Monthly Archives: July 2008

Enthused Tech

Yesterday, I held a WiZiQ session on the use of online tech in higher education:

Enthusing Higher Education: Getting Universities and Colleges to Play with Online Tools and Services


(Full multimedia recording available here)

During the session, Nellie Deutsch shared the following link:

Diffusion of Innovations, by Everett Rogers (1995)

Haven’t read Rogers’s book but it sounds like a contextually easy to understand version of ideas which have been quite clear in Boasian disciplines (cultural anthropology, folkloristics, cultural ecology…) for a while. But, in this sometimes obsessive quest for innovation, it might in fact be useful to go back to basic ideas about the social mechanisms which can be observed in the adoption of new tools and techniques. It’s in fact the thinking behind this relatively recent blogpost of mine:

Technology Adoption and Active Reading

My emphasis during the WiZiQ session was on enthusiasm. I tend to think a lot about occasions in which, thinking about possibilities afforded technology relates to people getting “psyched up.” In a way, this is exactly how I can define myself as a tech enthusiast: I get easy psyched up in the context of discussions about technology.

What’s funny is that I’m no gadget freak. I don’t care about the tool. I just love to dream up possibilities. And I sincerely think that I’m not alone. We might even guess that a similar dream-induced excitement animates true gadget freaks, who must have the latest tool. Early adopters are a big part of geek culture and, though still small, geek culture is still a niche.

Because I know I’ll keep on talking about these things on other occasions, I can “leave it at that,” for now.

RERO‘s my battle cry.


Naming Significance

Been thinking about names again.

Partly because of Lexicon Branding, a Sausalito, CA firm specialized in naming research for brands.

As it so happens, my master’s thesis was on proper names. I mainly focused on anthroponyms (personal names) and toponyms (place names), but the connection is obvious between Lexicon’s work and what I have done in the past.

In the past, I have mostly worked in a semiotic framework. The discipline of semiotics has lost some of its mainstream prominence but semiotic approaches are in fact quite common in social sciences, humanities, and marketing. My own training in semiotics has helped me integrate language sciences and music studies with symbolic anthropology and ethnographic approaches. Calling myself a “semiotician” might not seem like an excellent strategy to get a good job. But my training in semiotics can be quite useful in many contexts.

Within semiotics, I have mostly focused on names and on music. My master’s thesis was on proper names used in Malian praise-songs and my Ph.D. dissertation has involved both names and music in those same praise-singing performance contexts. As it so happens, there are clear connections (in my mind) between proper names and some musical patterns used in those praise-songs. The significance of both types of signs goes beyond some simplified explanations of meaning.

From a semiotic perspective, names are simply fascinating. As verbal signs, they are deeply significant. Not just meaningful by virtue of an arbitrary (or partially motivated) connection with an object. But significant through a more complex process of semiosis. More than other verbal signs, names can evoke a complex reality on their own. They resonate in a specific context. And they are salient across language boundaries.

In the Bamanan-speaking performance contexts I’ve observed, proper names have special significance.  For instance, those who are praised are those who have made a name for themselves. Simply calling out someone’s last name is equivalent to praising that person. Mentioning a place name in a praise-singing performance is a way to refer to events which have taken place at that location, often requiring listeners to possess some priviledged information about those events. Naming someone is a way to make that person social. Someone’s first name can have a deep impact on their character. Given the social structure, it’s often important to live up to one’s name and maintain a good name for the family as a whole.

What’s more, names (and musical patterns) are more motivated than the typical linguistic sign. As such, names can more easily participate in sound symbolism than other words. In this, names can resemble onomatopoeia and ideophones (which happen to be more frequent in African languages than in other linguistic contexts). In fact, some names share with sound symbolism the presence of non-typical morphophonological features for the language in which they are used. For instance, some English-speakers try to pronounce my first name as it is in French (/alεksãdr/), which implies a sequence of sounds which isn’t typical in English. Of course, I tend to go by “Alex” and a lot of people use the English version of my name (and spell it “Alexander”). But the point remains that even my first name can have some features reminiscent of sound symbolism, when used in a different language.

Lots more that I’ve discussed in both my master’s thesis and my Ph.D. dissertation. Going back to this fascination for names is a way for me to tie some loose ends.

Quite stimulating.

What does it all have to do with brand names? Quite a lot, actually, and it’s easy to realize. As some experts in social marketing tend to say, personal names often act like personal brands. “Branding yourself” is a market-driven approach to making a name for yourself. In Mali, people talk about the “publicity” aspect of the performance events I have been studying. In different parts of Africa (and in Brazil), people literally pay for the priviledge of being mentioned in song, because these mentions can be quite advantageous as “personal branding and marketing.”

One thing which attracts me to Lexicon specifically is the emphasis on cross-cultural communication. For very obvious reasons, Lexicon needs to make sure that the brand names it designs can have appropriate effects in a wide variety of linguistic and cultural contexts. We can all think of cases in which brand names had negative connotations in a language other than the one in which they were designed. But Lexicon’s approach seems to go much further. Beyond preventing the branding faux-pas which can have very detrimental effects on the product’s adoption, Lexicon works on the deeper integration of names in diverse cultural contexts.

Since I chersih human diversity, I’m deeply moved by examples of cultural awareness. In any context.

Québécois, officiellement

Ça y est, je suis officiellement redevenu un Québécois à part entière!
Ma carte d’assurance-maladie est arrivée, trois mois après mon retour au bercail.
Ça fait une énorme différence, pour moi. Non seulement par rapport aux soins auxquels j’ai droit, mais aussi pour des questions identitaires. Je n’ai perdu mon droit à l’assurance maladie que pendant quelques mois, mais j’étais devenu étranger dans mon lieu de naissance. J’ai conservé mes deux passeports (canadien et suisse), mais mon statut de citoyen québécois était en suspens. J’aurais eu le droit de voter ou, bien sûr, de travailler au Québec. Mais je ne faisais plus partie de la collectivité québécoise. La distinction peut sembler difficile à faire, mais elle permet de complexifier les concepts de pays, nations, états qui ont été construits depuis Rousseau.
En d’autres termes, je pense à la citoyenneté hors du nationalisme.

Crazy App Idea: Happy Meter

I keep getting ideas for apps I’d like to see on Apple’s App Store for iPod touch and iPhone. This one may sound a bit weird but I think it could be fun. An app where you can record your mood and optionally broadcast it to friends. It could become rather sophisticated, actually. And I think it can have interesting consequences.

The idea mostly comes from Philippe Lemay, a psychologist friend of mine and fellow PDA fan. Haven’t talked to him in a while but I was just thinking about something he did, a number of years ago (in the mid-1990s). As part of an academic project, Philippe helped develop a PDA-based research program whereby subjects would record different things about their state of mind at intervals during the day. Apart from the neatness of the data gathering technique, this whole concept stayed with me. As a non-psychologist, I personally get the strong impression that recording your moods frequently during the day can actually be a very useful thing to do in terms of mental health.

And I really like the PDA angle. Since I think of the App Store as transforming Apple’s touch devices into full-fledged PDAs, the connection is rather strong between Philippe’s work at that time and the current state of App Store development.

Since that project of Philippe’s, a number of things have been going on which might help refine the “happy meter” concept.

One is that “lifecasting” became rather big, especially among certain groups of Netizens (typically younger people, but also many members of geek culture). Though the lifecasting concept applies mostly to video streams, there are connections with many other trends in online culture. The connection with vidcasting specifically (and podcasting generally) is rather obvious. But there are other connections. For instance, with mo-, photo-, or microblogging. Or even with all the “mood” apps on Facebook.

Speaking of Facebook as a platform, I think it meshes especially well with touch devices.

So, “happy meter” could be part of a broader app which does other things: updating Facebook status, posting tweets, broadcasting location, sending personal blogposts, listing scores in a Brain Age type game, etc.

Yet I think the “happy meter” could be useful on its own, as a way to track your own mood. “Turns out, my mood was improving pretty quickly on that day.” “Sounds like I didn’t let things affect me too much despite all sorts of things I was going through.”

As a mood-tracker, the “happy meter” should be extremely efficient. Because it’s easy, I’m thinking of sliders. One main slider for general mood and different sliders for different moods and emotions. It would also be possible to extend the “entry form” on occasion, when the user wants to record more data about their mental state.

Of course, everything would be save automatically and “sent to the cloud” on occasion. There could be a way to selectively broadcast some slider values. The app could conceivably send reminders to the user to update their mood at regular intervals. It could even serve as a “break reminder” feature. Though there are limitations on OSX iPhone in terms of interapplication communication, it’d be even neater if the app were able to record other things happening on the touch device at the same time, such as music which is playing or some apps which have been used.

Now, very obviously, there are lots of privacy issues involved. But what social networking services have taught us is that users can have pretty sophisticated notions of privacy management, if they’re given the chance. For instance, adept Facebook users may seem to indiscrimately post just about everything about themselves but are often very clear about what they want to “let out,” in context. So, clearly, every type of broadcasting should be controlled by the user. No opt-out here.

I know this all sounds crazy. And it all might be a very bad idea. But the thing about letting my mind wander is that it helps me remain happy.

Ze-Style Identity Management

Neat experiment!

Ze Frank, probably the Internet personality with the happiest following, took over the Facebook profiles of two of his fans for one week each.

Here’s a post from one of those zefans who have been impersonated by Ze:

and x… gets the square – Ze Frank Wuzz Inside My Internetzz…!

I think what I like so much about these projects is that they’re both quite deep yet very playful. Fun without lack of seriousness. Honest, transparent, open.

Mental Imaging

To be honest, I found the following TEDtalk disturbing.

Rick Smolan tells the story of a girl | Video on

In that video from one of those selective conferences held through Technology, Entertainment, Design, Smolan describes his role in the adoption, by some of his American friends, of a then pre-teen “Amerasian” girl (a Korean girl fathered by an American soldier during the Korean war). The now grown-up woman’s American name is Natasha (despite the talk’s title, she’s not merely “a girl”). Natasha does get a “cameo” of sorts at the end of the talk. But the story is told by Smolan, from Smolan’s perspective. During her brief appearance on stage, Natasha tells Smolan that she’ll tell him later about points he has gotten wrong. But, on that occasion, Natasha graciously smiled for the camera and didn’t participate in the conversation. She’s the topic, not the narrator.
Unfortunately, I can’t find this woman’s birth name so I don’t know how to spell it. It would be awkward for me to call her “Natasha” when referring to her before her adoption. Most of the presentation revolves around this person’s life before being adopted. The rest of the story is the “Happy ending” section of the Hollywood movie she apparently wasn’t directing.

I know, I know… It’s a “charming” story. No, I don’t want to be a killjoy. Sure, everyone involved had purely altruistic intentions (even the uncle who had recuperated his niece). Yes, I’m quite happy for this woman, that she is apparently living a “good” life (though I can’t measure people’s happiness by watching a presentation about them). But, as saltydog said in another context, the story is “somewhat self-serving and lacking in depth.”

Now, to be honest, I’m not that sensitive to nice pictures (I’m more aurally oriented). My attitude toward journalism can’t be called “sympathetic.” The tendency to “pull at heartstrings” in some Anglo-American mainstream media, I find manipulative. Even adoption, I can be ambivalent toward, partly because of horror stories. So maybe I’m both missing something important and putting too much into this. But the point is, my reaction to this presentation isn’t very positive.

Because the story is so “charming,” I might need to justify myself. Even if I don’t need to, I’ll do so. Because this is my main blog and it serves me that kind of purpose, on occasion.

In that video of a “Korean Amerasian adoption story,” we have a self-conscious photojournalist from the United States who basically admits both to having been on a sort of mission (like all journalists, he mused) and to not having known what he was doing at the time. Smolan seemed so honest about how clueless he has been that I sincerely expected another direction for the plotline. I kept waiting for the twist. Especially at TED, which keeps priding itself on “inspired talks by the world’s greatest thinkers and doers.”

During his TEDtalk, Smolan kept referring to mental images he was having. Through his actions, Smolan was explicitly trying to make reality itself fit those images. Because these mental images came from an admittedly clueless perspective, the overall process doesn’t sound like an extremely charming story.


Smolan also mentions movie-type heroism on several occasions and it sounds like he was trying to write life as a movie script. Using the “American” looks of a young Korean girl as a major part of the plotline. With not-so-subtle allusions to racial categories.


Like saltydog, I much preferred the orphanage anecdote to the “beauty queen” and “cheerleader” photographs. Part of the reason is that the anecdote is more dynamic and more human than the pictures. This anecdote can also be a basis for empowerment, on the part of the girl who became Natasha, as opposed to the pictures which simply show conformity to local ideals.

One interesting thing about that specific anecdote (that this girl was organizing the orphanage on her own, after just a few days there) is the fact that it contradicts the “saved girl” story. On the basis of this anecdote, it would be presumptuous to say that this woman would be leading a disastrous life had she stayed in Korea instead of being “saved” by those well-meaning people in the United States. One could even hypothesize, given the limited data supplied by Smolan, that this relatively young girl could have since become a socially engaged Korean woman, helping people in her home community. With the current state of South Korean society, we might even assume that this woman would be living a comfortable life. And since her story isn’t over, one wishes that the next chapters will be as nice as the first ones.

Though, as we’re told, “Amerasians” were probably teased in that specific environment at that specific time, Smolan doesn’t make a good case for this particular girl being misadapted to the context in which she grew up. Simply put, apart from her grandmother’s wish, what solid proof do we have that “this girl” absolutely needed to be saved?

Smolan’s perception, based purely on superficial observation, that this girl was subservient to her uncle sounds like blatant ethnocentrism. Smolan does have the honesty to convey a few of the uncle’s comments about this. But the conclusion still is that intervening in a family’s business is the normal thing to do, for an American photojournalist receiving a request from a Korean woman he saw for a few days.

Smolan’s inviting young “Amerasian” adults to prove to the girl’s uncle that she would have a terrible life based on their own experiences sounds very manipulative, misinformed, and misleading. Because Smolan sounds too much like a nice guy, I have a hard time calling him arrogant. But his actions do sound like they were animated by arrogance.

Smolan repeatedly said how misled he was so I eventually thought that he was leading the (elite) TED audience into a story about his own “learning to be humble and to not judge from appearances.”

Not at all what happened.

What happened was more of a book or film pitch. Smolan may be a great guy. He also seems to be involved in a social marketing campaign. He’s allowed to do so, of course. But it’d be disingenuous to call the effort purely “charming.”

Furthermore, there’s the matter of this focus on one individual “little girl.” Makes for a nice Disney picture and for U.S. doctrines (foreign or domestic). Pulls heartstrings. Doesn’t necessarily help in the grand scheme of things. Especially when this focus comes from a photojournalist who seeked out this one girl on the premise that her grandmother originally didn’t want her to be seen by outsiders.

As Apollyon and jackyo have been asking in an Asian-friendly forum, what about the other “Amerasian” children involved? What about the broader case of Koreans or other people born in warzones, who have been fathered by U.S. or other foreign soldiers? If the girl who became Natasha did have to be saved, what about those other children? And if, as would be my hypothesis, this one girl could have led a nice life without leaving Korea at the onset of adolescence, aren’t there other children (in Korea or elsewhere) who could have a “better life” thanks to the compassion of those people in the United States?

There’s also the whole question of racial prejudice, present in the background yet not addressed directly in this talk. This one is a complex story, which would be worth more than lipservice. Racialism takes different forms in the United States and in Korea. Natasha’s experience in those two societies could shed some light on those issues. But, in the hands of journalists, individual stories often become more allegorical than insight-generating. Personalizing those issues isn’t a technique to engage in discussion. It’s a way to shut down communication.

Back in 1993, while emphasizing technological issues and the book contract that Smolan eventually signed, the New York Times mentioned Natasha’s Story as that of “an orphaned Amerasian girl” (regardless of whether or not her mother was still living at the time). Natasha herself isn’t named or given flesh, in that short piece about Smolan. She’s mentioned as the topic of a book and/or movie. A plot device more than a breathing character.

I sincerely hope that Natasha still knows how to empower herself. I sincerely don’t think she needs Smolan or anybody else to narrate her life.

Patent Filing the Future of Instructional Podcasts

Glad to see Apple thinking about some new ways to produce and distribute podcasts.

AppleInsider | Apple filing takes Podcasts to the next level

It’s quite possible that this patent filing may not lead to anything concrete but the very fact that Apple devotes some time to the issue could lead to interesting things. In fact, other manufacturers may be motivated to move in this space and this might have powerful effects on educational technology.