Monthly Archives: April 2008

“To Be Verified”: Trivia and Critical Thinking

A friend posted a link to the following list of factoids on his Facebook profile: Useless facts, Weird Information, humor. It contains such intriguing statements about biology, language, inventions, etc.

Similar lists abound, often containing the same tidbits:

Several neat pieces of trivial information. Not exactly “useless.” But gratuitous and irrelevant. The type of thing you may wish to plug in a conversation. Especially at the proverbial “cocktail party.” This is, after all, an appropriate context for attention economy. But these lists are also useful as preparation for game shows and barroom competitions. The stuff of erudition.

One of my first reflexes, when I see such lists of trivia online, is to look for ways to evaluate their accuracy. This is partly due to my training in folkloristics, as “netlore” is a prolific medium for verbal folklore (folk beliefs, rumors, urban legends, myths, and jokes). My reflex is also, I think, a common reaction among academics. After all, the detective work of critical thinking is pretty much our “bread and butter.” Sure, we can become bothersome with this. “Don’t be a bore, it’s just trivia.” But many of us may react from a fear of such “trivial” thinking preventing more careful consideration.

An obvious place to start verifying these tidbits is Snopes. In fact, they do debunk several of the statements made in those lists. For instance, the one about an alleged Donald Duck “ban” in Finland found in the list my friend shared through Facebook. Unfortunately, however, many factoids are absent from Snopes, despite that site’s extensive database.

These specific trivia lists are quite interesting. They include some statements which are easy to verify. For instance, the product of two numbers. (However, many calculators are insufficiently precise for the specific example used in those factoid lists.) The ease with which one can verify the accuracy of some statements brings an air of legitimacy to the list in which those easily verified statements are included. The apparent truth-value of those statements is such that a complete list can be perceived as being on unshakable foundations. For full effectiveness, the easily verified statements should not be common knowledge. “Did you know? Two plus two equals four.”

Other statements appear to be based on hypothesis. The plausibility of such statements may be relatively difficult to assess for anyone not familiar with research in that specific field. For instance, the statement about typical life expectancy of currently living humans compared to individual longevity. At first sight, it does seem plausible that today’s extreme longevity would only benefit extremely few individuals in the future. Yet my guess is that those who do research on aging may rebut the statement that “Only one person in two billion will live to be 116 or older.” Because such statements require special training, their effect is a weaker version of the legitimizing effect of easily verifiable statements.

Some of the most difficult statements to assess are the ones which contain quantifiers, especially those for uniqueness. There may, in fact, be “only one” fish which can blink with both eyes. And it seems possible that the English language may include only one word ending in “-mt” (or, to avoid pedantic disclaimers, “only one common word”). To verify these claims, one would need to have access to an exhaustive catalog of fish species or English words. While the dream of “the Web as encyclopedia” may hinge on such claims of exhaustivity, there is a type of “black swan effect” related to the common fallacy about lack of evidence being considered sufficient evidence of lack.

I just noticed, while writing this post, a Google Answers page which not only evaluates the accuracy of several statements found in those trivia lists but also mentions ease of verifiability as a matter of interest. Critical thinking is active in many parts of the online world.

An obvious feature of those factoid lists, found online or in dead-tree print, is the lack of context. Even when those lists are concerned with a single topic (say, snails or sleep), they provide inadequate context for the information they contain. I’m using the term “context” rather loosely as it covers both the text’s internal relationships (the “immediate context,” if you will) and the broader references to the world at large. Without going into details about philosophy of language, these approaches clearly inform my perspective.

A typical academic, especially an English-speaking one, might put the context issue this way: “citation needed.” After all, the Wikipedia approach to truth is close to current academic practice (especially in English-speaking North America) with peer-review replacing audits. Even journalists are trained to cite sources, though they rarely help others apply critical thinking to those sources. In some ways, sources are conceived as the most efficient way to assess accuracy.

My own approach isn’t that far from the citation-happy one. Like most other academics, I’ve learned the value of an appropriate citation. Where I “beg to differ” is on the perceived “weight” of a citation as support. Through an awkward quirk of academic writing, some citation practices amount to fallacious appeal to authority. I’m probably overreacting about this but I’ve heard enough academics make statements equating citations with evidence that I tend to be weary of what I perceive to be excessive referencing. In fact, some of my most link-laden posts could be perceived as attempts to poke fun at citation-happy writing styles. One may even notice my extensive use of Wikipedia links. These are sometimes meant as inside jokes (to my own sorry self). Same thing with many of my blogging tags/categories, actually. Yes, blogging can be playful.

The broad concept is that, regardless of a source’s authority, critical thinking should be applied as much as possible. No more, no less.


ISP Choice and Speed

Trying to figure out my typical throughput to determine what I need out of my new ISP as I move to Montreal. One issue is that I don’t know how long I’ll spend in Montreal. So I really need a monthly plan (not a contract).

Currently, in Austin, I’m mostly on a WiFi (802.11g) connection to an AT&T Yahoo High Speed Internet Pro DSL line.The plan is advertised as 3 Mbps downstream and 512 kbps upstream. It’s been fairly consistent over the past few months. There’s currently a desktop connected directly to the router but its network activity is minimal.
Here’s what the connection speeds look like, at this point:
So… About 1.6 Mbps down, 400 kbps up. For my typical use (including Skype, large number of podcast downloads, etc.), I’ve been finding it sufficiently fast.
So, how can I get something similar in Montreal?
Well, a similar 3Mbps/512kbps plan doesn’t seem to exist. Typical DSL plans in Montreal seem to be either faster (5-7 Mbps up, 800 kbps down) or much slower (288-500 kbps both dl/ul).
I really don’t need more speed than I currently have here and the faster plans are (unsurprisingly) more expensive than what I’m getting here. The lower-speed plans are somewhat less expensive than what I get here but they really seem quite slow. I mean, my upload speed is decent at 400 kbps but with all the overhead, I’m guessing a service advertised at 500 kbps must be rather slow. And I have a hard time figuring what that might feel like as a download speed.
The other issue is which specific ISP to choose. There’s choice. In fact, there’s a large number of individual providers. But it’s still limited in terms of actual plans.
I’ve had Bell Sympatico in the past and actually had good service from them. But they’re the most expensive DSL provider. The 7Mbps plan is over 42$ (w/o a contract) and it has a relatively low cap of 30GB/mo. Their 500kbps is quite expensive at 30$/mo. (w/o a contract), has an incredibly low cap (2GB/mo.), and very high price for extra bandwidth (7.50$/GB).
There are several unlimited or high cap (100GB) plans from “independent” providers like Vif and RadioActif. The normal price for a 5Mbps/800kbps (dl/ul) seems to be around 30$/mo. (w/o contract). Unlike Bell, these plans don’t include a modem. I’m not sure my current ADSL modem (Motorola 2210) can be used with any of these ISPs. I’ve sent emails to several of them to inquire about this. Modem rental is 10$/mo., making these independent ISPs almost as expensive as Bell. The modems they sell are around 90$, which is almost twice as expensive as the retail price of the Motorola 2210. (Actually, the modem was free after a cashback.) I already have WiFi routers, so that shouldn’t be an issue.
I guess the main issue at this point is the modem, then. There really should be a site where we can see which modem is supported by which ISP. My searches with the modem’s model number aren’t returning the kind of results I want. The user manual doesn’t seem to contain any information which could help me find this out. Maybe this modem is only supported on AT&T, in which case I might have to buy a new DSL modem. 
Ah, well…

My Blogging Life

Phew!

I just finished what might be one of my longest blogposts, ever:

PHP #1: Austin, TX (USA) « The Compulsive Pedestrian

I guess I had a lot to say… 😎

It’s on a new topical blog I created. That blog deals with what I now like to call “carfree living.” I was originally calling this “carless living” but “carfree” sounds better, for obvious reasons. 😉

I’ve been using that blog to talk about places that I know and that I perceive to be pedestrian-friendly or pedestrian-hostile. Hopefully, some people will connect to some of what I say about those places and eventually leave me comments. (Hint, hint! 😀 )

Actually, I’ve been receiving a decent number of comments through my blogs, recently. In fact, one blogpost became something of a forum thread, thanks in part to Carl Dyke who recently became a blogger. I “met” Carl on the anthro group blog Savage Minds, where Kerim Friedman and others have expressed their desire for more connections between anthro-friendly blogs.

For reasons which might not be entirely surprising, my blogpost comparing Texan and Albertan cities is getting a decent level of attention, especially from Edmontonians. In fact, it should be featured as a guest column on a community site. I even started looking at Edmonton as a place where I could live in the not-too-distant future!

Some of my other blogging activities are helping me get or keep in touch with diverse people. A coffee roaster, a former student, some local friends in both Montreal and Austin…

Though I tend not to care so much, I notice that visits to my main blog have been on the rise, in the past few months. If this tendency is maintained, I might get beyond my previous record of 5,867 visits in a month (in February, 2007). Through the rest of 2007, monthly visits to this blog ranged between 3,500 and 4,500, with a dip to 2,800 in June. (Yeah, I know. Fas-ci-na-ting.)

What’s more, I think that a larger proportion of visits to my blog are to posts I personally find interesting (as opposed to some silly posts which get lots of hits because their titles).

I’m now a bit more familiar with the new interface for WordPress.com blogs. Though the change was probably not visible to readers, the changes are rather extreme. What I find sad is that several features went away with the update: realtime wordcount, list nesting, automatic answerlinks, drag-and-drop widget management, and comma-separated categories. None of these features was really essential and the last one had good reasons to go, but it still implies a major adaptation. In fact, as much as I enjoy blogging on WordPress (and as grateful as I am to have access to a feature-full free blog host), I take issue with some of the ways Matt Mullenweg and his Automattic crew have treated WordPress.com users, on occasion. In this case, it would have been much easier if they had described the changes in advance, providing some documentation to enable a smooth transition. I know the update’s focus was on WordPress installed on people’s servers (i.e., not on blogs hosted on WordPress.com). But it does make me feel like a second-class citizen, which may not be what Automattic wants.

Thanks in part to changes in the way WordPress.com handles tags and categories, I’ve been able to clean up some of my categories for this blog. It’s still pretty much a mess, I know. But it’s much closer to being manageable than it was. And I notice the difference quite easily.

I also shuffled some widgets around my blog design, which was surprisingly difficult because of the changes in the WordPress.com interface. I think my blog is just a bit cleaner than it was.

The fact that my daily average blogpost count has increased in the past several days is partly due to a decision of mine to do more things through my blogs. I eventually realized what part blogging had to play in my life and these past several days were an occasion for me to use blogging as a kind of release. There really is something quite therapeutic about blogging.

One thing it might mean, though, is that this blogging spree will taper off relatively soon. As I’m preparing to move for the 22nd time since December, 2000, it’ll probably be best if I focus on other things besides blogging.

The cool thing is, blogging allows for this kind of behavior. The only thing a decrease in my blogging activities might mean is a drop in readership. But I care very little about hits and there are other ways for me to get in touch with people.


Edmonton:Calgary::Austin:Houston

Or “Edmonton is to Calgary as Austin is to Houston.” (Can’t remember how this form is called but it’s pretty common.)

At the risk of inflaming some city rivalries, I propose that Edmonton and Austin might be functionally equivalent cities in their respective contexts. I say this without having been to Alberta or even to Houston. But I get the feeling my analogy isn’t too far off.

An newspaper article about Edmonton confirmed my earlier suspicion (been thinking about this for a while, actually).

Alberta and Texas have several things in common, including cattle and oil (along with cultural correlates like rodeo and external signs of wealth). Texans seem to know relatively little about Alberta but I get the impression Albertans can relate to some dimensions of Texas culture. Possibly more than most other Canadians.

Some Albertans I’ve met in the past have described Calgary and Edmonton as radically different cities. One (Calgary, I assume) is taken to be quite representative of the province as a whole, including its financial potential. Edmonton, on the other hand, was taken as a “different” city from the rest of the province. If, as that newspaper article implies, Edmonton used to be Alberta’s “cultural capital,” it all seems to make sense, to me. Even if it’s not that accurate. Significance and truth are different things.

Alberta as a whole is likely to be misunderstood by the rest of Canada. Typically, at least in the East, that province is perceived as the Canadian equivalent to the (legendary) “American Old West” (complete with cowboy hats). I’m certainly not saying that this association is accurate, especially given the level of inaccuracy involved in images of the “American Old West” in movies and literature. But I think that, in the Easterners’ skewed perception of Alberta, images from Western movies are more prominent than those of UofA. My feeling is that Edmonton is somewhat further from this “Western” stereotype than Calgary is. Yet both cities certainly have their own “personalities,” far away from stereotypes.

(As an aside. It’s customary for me to address stereotypes on diverse occasions. I know I’m walking on eggshells. My attitude is that stereotypes are important because they inform relationships between groups of people. I don’t condone stereotypes but I do enjoy taking them apart.)

Coming back to Texas. Like Alberta, it seems to be misunderstood by the rest of the country. And while the “American Old West” stereotypes are quite inaccurate, many people throughout North America (and even Europe) do perceive Texas through the “Western” lens. Several comments made by Austinites and visitors to Austin have demonstrated how far Austin is considered to be from the Western stereotypes. My impressions is that the Texas capital’s unofficial motto of “Keep Austin Weird” (used as a slogan for local businesses) partly refers to Austin’s eccentricity by opposition to stereotypes about Texas. Not exclusively, but partly. At least, this is the impression I get from intellectuals who talk about Austin.

So, both Edmonton and Austin might be cities which are specifically trying to break away from regional stereotypes. They both host important festivals with themes of marginality or independence.  As it so happens, both cities are capitals and neither city is the largest in its region. They both have important universities which have traditionally been better-known than universities in their respective rival cities. And they seem to be unofficial sister cities.

Now, how about Calgary and Houston? Well… Both are big oil cities. Does that mean anything? I really can’t tell. People seem to assume a lot from these broad impressions about cities. And I’m quite convinced that these assumptions eventually imply the influx of people who are seeking a specific lifestyle. My guess would be that both Calgary and Houston may attract people who enjoy the same kind of thing, including driving and attending rodeos. (I’m only half-joking.)

No idea about Edmonton on this point but I must say that Austin attracts drivers. Of SUVs. As a compulsive pedestrian, I perceive a disconnect between the “absolute necessity” of having a car in Austin and the ideals many Austinites seem to have about pedestrian-friendly lifestyle. As compared to Boston, Montreal, or even Chicago, Austin is not a pedestrian-friendly city. Some people want to change this state of things but it’s possible that their efforts are doomed unless they carefully assess the situation.

Going back to my original analogy… I would add New Brunswick to the mix. Fredericton is like Austin and Edmonton while Saint John is like Houston and Calgary. Funny that Saint John should be an oil city the site of a major oil conglomerate [Edit 11/04/08 1:11:21 PM] and that Fredericton should be a capital. But I mean it more in terms of cultural associations.

The pattern doesn’t apply everywhere. It’d be very hard to fit cities in most other parts of North America or Europe in the model. In fact, I’m convinced that people will describe, in detail, how wrong I am in my associations between the four cities in the title.

But I still find it a fun thing to talk about.

Although I really enjoyed Fredericton and I’m currently enjoying life in Austin, I don’t mean to say that I’d dislike Calgary, Houston, or any other city. I feel that I can live in just about any city and, in the ten or so cities where I’ve lived for at least a month in the past eight years, I’m not always sure which I preferred. Actually, chances are that what I can do in a city is much more important than the city itself, in terms of my liking the locale.

Ah, well…


Texan Coffee Scenes, Cuvée

As I prepare to move away from Texas (unforeseen circumstances), Texas’s coffee scenes seem to be going through an interesting phase.

Case in point, recent media coverage of Houston’s Cuvée Coffee Roasting Company and its founder, Mike McKim.

These two newspaper articles complement one another in providing both the business model and human angles. I find the first one to be more insightful than the second one but I think the principles behind “relationship coffee” (the focus of the second one) is more important. In fact, these two articles could probably help Houstonians and other Texans see that there is much more to be done in “ethical coffee” than the Starbucks-friendly “Fair Trade” labels. In some contexts, “Fair Trade” has become little more than a marketing label while in others, it hides the complexity of coffee trade around the world. “Relationship coffee” and initiatives like Cup of Excellence are, IMHO, better approaches to fairness in the coffee world.

But I digress… 😉

Going back to Cuvée.

A very minor point… As a French-speaker, I find the term «cuvée» more general than what is said in the two articles. According to the English Wikipedia, “cuvée” can in fact designate a specific portion of the juice used for Champagne and sparkling wines. Seems like this is what «tête de cuvée» means in specific winemaking contexts in France. But in colloquial French where it is quite common, «cuvée» mostly means something close to “batch” («lot») with a temporal emphasis (like “vintage” or even “cohort”).

I do enjoy Cuvée coffee. Wouldn’t say it’s my favorite coffee ever, but it’s quite complex and flavorful. In a way, it reminds me of George Howell’s Terroir Coffee. Maybe not in specific profiles but in approach to blending. Feels to me like, in both cases, the blends are a bit “finicky” in the sense that they may require very specific values for different variables in the brewing process. Some other espresso blends are somewhat less sensitive to changes in, say, temperature or grind. But I say this without having really worked with Cuvée or even Terroir. It’s just an impression.

In Austin, Cuvée blends are served at an increasing number of cafés, including Caffè Medici, clearly one of the best espresso shops in town (though I’ve had some very good shots elsewhere). I do hope Cuvée will replace the coffee sold at some other places, especially at so-called “coffeeshops.” A big part of Austin culture, these coffeeshops seem to mostly act as hangouts than as “temples of coffee awesomeness.” In fact, in some cases, coffee seems to be really secondary and there is little incentive for owners to improve its quality. Yet, this coffeeshop scene could easily become the stage for a kind of local “coffee revolution.”

Some Austinites seem ready to help others shift their perception of coffee. I’ve met a few baristas, roasters, and other coffee people who seem open to the idea.

And one of them is at Cuvée. Since my arrival in Austin, I had the chance to talk on a few occasions with Dan Streetman who works for Cuvée out of Austin. His passion for coffee is obvious and he has told me about interesting possibilities for developments in Austin’s coffee scene. Though I won’t be able to enjoy the fruits of these developments, I’m hoping that they will have lasting effects on Austin. The city certainly has the potential to be a neat coffee destination.

I have almost no insight on other parts of Texas. This thread over on the CoffeeGeek forums is one of few resources I’ve found on coffee in this huge state. There’s another thread, specifically about Austin. But it seems a bit hard to get much information on diverse coffee scenes in Texas. In fact, several people seem to downplay the state of their own cities’ coffee vitality. Yet, if the rumors are true about the speed at which Calgary’s coffee scene has improved, I have high hopes for Texas. After all, isn’t Teas the United States version of Alberta? 😉

(I’m still trying to figure out if Calgary is more like Houston and Edmonton like Austin, or the reverse.)

Anyhoo… I remain enthusiastic about the potential for good coffee in Texas and chances are that Cuvée will be able to tap this potential.


Les filles sont volages

Malicorne, Gabriel Yacoub, a cappella

Les Filles Sont Volages
Les filles sont volages, fréquentez les donc pas
Un jour elles vous aiment, un jour elles vous aiment pas
Par un dimanche au soir, m’en allant promener
J’ai entendu la belle chanter une chanson
En vidant les bouteilles, les verres et les flacons
Je m’suis approché d’elle, pour lui parler d’amour
M’a répondu la belle – galant retire toi
Y’en a un autre que j’aime, bien plus joli que toi
S’il faut que je m’retire, je me retirerai
Dans un couvent la belle, j’irai finir mes jours
Vous ne pourrez pas dire que j’vous ai pas aimé


Well-Rounded Bloggers

While I keep saying journalist have a tough time putting journalism in perspective, it seems that some blogging journalists are able to do it.

Case in point, ZDNet Editor in Chief Larry Dignan:

Anatomy of a ‘Blogging will kill you’ story: Why I didn’t make the cut | Between the Lines | ZDNet.com

I didn’t read the original NYT piece. On purpose. As I’ve tried to establish, I sometimes run away from things “everybody has read.” Typically, in the U.S., this means something which appeared in the NYT. To the extent that, for some people, “if it’s not in the Times, it didn’t happen.” (Such an attitude is especially tricky when you’re talking about, say, parts of Africa which aren’t at war.)

This time, I’m especially glad I read Dignan’s piece instead of the NYT one because I get the gist of the “story” and Dignan provides the kind of insight I enjoy.

Basic message: blogging can be as stressful as any job yet it’s possible to have a well-balanced life as a blogger.

Simple, useful, personal, insightful, and probably more accurate than the original piece.

Oh, sure. It’s nothing new. It’s not a major revelation for most people that it’s important to think about work/life balance.

Still… As it so happens, this specific piece helped me think about my own blogging activities in a somewhat different light. No, it’s not my job (though I do wish I had a writing job). And I don’t typically stress over it. I’m just thinking about where blogging fits in my life. And that’s helpful.

Even if it means yet another blogpost about blogging.