Monthly Archives: March 2008

Wheel Reinvention and Geek Culture

In mainstream North American society, “reinventing the wheel” (investing efforts on something which has already been done) is often seen as a net negative.  “Don’t waste your time.” “It’s all been done.” “No good can come out of it.”

In geek culture, the mainstream stigma on wheel reinvention has an influence. But many people do spend time revisiting problems which have already been solved. In this sense, geek culture is close to scientific culture. Not everything you do is completely new. You need to attempt things several times to make sure there isn’t something you missed. Like scientists, geeks (especially engineering-type ones) need to redo what others have done before them so they can “evolve.” Geeks are typically more impatient in their quest for “progress” than most scientists working in basic research, but the connection is there.

Reasons for wheel reinvention abound. The need to practice before you can perform. The burden of supporting a deprecated approach. The restrictions placed on so-called “intellectual property.” The lack of inspiration by some people. The (in)famous NIH (“Not Invented Here”) principle.  The fact that, as Larry Wall say, “there is always another way.”

Was thinking about this because of a web forum in which I participate. Although numerous web forum platforms exist as part of “Content Management Systems,” several of them free of charge, this web developer created his own content management system, including forum support.

Overall, it looks like any other web forum.  Pretty much the same features. The format tags are somewhat non-standard, the “look-and-feel” is specific, but users probably see it as the exact same as any other forum they visit. In fact, I doubt that most users think about the forum implementation on a regular basis.

This particular forum was created at a time when free-of-charge Content Management Systems were relatively rare.  The site itself was apparently not meant to become very big. The web developer probably put together the forum platform (platforum?) as an afterthought since he mostly wanted to bring people to his main site.

Thing is, though, the forums on that particular site seem to be the most active part of the site. In the past, the developer has even referred to this situation as a problem. He would rather have his traffic go to the main pages on the site than to the forums. Several “bridges” exist between the forums and the main site but the two seem rather independent of one another. Maybe the traffic issue has been solved in the meantime but the forums remain quite active.

My perception is that the reasons for the forums’ success include some “social” dimensions (the forum readership) and technical dimensions (the “reinvented” forum platform). None of these factors could explain the forums’ success but, taken together, they make it easy to understand why the forums are so well-attended.

In social terms, these forums reach something of a niche market which happens to be expanding. The niche itself is rather geeky in the passion for a product category as well as in the troubleshooting approach to life. Forum readers and participants are often looking for answers to specific questions. The signal to noise ratio in most of the site’s forums seems, on average, particularly high. Most moderation happens seamlessly, through the community. While not completely invisible, the site’s staff is rarely seen in most forum threads. Different forums, addressing different categories of issues, attract different groups of people even though some issues cross over from one forum to another. The forum users’ aggregate knowledge on the site’s main topic is so impressive as to make the site look like the “one-stop shop” for any issue related to the site’s topic. At the same time, some approaches to the topic are typically favored by the site’s members and alternative sites have sprung up in part to counterbalance a perceived bias on that specific site. A sense of community has been built among some members of several of the forums and the whole forum section of the site feels like a very congenial place.

None of this seems very surprising for any successful web forum. All of the social dynamics on the site (including the non-forum sections) reinforce the idea that a site’s succes “is all about the people.”

But there’s a very simple feature of the site’s forum platform which seems rather significant: thread following through email. Not unique to this site and not that expertly implemented, IMHO. But very efficient, in context.

At the end of every post is a checkbox for email notification. It’s off by default so the email notification is “opt-in,” as people tend to call this. There isn’t an option to “watch” a thread without posting in it (that is, only people who write messages in that specific thread can be notified directly when a new message appears). When a new message appears in a specific thread, everyone who has checked the mail notification checkbox for a message in that thread receives a message at the email address they registered with the site. That email notification includes some information about the new forum post (author’s username, post title, thread title, thread URL, post URL) but not the message’s content. That site never sends any other mail to all users. Private mail is done offsite as users can register public email addresses and/or personal homepages/websites in their profiles.

There’s a number of things I don’t particularly enjoy about the way this email notification system works. The point is, though, it works pretty well. If I were to design a mail notification system, I would probably not do it the same way.  But chances are that, as a result, my forums would be less successful than that site’s forums are (from an outsider’s perspective).

Now, what does all this have to do with my original point, you ask? Simple: sometimes reinventing the wheel is the best strategy.

Ultimate Podcatcher and Podcast Player

Some raw notes… Again, I should revisit at some point.


Podcasting was hyped after iTunes support

Now stable, apparently

Has a lot of potential

Needs revolution


Directly on device

Download as you go

No need to synchronize

Always ready


Multiple bookmarks in same track

Adding comments and notes


Can add audio comment

Tags and categories

Can selectively update

Tags on read, liked, to-blog…

Links between podcasts (x-references)

Editing through device

    Sound editing

Skip sections at will

Skip to other section or episode, come back to same point

Podcasting content besides audio and video

    Limited PDF support

    Other eclosures 

Podcasting scene polluted by greed?

Radio models


Monetization schemes

How about podcasting as service?


Tecno-brega model 

Custom playlist



ToBlog: Music-Related Links

Keeping these tabs open. Maybe I should clear my consc… browser and post about them.

But not just yet. I need more time as I try out the OLPC XO!

Ah well…


Creative Commons, Mixing, Royalty-Free Sounds, Sampling, OLPC, TamTam


Access to music


Musical playfulness, Windows equivalent to Apple’s GarageBand software


Nostalgia, musical collaboration, music performance

CC Salon: Creative Community

[Apologies in advance for style. More of a straightforward write-up than my usual prose. Quite possibly, most people prefer this but I feel more comfortable rambling away than “reporting.”]

Went to Austin CC Salon last night. CC Salon is a series of events “focused on building a community of artists and developers around Creative Commons licenses.”

Creative Commons (CC) licenses are tools meant to help creators in maintaining some rights over the “content” they produce (music, text, video…) while avoiding the chilling effects caused by Copyright and the “culture of ownership.” Though the Creative Commons organization was founded by a tech-savvy law professor and CC licenses are a tech-savvy solution to a legal problem, the social and cultural implications behind CC reach far beyond technological and legal contexts.

Last night’s event was held at Café Caffeine, a community-focused café/venue which happens to be in my neighborhood. The same café is host to the Jelly in Austin co-working sessions.

So… What happened last night at Café Caffeine?

A stimulating and thought-provoking event, to be sure. Also an event which provided the kind of casual and open atmosphere that I find most conducive for thoughtful discussion. In other words, I felt that I really was among like-minded people, despite all sorts of differences in our experiences and our approaches to technology and society.

Some of the people involved in last night’s event:

Neff presented The American Cancer Society‘s advocacy project and online video service. What made that site impressive, IMHO, was its adequate balance between message and technology. Such an important group as the American Cancer Society getting a high degree of geek cred. In some circles (including CC Salon, one would assume), it’s the best of both worlds.

Neff himself was remarkably enthusiastic, thoughtful, and level-headed in his approach to online video. Uncompromising in his dedication to the ACS mission and as poised as any developer can be in his approach to technological issues. In fact, Neff repeatedly referred to the importance of a respectful attitude toward users. And you could tell, from the way he talked about users, that he truly cares.


For his part, Vázquez served as moderator and presented two online services meant to make it easy to find CC-licensed music online: Jamendo (a CC-friendly online music service with “pay what you want” compensation models) and CCMixter (mostly meant as a repository for remix-worthy samples).

In parallel to Vázquez’s presentation, mentions of several recent situations involving Copyright and Creative Commons licenses helped brush a clear picture of what the current “culture of ownership” implies.

But, again, what worked best for me went beyond what was said or even how it was said. My comfort level had more to do with a sense of belonging. Related to communitas. A community of experience, potentially the basis of a community of practice.

Overall, I hope CC Salon will become the basis for community building in Austin as elsewhere. Predictably, a significant portion of last night’s informal gathering was spent discussing legal, financial, and technical issues. But, clearly, these are people who are adept at crossing bridges in order to link people into actual communities.

Some random notes I took during and after CC Salon.

  • Exposure to CC
    • Importance
    • Methods
      • QR-Codes for CC content
    • Possible outcomes
  • Grassroots etiquette
    • Crowd’s shared values (not just “wisdom of crowds”)
    • Efficient in transition period
  • CC in academia/education
    • Related to Open Access
    • Citation practice
    • Citation software and services (Zotero, RefWorks, Google Scholar)
    • Following links between references
    • Scholarship as “remixing”
  • Random idea:
  • CC musicians
    • Jams
      • Trying each other out
      • Playing together
      • Playful musicking
    • Shows/concerts/gigs
    • Band
    • Music community
      • Kalmunity-like?
  • Mixing
    • Playful mixing
    • Audio editing (Pro Tools, Audition, Audacity…)
    • iLife GarageBand for CC?
    • Songbird for mixing?
    • CC loops
    • CC tracks
    • GB-like FLOSS project

Facebook Playing With My Mind

Took a look at the homepage for my Facebook account and I notice something new, below the birthday announcements. Some profile summaries with a mention that I might know these people. Nothing really awkward there, probably just a new feature. Although, Facebook has this strange (and potentially annoying) habit of changing features without warning us.

But still not mindblowing, or even mindplaying.

There’s a “Show All” button in that box and, when I click on it, I get to a Friend Finder page where I see a series of profile summaries with the heading: “People You May Know. Found based on your existing connections. Do you know any of these people? Add people you know as friends to make these results even better for you.”

Next to each profile summary:

You both know: [links to mutual friends]
Add To Friends|(View Friends)|Message

Again, nothing really weird. (Without warning,) Facebook browsed my connections and found some mutual friends. Some applications do things like these.

But, here’s where things get a bit less obvious: the first time I look at this page, I see a list of people I don’t recognize with mentions of some of my contacts (friends and acquaintances). Overall, these contacts are people I had assumed were unconnected. Granted, they all live or have lived in Montreal (my hometown). And some of them are somehow involved in music. But even the musicians among them are working in quite separate music scenes within Montreal’s music landscape.

According to this list, Richard (one of my contacts) has eleven connections in common with twelve of my friends and acquaintances. These twelve friends and acquaintances of mine presumably have little in common with the people that both Richard and I know. None of these twelve contacts of mine are connected directly to Richard on Facebook. They all know some of Richard’s contacts but my connections to them are very diverse: former students, former bandmates, a childhood friend, a fellow brewclub member, etc. I’ve met these people at very different stages of my life and I just couldn’t assume any of them would know one another. Again, all of these people have some connection to Montreal but given Montreal’s population, I find it quite surprising that my network would cluster so much across contact types.

I felt compelled to send a couple of messages about this. To Richard (this acquaintance of mine who seemed to have many mutual acquaintances with people I know). And to two of the people who were listed as possible acquaintances of mine (one of whom I probably did meet, a number of years ago).

Fascinating stuff for a social scientist like me.

But where it gets mindplaying is when, coming back to the Friend Finder page, the list of possible acquaintances is radically different from what it was the first time. This time, most of the people in the list belong to YulBlog, Montreal’s blogging community. That community has a relatively high clustering coefficient so I basically assumed that many of those YulBloggers are friends with some of my blogging friends. I did meet with several of these bloggers at blog meetings but I prefer letting them judge whether or not we should be linked through Facebook. So, this new Friend Finder page looks pretty normal, Which makes the first Friend Finder page seem more unusual. Playing with my mind.

It’s possible that the first Friend Finder page was a glitch. Facebook has been known to have some bugs recently, as they implement (some would say “impose”) changes in the way they handle things like privacy and contact lists. But, looking at Richard’s contact list, it does seem that these people really are all connected, albeit indirectly.

Lest you should mistake my enthusiasm for flabbergastment, I must say that while I find these connections surprising, I still understand that they’re fairly easy to explain. The effect, though, is one of puzzlement at the extent of the Small World Effect. I feel as though my world were much tinier and much more clustered than I had ever assumed. Especially the Montreal portion of my social world. And I thought my friends were diverse… 😉

Yes, I know. I should just draw the network chart and let people reach their own conclusions.

Ah, well…

Academia and Education: Am I Naïve?

Last year, I wrote a short post about academia and teaching which I meant to be fictional. In it, the character was listing things s/he had assumed about academia and asked not to be called “professor.”
The fact that it was supposed to be fictional wasn’t very clear and my perspective is in reality quite close to that of the character. Still, I wasn’t disillusioned with the system. I was mostly voicing concerns which I perceive are being whispered by friends and colleagues. In other words, I do think that academia should be about knowledge, etc. It’s just that I never truly assumed it was, in fact, all about these things. While I’m usually quite naïve, I don’t think I ever was that naïve about academia’s inner workings. That’s one of the advantages of being raised in an academic milieu. We become quite cynical by age ten.
For some reason, Polish blogger Przemysław Stencel (a fellow Moodle user, it seems) deemed my blogpost worthy of pinging. And his blog repinged my post today (maybe he changed something on his blog). What I hadn’t noticed is that his link to my post generated two short comments. In Polish.
Unfortunately for me, I don’t know Polish. Pushed those comments through automatic translation. In the first comment, from a year ago, Robert seems to say that he had hoped educational systems weren’t all like the one I had naïvely described. In the second comment, published last month, Sebastian seems to point out that these discussions have been going on for a number of years in Poland and elsewhere (citing Ivan Illich as an example).
Only heard about Illich fairly recently. Can’t remember where, possibly a TED talk. Been looking at some of Paolo Freire‘s work (some of which is available online). Perhaps annoyingly, I keep mentioning that my father was trained by Jean Piaget because I strongly believe that my perspectives on learning and academia were shaped at a young age.

To be honest, even at the time I posted my blog entry, I was rather happy with my teaching experiences. In fact, the post was written while I was teaching at Concordia University, an institution which is pretty close to my academic ideals. Almost all of the other institutions at which I’ve been lucky enough to teach were also compatible with my approach to teaching. And the way I describe it, my high school experience seems very positive in terms of learning and teaching. 🙂
The source of my naïve professor post wasn’t frustration with teaching. It wasn’t even a disillusion with academia. It had more to do with a transition period in academia and what I realized my attitude was toward changes in academic contexts.
For one thing, I want academics to think about teaching. Because I believe such reflections are important yet occur rather rarely. I don’t think it’s especially useful for academics to take on some specific teaching strategies but I do think it’s important to reflect on what teaching really means, in diverse contexts. Teaching at a North American research university. Teaching in an urban high school in Africa. Teaching informally through European conferences. Teaching online.
Many of us in academia complain about some of the changes facing “our” universities. The (in)famous “customer-based approach to education.” The growing “sense of entitlement.” Unsolvable problems with the tenure system. All sorts of issues with lack of funding, the high turnover rate of new faculty hires, the politics of being an intellectual in anti-intellectualist contexts. All of these are fascinating topics, especially among academics. Pent up frustration needs to be vented, especially if overworked professors are to remain sane.
Yet… My attitude is slightly different. As things are changing for many of our academic institutions, I want to think about where we want to go next. Call me a naïve idealist (sure, why not?) but I do think we can select some scenarios. As long as we look at diverse options.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that academics pay no attention to all the options available. But it’s rather remarkable how some options are rarely discussed while those options which are discussed most frequently remain within the strictest limits of the current system. Even among radical thinkers, there seems to be a tendency to push aside several possibilities before looking at all their implications.
One none-too-radical possibility which is rarely discussed is to improve adjunct positions into something of a mid-level category. As things stand, adjuncts are sometimes perceived as lowly versions of full-time professors (tenure-track or tenured). The conclusion which is often reached is that adjuncts should be replaced by “more tenure.” In fact, some bitter adjuncts complain that they never had a chance to go on tenure-track. As if the two position types were variants of the same position.
A few people have talked about the idea of having “teaching faculty” with better job security than adjuncts (say, renewable five year contracts). In French, such a position is sometimes labelled «professeur enseignant» (“teaching professor”) by opposition to «professeur chercheur» (“research professor”). Maybe less prestigious than research chairs and endowed positions, but still worth considering. It seems to me that people are rather too quick at rejecting “teaching faculty” options entirely and I’m not entirely sure why. Oh, I do understand the reasons they give me to reject the options (that we need more full professors, that Harvard shows that such teachers are exploited). Yet I have no idea why academics seem so unwilling to look into such “teaching professorship” models and prefer dismissing the very concept offhand.
Similarly, something as obvious as taking a fresh and dispassionate look at current models for PTR (promotion, tenure, reappointment) seems inconceivable to many a faculty member. Sure, there are countless committees tasked into rewriting PTR guidelines for their respective (and highly respected) institutions. And faculty meetings often focus on PTR, for hours on end. (Though, luckily, some PTR discussions I observed were thoughtful, peaceful, and efficient.) But what I think we need is an open-ended discussion of what PTR could become, in diverse contexts.
Nothing too radical. In fact, just the kind of work we ask our students to do.
Critical thinking. Dialogue. Exploring options. Temporarily suspending assumptions we may have about the way contemporary universities work. Brainstorming (!) on what could be, before we can look at what’s really doable.
In other words: I happen to think that we need to be more naïve, not less.

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How Do I Facebook?

In response to David Giesberg.

How Do You Facebook? | david giesberg dot com

How have I used Facebook so far?

  • Reconnected with old friends.
    • Bringing some to Facebook
    • Noticing some mutual friends.
  • Made some new contacts.
    • Through mutual acquaintances and foafs.
    • Through random circumstances.
  • Thought about social networks from an ethnographic perspective.
    • Discussed social networks in educational context.
    • Blogged about online forms of social networking.
  • “Communicated”
    • Sent messages to contacts in a relatively unintrusive way (less “pushy” than regular email).
    • Used “wall posts” to have short, public conversations about diverse items.
  • Micro-/nanoblogged, social-bookmarked:
    • Shared content (links, videos…) with contacts.
    • Found and discussed shared items.
    • Used my “status update” to keep contacts updated on recent developments on my life (something I rarely do in my blogposts).
  • Managed something of a public persona.
    • Maintained a semi-public profile.
    • Gained some social capital.
  • Found an alternative to Linkup/Upcoming/MeetUp/GCal?
    • Kept track of several events.
    • Organized a few events.
  • Had some aimless fun:
    • Teased people through their walls.
    • Answered a few quizzes.
    • Played a few games.
    • Discovered bands through contacts who “became fans” of them (I don’t use iLike).