (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I realize members of 21st century gangs are far more brutal than the late 1950s era Sharks and Jets ever dreamed.  But I'm not sure this type of melding current social behaviors with a vintage musical is an improvement.  I remember watching the original movie in the contemporary setting of the early 1960s and I got the message of the story without having to squirm with discomfort over extremely unpleasant behaviors.

I sometimes wonder why openly lewd behavior has become so commonplace that our society just seems to accept it or just laugh it off.  Several months ago I attended a presentation by Robin Williams, also at the Hult Center.  I realize standup comedy can get quite crude, having visited a comedy club down in San Francisco once. But Mr. Williams is such an amazing talent and I loved his performance in "Good Morning, Vietnam" so much that I jumped at the chance to see him in person.  It was quite funny in parts and I'm glad I attended but I couldn't help but wonder why Mr. Williams, who has received so many awards and accolades from our society, seemed to feel he needed to include so much "crotch grabbing" as he did in that performance.  Perhaps he felt it was necessary to win over an audience that included so many college students, as Eugene is the home of the University of Oregon.  If so, that's a sad commentary on the intellectual maturity of our "best and brightest".  Personally, I would have laughed far more at some good political zingers and I think most of the audience would have enjoyed them more too.

Oh well, maybe I'm just becoming an old fuddy duddy!
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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Phony Reviews Prompt Amazon Purge

As many of you know, I have reviewed books for a number of years now.  I spend a lot of time on my reviews because I attempt to parallel the events in the novels with actual history of the period as evidenced by quotes from the ancient sources.  This much work, however, is seldom reflected by many other reviews I have read on Amazon.  I don't know how many reviews I have read that clearly appear to be a slight rewrite of the book's dust jacket.  Therefore, when I read that Amazon had purged thousands of reviews from their website, I actually applauded this move.

Amazon Book Reviews Deleted in a Purge Aimed at Manipulation - NYTimes.com:

I'm not sure what criteria were used to effect this purge and if I knew the particulars I might not be so approving but I hope Amazon has enough technology at its disposal that it based its purge on some aspect of the review that would indicate it was not a thoughtful analysis of the work.

The New York Times article I read pointed to a high percentage of positive reviews being a criteria Amazon may have used to determine which reviews to eliminate.  This particular criteria is not as foolproof as it may sound, however.  I find it really hard to be totally negative in a review.  I am more comfortable reviewing books the way I critique photographs when I am asked to be a judge at the Emerald Photographic Society where I am a member.

We usually begin a photo critique by pointing out the positive aspects of an image then we discuss what could have made an image better.  This method helps a photographer learn but does not totally discourage a potential photographer from trying to improve.

With a book, it is different, to be sure, but there are basic attributes that I look at to evaluate the book's potential for success.  Are the characters well drawn and 3-dimensional?  Is the story plotted well with pacing to keep the reader interested?  Has the author researched the setting to the extent that the environment is accurate and can immerse the reader in the time period?  For historical novels, are places or social practices described or items used accurate to the period?  How accurate are historical events?  If historical events are compressed or altered are they manipulated to advance the plot or simply inaccurate because of poor research?  It is a given, of course, that the book should not be filled with grammatical or spelling errors.

I have frequently been asked by self-published authors for reviews.  When I open a book and right away I find it is filled with errors and that the writer is not experienced enough to write what we used to call in the journalism trade a decent "hook" - an opening paragraph or scene compelling enough to make a reader want to continue to read, I prefer to simply not review the book (I must be honest and admit I prefer not to waste any more time on it) rather than write a scathing diatribe about the amateurish nature of it.  This is not to say that all self-published books are not worth reading.  I have found some real jewels among the ranks of self-published books.  Furthermore, I must also point out that I have, unfortunately, found books filled with errors being promoted by publishers who have sought to cut corners by minimalizing or even eliminating the editing process.  Ultimately, I view reading as an investment of my time and I expect a decent return on investment.

One other thing about the New York Times article caught my eye.  The reviews of a retired librarian named Mrs. Klausner have also been targeted by Amazon.  Apparently, this amazing woman cranks out seven reviews a day and speed reads stacks of books the rest of the time.  When the woman was asked about the validity of her reviews, she explained that she doesn't sleep much and people should "Get A Life, Read a Book!"  I'm sorry Mrs. Klausner but, although I find reading a good book to be an enriching experience, I prefer to balance my life with attending plays and concerts, watching a good movie, playing an interesting computer game, experiencing beautiful art and architecture, or tramping through the woods on a rainy day photographing mushrooms with my fellow photographer friends.  Spending too much time in imaginary worlds means you are spending too little time in our own and we have such a limited time allotted to us.

My son called me this morning and we were discussing the latest movies we had seen and books we had read and I told him I had so many books to read, movies and performances to see and games to play I was afraid I wouldn't get to them all before I checked out of this world and he said "Well, look at it this way Mom, it's better than just sitting around waiting for the inevitable!"





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