Category Archives: art

Jazz and Identity: Comment on Lydon’s Iyer Interview

Radio Open Source » Blog Archive » Vijay Iyer’s Life in Music: “Striving is the Back Story…”.

Sounds like it will be a while before the United States becomes a truly post-racial society.

Iyer can define himself as American and he can even one-up other US citizens in Americanness, but he’s still defined by his having “a Brahmin Indian name and heritage, and a Yale degree in physics.”

Something by which I was taken aback, at IU Bloomington ten years ago, is the fact that those who were considered to be “of color” (as if colour were the factor!) were expected to mostly talk about their “race” whereas those who were considered “white” were expected to remain silent when notions of “race” and ethnicity came up for discussion. Granted, ethnicity and “race” were frequently discussed, so it was possible to hear the voices of those “of color” on a semi-regular basis. Still, part of my culture shock while living in the MidWest was the conspicuous silence of students with brilliant ideas who happened to be considered African-American.

Something similar happened with gender, on occasion, in that women were strongly encouraged to speak out…when a gender angle was needed. Thankfully, some of these women (at least, among those whose “racial” identity was perceived as neutral) did speak up, regardless of topic. But there was still an expectation that when they did, their perspective was intimately gendered.

Of course, some gender lines were blurred: the gender ratio among faculty members was relatively balanced (probably more women than men), the chair of the department was a woman for a time, and one department secretary was a man. But women’s behaviours were frequently interpreted in a gender-specific way, while men were often treated as almost genderless. Male privilege manifested itself in the fact that it was apparently difficult for women not to be gender-conscious.

Those of us who were “international students” had the possibility to decide when our identities were germane to the discussion. At least, I was able to push my «différence» when I so pleased, often by becoming the token Francophone in discussions about Francophone scholars, yet being able not to play the “Frenchie card” when I didn’t find it necessary. At the same time, my behaviour may have been deemed brash and a fellow student teased me by calling me “Mr. Snottyhead.” As an instructor later told me, “it’s just that, since you’re Canadian, we didn’t expect you to be so different.” (My response: “I know some Canadians who would despise that comment. But since I’m Québécois, it doesn’t matter.”) This was in reference to a seminar with twenty students, including seven “internationals”: one Zimbabwean, one Swiss-German, two Koreans, one Japanese, one Kenyan, and one “Québécois of Swiss heritage.” In this same graduate seminar, the instructor expected everyone to know of Johnny Appleseed and of John Denver.

Again, a culture shock. Especially for someone coming from a context in which the ethnic identity of the majority is frequently discussed and in which cultural identity is often “achieved” instead of being ascribed. This isn’t to say that Quebec society is devoid of similar issues. Everybody knows, Quebec has more than its fair share of identity-based problems. The fact of the matter is, Quebec society is entangled in all sorts of complex identity issues, and for many of those, Quebec may appear underprepared. The point is precisely that, in Quebec, identity politics is a matter for everyone. Nobody has the luxury to treat their identity as “neutral.”

Going back to Iyer… It’s remarkable that his thoughtful comments on Jazz end up associated more with his background than with his overall approach. As if what he had to say were of a different kind than those from Roy Hayes or Robin Kelley. As if Iyer had more in common with Koo Nimo than with, say, Sonny Rollins. Given Lydon’s journalistic background, it’s probably significant that the Iyer conversation carried the “Life in Music” name of  the show’s music biography series yet got “filed under” the show’s “Year of India” series. I kid you not.

And this is what we hear at the end of each episode’s intro:

This is Open Source, from the Watson Institute at Brown University. An American conversation with Global attitude, we call it.

Guess the “American” part was taken by Jazz itself, so Iyer was assigned the “Global” one. Kind of wishing the roles were reversed, though Iyer had rehearsed his part.

But enough symbolic interactionism. For now.

During Lydon’s interview with Iyer, I kept being reminded of a conversation (in Brookline)  with fellow Canadian-ethnomusicologist-and-Jazz-musician Tanya Kalmanovitch. Kalmanovitch had fantastic insight to share on identity politics at play through the international (yet not post-national) Jazz scene. In fact, methinks she’d make a great Open Source guest. She lives in Brooklyn but works as assistant chair of contemporary improv at NEC, in B-Town, so Lydon could probably meet her locally.


In some ways, Jazz is more racialized and ethnicized now than it was when Howie Becker published Outsiders. (hey, I did hint symbolic interactionism’d be back!). It’s also very national, gendered, compartmentalized… In a word: modern. Of course, Jazz (or something like it) shall play a role in postmodernity. But only if it sheds itself of its modernist trappings. We should hear out Kevin Mahogany’s (swung) comments about a popular misconception:

Some cats work from nine to five
Change their life for line of jive
Never had foresight to see
Where the changes had to be
Thought that they had heard the word
Thought it all died after Bird
But we’re still swingin’

The following anecdote seems à propos.

Branford Marsalis quartet on stage outside at the Indy Jazz Fest 1999. Some dude in the audience starts heckling the band: “Play something we know!” Marsalis, not losing his cool, engaged the heckler in a conversation on Jazz history, pushing the envelope, playing the way you want to play, and expected behaviour during shows. Though the audience sounded divided when Marsalis advised the heckler to go to Chaka Khan‘s show on the next stage over, if that was more to the heckler’s liking, there wasn’t a major shift in the crowd and, hopefully, most people understood how respectful Marsalis’s comments really were. What was especially precious is when Marsalis asked the heckler: “We’re cool, man?”

It’s nothing personal.

Landing On His Feet: Nicolas Chourot

Listening to Nicolas Chourot‘s début album: First Landing (available on iTunes). Now, here’s someone who found his voice.

A few years ago, Nicolas Chourot played with us as part of Madou Diarra & Dakan, a group playing music created for Mali’s hunters’ associations.

Before Chourot joined us, I had been a member of Dakan for several years and my perspective on the group’s music was rather specific. As an ethnomusicologist working on the original context for hunters’ music, I frequently tried to maintain the connection with what makes Malian hunters so interesting, including a certain sense of continuity through widespread changes.

When Nicolas came up with his rather impressive equipment, I began to wonder how it would all fit. A very open-minded, respectful, and personable musician, Nicolas was able to both transform Dakan’s music from within and adapt his playing to a rather distant performance style. Not an easy task for any musician and Nicolas sure was to be commended for such a success.

After a while, Chourot and Dakan’s Madou Diarra parted ways. Still, Nicolas remained a member of the same informal music network as several people who had been in Dakan, including several of my good friends. And though I haven’t seen Nicolas in quite a while, he remains in my mind as someone whose playing and attitude toward music I enjoy.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the launch of Nicolas’s launch/show, on August 29. What’s strange is that it took me until today to finally buy Nicolas’s album. Not exactly sure why. Guess my mind was elsewhere. For months.

Ah, well… Désolé Nicolas!

But I did finally get the album. And I’m really glad I did!

When I first heard Nicolas’s playing, I couldn’t help but think about Michel Cusson. I guess it was partly because both have been fusing Jazz and “World” versions of the electric guitar. But there was something else in Nicolas’s playing that I readily associated with Cusson. Never analyzed it. Nor am I planning to analyze it at any point. Despite my music school background and ethnomusicological training, I’ve rarely been one for formal analysis. But there’s something intriguing, there, as a connection. It’s not “imitation as sincerest form of flattery”: Chourot wasn’t copying Cusson. But it seemed like both were “drinking from the same spring,” so to speak.

In First Landing, this interpretation comes back to my mind.

See, not only does Chourot’s playing still have some Cussonisms, but I hear other voices connected to Cusson’s. Including that of Cusson’s former bandmate Alain Caron And even Uzeb itself, the almost mythical band which brought Caron and Cusson together.

For a while, in the 1980s, Uzeb dominated a large part of Quebec’s local Jazz market. At the time, other Jazz players were struggling to get some recognition. As they do now. To an extent, Uzeb was a unique phenomenon in Quebec’s musical history since, despite their diversity and the quality of their work, Quebec’s Jazz musicians haven’t become mainstream again. Which might be a good thing but bears some reflection. What was so special about Uzeb? Why did it disappear? Can’t other Jazz acts fill the space left by Uzeb, after all these years?

I don’t think it’s what Nicolas is trying to do. But if he were, First Landing would be the way to go at it. It doesn’t “have all the ingredients.” That wouldn’t work. But, at the risk of sounding like an old cub scout, it has “the Uzeb spirit.”

Which brings me to other things I hear. Other bands with distinct, if indirect, Uzebian connections.

One is Jazzorange, which was a significant part of Lausanne’s Jazz scene when I was living there.My good friend Vincent Jaton introduced to Jazzorange in 1994 and Uzeb’s alumni Caron and Cusson were definitely on my mind at the time.

Vincent, musician and producer extraordinaire, introduced me to a number of musicians and I owe him a huge debt for helping me along a path to musical (self-)discovery. Vincent’s own playing also shares a few things with what I hear in First Landing, but the connection with Jazzorange is more obvious, to me.

Another band I hear in connection to Chourot’s playing is Sixun. That French band, now 25 years old, is probably among the longest-lasting acts in this category of Jazz. Some Jazz ensembles are older (including one of my favourites, Oregon). But Sixun is a key example of what some people call “Jazz Fusion.”

Which is a term I avoided, as I mentioned diverse musicians. Not because I personally dislike the term. It’s as imprecise as any other term describing a “musical genre” (and as misleading as some of my pet peeves). But I’m not against its use, especially since there is a significant degree of agreement about several of the musicians I mention being classified (at least originally) as “Fusion.” Problem is, the term has also been associated with an attitude toward music which isn’t that conducive to thoughtful discussion. In some ways, “Fusion” is used for dismissal more than as a way to discuss musical similarities.

Still, there are musical features that I appreciate in a number of Jazz Fusion performances, some of which are found in some combination through the playing of several of the musicians I’m mentioning here.

Some things like the interactions between the bass and other instruments, some lyrical basslines, the fact that melodic lines may be doubled by the bass… Basically, much of it has to do with the bass. And, in Jazz, the bass is often key. As Darcey Leigh said to Dale Turner (Lonette McKee and Dexter Gordon’s characters in ‘Round Midnight):

You’re the one who taught me to listen to the bass instead of the drums

Actually, there might be a key point about the way yours truly listens to bass players. Even though I’m something of a “frustrated bassist” (but happy saxophonist), I probably have a limited understanding of bass playing. To me, there’s a large variety of styles of bass playing, of course, but several players seem to sound a bit like one another. It’s not really a full classification that I have in my mind but I can’t help but hear similarities between bass performers. Like clusters.

Sometimes, these links may go outside of the music domain, strictly speaking.  For instance, three of my favourite bassists are from Cameroon: Guy Langue, Richard Bona, and Étienne Mbappe. Not that I heard these musicians together: I noticed Mbappe as a member of ONJ in 1989, I first heard Bona as part of the Zawinul syndicate in 1997, and I’ve been playing with Langue for a number of years (mostly with Madou Diarra & Dakan). Further, as I’m discovering British/Nigerian bass player Michael Olatuja, I get to extend what I hear as the Cameroonian connection to parts of West African music that I know a bit more about. Of course, I might be imagining things. But my imagination goes in certain directions.

Something similar happens to me with “Fusion” players. Alain Caron is known for his fretless bass sound and virtuosic playing, but it’s not really about that, I don’t think. It’s something about the way the bass is embedded in the rest of the band, with something of a Jazz/Rock element but also more connected to lyricism, complex melodic lines, and relatively “clean” playing. The last one may relate, somehow, to the Fusion stereotype of coldness and machine-like precision. But my broad impression of what I might call “Fusion bass” actually involves quite a bit of warmth. And humanness.

Going back to Chourot and other “Jazz Fusion” acts I’ve been thinking about, it’s quite possible that Gilles Deslauriers (who plays bass on Chourot’s First Landing) is the one who reminds me of other Fusion acts. No idea if Bob Laredo (Jazzorange), Michel Alibo (Sixun), Alain Caron (Uzeb), and Gilles Deslauriers really all have something in common. But my own subjective assessment of bass playing connects them in a special way.

The most important point, to me, is that even if this connection is idiosyncratic, it still helps me enjoy First Landing.

Nicolas Chourot and his friends from that album (including Gilles Deslauriers) are playing at O Patro Výš, next Saturday (January 23, 2010).

Development and Quality: Reply to Agile Diary

Former WiZiQ product manager Vikrama Dhiman responded to one of my tweets with a full-blown blogpost, thereby giving support to Matt Mullenweg‘s point that microblogging goes hand-in-hand with “macroblogging.”

My tweet:

enjoys draft æsthetics yet wishes more developers would release stable products. / adopte certains produits trop rapidement.

Vikrama’s post:

Good Enough Software Does Not Mean Bad Software « Agile Diary, Agile Introduction, Agile Implementation.

My reply:

“To an engineer, good enough means perfect. With an artist, there’s no such thing as perfect.” (Alexander Calder)

Thanks a lot for your kind comments. I’m very happy that my tweet (and status update) triggered this.

A bit of context for my tweet (actually, a post from, meant as a status update, thereby giving support in favour of conscious duplication, «n’en déplaise aux partisans de l’action contre la duplication».)

I’ve been thinking about what I call the “draft æsthetics.” In fact, I did a podcast episode about it. My description of that episode was:

Sometimes, there is such a thing as “Good Enough.”

Though I didn’t emphasize the “sometimes” part in that podcast episode, it was an important part of what I wanted to say. In fact, my intention wasn’t to defend draft æsthetics but to note that there seems to be a tendency toward this æsthetic mode. I do situate myself within that mode in many things I do, but it really doesn’t mean that this mode should be the exclusive one used in any context.

That aforequoted tweet was thus a response to my podcast episode on draft æsthetics. “Yes, ‘good enough’ may work, sometimes. But it needs not be applied in all cases.”

As I often get into convoluted discussions with people who seem to think that I condone or defend a position because I take it for myself, the main thing I’d say there is that I’m not only a relativist but I cherish nuance. In other words, my tweet was a way to qualify the core statement I was talking about in my podcast episode (that “good enough” exists, at times). And that statement isn’t necessarily my own. I notice a pattern by which this statement seems to be held as accurate by people. I share that opinion, but it’s not a strongly held belief of mine.

Of course, I digress…

So, the tweet which motivated Vikrama had to do with my approach to “good enough.” In this case, I tend to think about writing but in view of Eric S. Raymond’s approach to “Release Early, Release Often” (RERO). So there is a connection to software development and geek culture. But I think of “good enough” in a broader sense.

Disclaimer: I am not a coder.

The Calder quote remained in my head, after it was mentioned by a colleague who had read it in a local newspaper. One reason it struck me is that I spend some time thinking about artists and engineers, especially in social terms. I spend some time hanging out with engineers but I tend to be more on the “artist” side of what I perceive to be an axis of attitudes found in some social contexts. I do get a fair deal of flack for some of my comments on this characterization and it should be clear that it isn’t meant to imply any evaluation of individuals. But, as a model, the artist and engineer distinction seems to work, for me. In a way, it seems more useful than the distinction between science and art.

An engineer friend with whom I discussed this kind of distinction was quick to point out that, to him, there’s no such thing as “good enough.” He was also quick to point out that engineers can be creative and so on. But the point isn’t to exclude engineers from artistic endeavours. It’s to describe differences in modes of thought, ways of knowing, approaches to reality. And the way these are perceived socially. We could do a simple exercise with terms like “troubleshooting” and “emotional” to be assigned to the two broad categories of “engineer” and “artist.” Chances are that clear patterns would emerge. Of course, many concepts are as important to both sides (“intelligence,” “innovation”…) and they may also be telling. But dichotomies have heuristic value.

Now, to go back to software development, the focus in Vikrama’s Agile Diary post…

What pushed me to post my status update and tweet is in fact related to software development. Contrary to what Vikrama presumes, it wasn’t about a Web application. And it wasn’t even about a single thing. But it did have to do with firmware development and with software documentation.

The first case is that of my Fonera 2.0n router. Bought it in early November and I wasn’t able to connect to its private signal using my iPod touch. I could connect to the router using the public signal, but that required frequent authentication, as annoying as with ISF. Since my iPod touch is my main WiFi device, this issue made my Fonera 2.0n experience rather frustrating.

Of course, I’ve been contacting Fon‘s tech support. As is often the case, that experience was itself quite frustrating. I was told to reset my touch’s network settings which forced me to reauthenticate my touch on a number of networks I access regularly and only solved the problem temporarily. The same tech support person (or, at least, somebody using the same name) had me repeat the same description several times in the same email message. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was also told to use third-party software which had nothing to do with my issue. All in all, your typical tech support experience.

But my tweet wasn’t really about tech support. It was about the product. Thougb I find the overall concept behind the Fonera 2.0n router very interesting, its implementation seems to me to be lacking. In fact, it reminds me of several FLOSS development projects that I’ve been observing and, to an extent, benefitting from.

This is rapidly transforming into a rant I’ve had in my “to blog” list for a while about “thinking outside the geek box.” I’ll try to resist the temptation, for now. But I can mention a blog thread which has been on my mind, in terms of this issue.

Firefox 3 is Still a Memory Hog — The NeoSmart Files.

The blogpost refers to a situation in which, according to at least some users (including the blogpost’s author), Firefox uses up more memory than it should and becomes difficult to use. The thread has several comments providing support to statements about the relatively poor performance of Firefox on people’s systems, but it also has “contributions” from an obvious troll, who keeps assigning the problem on the users’ side.

The thing about this is that it’s representative of a tricky issue in the geek world, whereby developers and users are perceived as belonging to two sides of a type of “class struggle.” Within the geek niche, users are often dismissed as “lusers.” Tech support humour includes condescending jokes about “code 6”: “the problem is 6″ from the screen.” The aforementioned Eric S. Raymond wrote a rather popular guide to asking questions in geek circles which seems surprisingly unaware of social and cultural issues, especially from someone with an anthropological background. Following that guide, one should switch their mind to that of a very effective problem-solver (i.e., the engineer frame) to ask questions “the smart way.” Not only is the onus on users, but any failure to comply with these rules may be met with this air of intellectual superiority encoded in that guide. IOW, “Troubleshoot now, ask questions later.”

Of course, many users are “guilty” of all sorts of “crimes” having to do with not reading the documentation which comes with the product or with simply not thinking about the issue with sufficient depth before contacting tech support. And as the majority of the population is on the “user” side, the situation can be described as both a form of marginalization (geek culture comes from “nerd” labels) and a matter of elitism (geek culture as self-absorbed).

This does have something to do with my Fonera 2.0n. With it, I was caught in this dynamic whereby I had to switch to the “engineer frame” in order to solve my problem. I eventually did solve my Fonera authentication problem, using a workaround mentioned in a forum post about another issue (free registration required). Turns out, the “release candidate” version of my Fonera’s firmware does solve the issue. Of course, this new firmware may cause other forms of instability and installing it required a bit of digging. But it eventually worked.

The point is that, as released, the Fonera 2.0n router is a geek toy. It’s unpolished in many ways. It’s full of promise in terms of what it may make possible, but it failed to deliver in terms of what a router should do (route a signal). In this case, I don’t consider it to be a finished product. It’s not necessarily “unstable” in the strict sense that a software engineer might use the term. In fact, I hesitated between different terms to use instead of “stable,” in that tweet, and I’m not that happy with my final choice. The Fonera 2.0n isn’t unstable. But it’s akin to an alpha version released as a finished product. That’s something we see a lot of, these days.

The main other case which prompted me to send that tweet is “CivRev for iPhone,” a game that I’ve been playing on my iPod touch.

I’ve played with different games in the Civ franchise and I even used the FLOSS version on occasion. Not only is “Civilization” a geek classic, but it does connect with some anthropological issues (usually in a problematic view: Civ’s worldview lacks anthro’s insight). And it’s the kind of game that I can easily play while listening to podcasts (I subscribe to a number of th0se).

What’s wrong with that game? Actually, not much. I can’t even say that it’s unstable, unlike some other items in the App Store. But there’s a few things which aren’t optimal in terms of documentation. Not that it’s difficult to figure out how the game works. But the game is complex enough that some documentation is quite useful. Especially since it does change between one version of the game and another. Unfortunately, the online manual isn’t particularly helpful. Oh, sure, it probably contains all the information required. But it’s not available offline, isn’t optimized for the device it’s supposed to be used with, doesn’t contain proper links between sections, isn’t directly searchable, and isn’t particularly well-written. Not to mention that it seems to only be available in English even though the game itself is available in multiple languages (I play it in French).

Nothing tragic, of course. But coupled with my Fonera experience, it contributed to both a slight sense of frustration and this whole reflection about unfinished products.

Sure, it’s not much. But it’s “good enough” to get me started.

Omnivoring Conspiracies

Yup, I occasionally like to jump on bandwagons. Especially when they’re full of food and is being mentioned in a video presenting a cool local event in which I happen to take part. Alejna put the final nail in that coffin with her own use of that list.

From the Very Good Taste blog:

Very Good Taste » blog » The Omnivore’s Hundred.

So, here goes. A list of food items used as a “meme.”

The rules:

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.

2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.

3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.

4) Optional extra: Post a comment here at linking to your results.

1. Venison (I like game)

2. Nettle tea (also nettle wine)

3. Huevos rancheros (but I prefer migas)

4. Steak tartare (especially horse tartare)

5. Crocodile (not yet)

6. Black pudding (not that I really like it but I did have some)

7. Cheese fondue (several different types, including Fribourg’s moitié-moitié, “tarragon fondue” served on potatoes, and the three cheese classic)

8. Carp (fished by hand)

9. Borscht (only once or twice in restaurants)

10. Baba ghanoush (pretty common)

11. Calamari (I prefer fried over stuffed)

12. Pho (in my list of comfort foods, with bánh mỳ)

13. PB&J sandwich (not that frequently)

14. Aloo gobi (had some this afternoon, as a matter of fact)

15. Hot dog from a street cart (although Montreal has rules against them)

16. Epoisses (not sure I did; does it taste a bit like cancoillotte? I do remember having that…)

17. Black truffle (not by itself, though)

18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes (especially if apfelwein counts, but I’ve tasted other fruit wines)

19. Steamed pork buns (why would you have dim sum and avoid those?)

20. Pistachio ice cream (one that I had recently was especially yummy)

21. Heirloom tomatoes (I tend to be rather picky about tomatoes and I should have heirloom ones more frequently)

22. Fresh wild berries (oh, yes! I’m not a big fan of strawberries but wild strawberries are very nice. And the raspberries! Oh, the raspberries! Throughout Quebec, wild berries are really very common.)

23. Foie gras (though not on a poutine)

24. Rice and beans (for a while, it became my mainstay dish)

25. Brawn, or head cheese (and I’ve helped make some)

26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper (not raw but I’ve had a fair bit cooked)

27. Dulce de leche (only discovered it a few years ago but it does go in the comfort food list)

28. Oysters (though I tend to prefer them au gratin than raw)

29. Baklava (I especially like the pistacchio ones but they’re always good anyway)

30. Bagna cauda (Nope! Sounds interesting, though.)

31. Wasabi peas (what I like about these is that the spiciness is just a short little tinge and it leaves your tastebuds able to taste other things)

32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl (the first time may have been at Tufts)

33. Salted lassi (I like those kinds of tastes, almost reminds me of Tibetan tea)

34. Sauerkraut (just tonight, in fact!)

35. Root beer float (and tried other float experiments)

36. Cognac with a fat cigar (I don’t smoke but I did visit some distilleries in the Cognac region)

37. Clotted cream tea (only clotted cream on scones, to accompany tea)

38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O (only a few times: not my kind of thing)

39. Gumbo (I especially like it in Malian tô but I had some Indian gumbo this afternoon)

40. Oxtail (Swiss style)

41. Curried goat (not sure, actually; I’ve had goat, I’ve had curried meats, not sure about curried goat)

42. Whole insects (I’m not against it but I haven’t seeked that out as a culinary experience)

43. Phaal (I don’t think I did but I do like some South Indian dishes like that)

44. Goat’s milk (I’ve had yoghurt, ice cream, and cheese made of goat’s milk but not goat’s milk by itself)

45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more (I’m guessing the cask strength Oban was worth something like that. If not, some of our tasting sessions in Scotland may have including something like this.)

46. Fugu (nope, but I’ve been intrigued)

47. Chicken tikka masala (all the Indian chicken dishes I like)

48. Eel (mostly in sushi)

49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut (overrated)

50. Sea urchin (mostly in a paste with sake: delicious)

51. Prickly pear (I’m pretty sure I did and I know I’ve had it in juice)

52. Umeboshi (sounds good, though! I’m pretty much a drupe-lover)

53. Abalone (I like most molluscs so I’m guessing I’d like it)

54. Paneer (made some: fun and tasty)

55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal (way back when…)

56. Spaetzle (very common in Switzerland)

57. Dirty gin martini (I probably prefer it without the olive juice, though I like a dry martini with olives)

58. Beer above 8% ABV (I’ve made some)

59. Poutine (Quebec cuisine FTW!)

60. Carob chips (these were trendy at some point)

61. S’mores (a friend made an espresso drink based on those)

62. Sweetbreads (not among my favourite but we’ve done ris de veau at a restaurant where I used to work)

63. Kaolin (clay??)

64. Currywurst (I like pretty much all sausage dishes, though)

65. Durian (heard about it, intrigued about the smell)

66. Frogs’ legs (though most French-Canadians have never eaten them, it’s still the reason we’re called frogs)

67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake (and queue de castor)

68. Haggis (nope, but intriguing)

69. Fried plantain (we even did a whole “fried food” event and fried plantain was a big success)

70. Chitterlings, or andouillette (not among my favourites)

71. Gazpacho (our family version is chunky but I’ve had other versions)

72. Caviar and blini (thanks to French housemates)

73. Louche absinthe (as well as straight)

74. Gjetost, or brunost (sounds interesting)

75. Roadkill (although, it depends how it’s prepared)

76. Baijiu (I’m pretty sure I did but it might have been another liquor)

77. Hostess Fruit Pie (sometimes, convenience store food just makes sense)

78. Snail (especially in garlic butter)

79. Lapsang souchong (among my favourite teas, along with genmaicha)

80. Bellini (I remember the taste so I guess I’ve had it, but I’m not positive)

81. Tom yum (I tend to be picky about it but I do enjoy it)

82. Eggs Benedict (and all sorts of variations on the theme)

83. Pocky (had similar chocolate coate cookies but I’m not sure they taste the same)

84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant. (If only…)

85. Kobe beef (I’m trying to remember… I’ve had tasty Japanese beef but it probably wasn’t ever kobe)

86. Hare (and my ex-wife used to hunt them, as a kid)

87. Goulash (one that I remember was at Les Assassins, in Paris, but it had more to do with the settings)

88. Flowers (not whole fresh ones, though)

89. Horse (among my favourite meats)

90. Criollo chocolate (I probably did but it wasn’t pointed out)

91. Spam (I don’t dislike it but it’s not really my thing)

92. Soft shell crab (I did fish for soft shell crab but we didn’t eat them)

93. Rose harissa (didn’t know about that one but I love harissa)

94. Catfish (one of the first times was as a sandwich at the bus station in Gary, IN and I really liked it)

95. Mole poblano (and if I were still in Austin, I’d be having it regularly)

96. Bagel and lox (especially with real Montreal-style bagels, which I much prefer to New York style ones)

97. Lobster Thermidor (I prefer lobster with garlic butter)

98. Polenta (both as part of savoury dishes and with jam)

99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee (as overrated as overrated can get)

100. Snake (but I imagine I’d like it)

My impression of the list is that it’s somewhat typical of “foodie culture” among Anglo-Americans. Many of these items are quite common in different parts of the world yet they represent “novelty items” in the UK/US. A few items have to do with actual rarity (the rose harissa is a good example) and I perceive foodie culture to be typically oriented toward “making sure you’ve tasted all the rarest items at least once.”

Of course, the list includes a number of items which are supposed to gross out people. In fact, that’s probably a big part of “the whole thing,” the concept behind the “meme.” Though any food culture has a distinction between edible and inedible items, this emphasis on “grossing out” is, I find, very typical of Anglo-American attitudes toward food. In a way, food is compartmentalized by what is perceived as its very nature and little attention is paid to the joy of eating as a social process. In fact, this list places food smack in the middle of consumption culture and takes it away from the culture of experience.

I mentioned that I find Blue Mountain coffee and Krispy Kreme donuts to be overrated. The fact that they’re part of the list seems significant, in my mind. I perceive Krispy Kreme to be a “mass-marketed fad,” even though the donuts are decent. Blue Mountain coffee beans are a bigger issue. Those who don’t know coffee seem to associate certain broad coffee varietals with quality coffee and expensive coffee beans with a guarantee of quality. There are diverse problems with that. Between the quality of the varietal and the taste of the cup are a large number of factors including the specific estate, the specific crop, the picking method, the washing method, the roasting process, the freshness of the beans, and the whole brewing process (including grinding, water, manipulation, and device).

I’ve had coffee made with very expensive beans (more expensive than Blue Mountain) that was really very good and I’ve had much less expensive coffee which produced a wonderful cup. Blue Mountain coffee I’ve had tended to fall below my threshold for quality coffee. Same thing with most Kona beans. And though I’ve never had kopi luwak, I don’t necessarily want to try it just because it’s a novelty item.

One thing about my own list… There are several things which I’m unsure about. It may look like I’m not paying attention or that I’m pretending that I’ve had “the real thing.” But I tend to pay a lot of attention to experience, not to brands or novelty. For instance, I’m quite convinced I’ve had chocolate made from criollo varieties of beans. The criollo varieties might even have been mentioned when I was eating (or drinking) that chocolate. I certainly remember hearing about criollo varieties. But I care more about the taste of a specific chocolate at a given time, in a given context than about making sure I’ve had what’s considered the most “refined” version.

I’m more one to seek out a slightly better muffin. Or, more accurately, I’m one to try out muffins at different places and keep in mind something nice about all the pleasant muffin experiences I’ve had. I have in mind a generic “muffinness” and there are times when I feel like having a specific kind of muffin. But I’m never claiming that one muffin is intrinsically better than the other. Even when I say something is “good” or “better,” I never really have standards in mind, absolute or relative.

One thing I do like about this Omnivore list is that it pushed me to think about different food items. I quite enjoy thinking about food. And the list does include items which are fairly diverse (though they’re all available in semi-mainstream Anglo-American locations). There are patterns (in terms of Indian and Japanese cuisines, for instance), but it’s still a bit more open-minded than the typical stripmall. About the same level of openness to the world’s culinary diversity as a Whole Foods location.

Come to think of it, what if this list had been planted as a way to assess interest for items to be sold by a supermarket chain?

It’s all a conspiracy.

Tasting Notes: Cuvée Sumatra as Brikka

Some quick tasting notes taken on my iPod touch while drinking a cup of Brikka coffee made with triple-picked Sumatra Mandheling beans from Cuvée Coffee Roasters.

These notes aren’t meant as descriptions of the exact aromas and flavours I got from that cup. They’re more “analogical,” “impressionistic,” “inspired.” Kind of an “artist’s interpretation” of the cup instead of a careful organoleptic assessment. I personally don’t even trust my palate as much as some other people do. But my palate (and nose, especially) can make me have some of those pleasant experiences I so crave as an ethical hedonist.

The beans were already quite old. I did a few other Brikka pots with them in the past few days and some cup were very tasty. But this cup was the most interesting one so far. I think I was able to dial in the right grind for those beans at this point. Because of the way I “season” my Brikka, I think the quality of this cup can have a positive influence on my next cup.

Here goes…

  • Espresso-like
  • Cherry
  • Mole/cocoa
  • Complexity
  • Persistent
  • Less in flavours
  • Roasted hazelnut
  • Body
  • Refreshing chicoree finish
  • Bit meaty, broiled steak
  • Hershey chocolate syrup
  • Waffles
  • Spices (not quite cinnamon)
  • Faint grassy, herbal
  • Bit rugged (taste sensation)
  • Some watery corners despite body
  • Fleeting jasmine flower
  • Thin layer of char
  • Diner pepper shaker

Grisaille: littérature et éminence grises

La première fois que j’ai entendu le terme «littérature grise» (présentation de Daniel Gill au CÉFES de l’Université de Montréal), j’ai tout de suite été tenté d’étendre le terme au-delà de son usage original. Rien de très anormal, surtout en français.

En fait, je peux l’avouer, j’avais apparemment mal compris l’usage en question. Pas réellement honteux, surtout en français. Mais ça demande quand même un mea culpa. Je croyais qu’on parlait de ces textes qui, sans être académiques, pouvait quand même faire l’objet d’une lecture académique. Je pensais qu’il s’agissait d’un terme lié au sens critique, à la critique des sources.

Or, il appert que le concept de littérature grise ait une acception beaucoup plus étroite. Si je comprends mieux ce terme, grâce à Wikipedia, il semble surtout concentré autour du mode de publication. Un texte qui n’est pas publié formellement, par une maison d’édition, fait partie de la littérature grise. Tout texte à usage restreint, y compris les rapports internes, etc. Ce serait même la communauté de collecte de renseignements qui aurait inventé ce terme (en anglais). Il y a probablement une notion de confiance à la base de ce concept. Mais ce que je croyais y percevoir, côté sens critique ne semble pas être à la base de l’appellation littérature grise.

Où vais-je, avec ces élucubrations sur l’usage d’un terme apparemment aussi simple? Vers le rapport entre la tour d’ivoire et le monde réel.

Si si!

C’est que je pense à la «vulgarisation». À la «littérature populaire» en lien avec le milieu universitaire. Aux livres écrits pour un public large, mais avec une certaine dimension académique.

Souvent, la vulgarisation est décrite comme une version «populaire» d’une discipline existante («psychologie populaire» ou “pop psychology”). En anglais, “popularizer” correspond au rôle du vulgarisateur, bien que les connotations soient légèrement différentes.

C’est un peu comme ça que je définissais la «littérature grise». Un espace d’écriture qui n’est ni la publication académique arbitrée, ni la source primaire. Y compris une grande partie du journalisme (sans égard au prestige de la publication) et la plupart des livres à gros tirage. Ces textes qui doivent d’autant plus être «pris avec un grain de sel» que leurs buts ne sont pas toujours si directement liés à la simple dissémination d’idées ou à l’augmentation des connaissances.

Il y a de nombreux vulgarisateurs, de par ce vaste monde. Surtout parmi les Anglophones, d’ailleurs. Ils écrivent des tas de livres (et pas mal d’articles, dans certains cas). Certains de leurs livres sont des succès de librairie. Les vulgarisateurs deviennent alors des personnalités connues, on les invite à des émissions de télé, on demande leur avis à l’occasion, on leur donne certaines responsabilités. «On» désigne ici l’establishment médiatique et une des sources de la «culture populaire». Dans plusieurs milieux généralement anti-intellectuels, ce «on» est relativement restreint. Mais l’effet commercial demeure grand.

Même dans une région où le travail intellectuel est peu respecté, le genre d’activité médiatique que les vulgarisateurs peuvent entreprendre donne lieu à toute une entreprise, semble-t-il assez profitable.

Un truc à noter, avec le rôle de vulgarisateur, c’est qu’il s’agit davantage de servir de canal plutôt que de contribuer de façon significative à la connaissance académique. Bien sûr, les contributions de plusieurs vulgarisateurs sont loin d’être négligeables. Mais le rôle d’un vulgarisateur va alors au-delà du travail de vulgarisation.

Ce qui est assez facile à observer, c’est que les contributions des vulgarisateurs sont souvent surévaluées par leurs publics. Rien de très surprenant. On croit aisément que c’est le communicateur qui est la source ultime du message communiqué, surtout si ce message est vraiment nouveau pour nous. Et la zone médiatique qu’occupent si facilement les vulgarisateurs est obnubilée par la notion de la découverte individuelle, par le «génie» du chercheur, par le prestige de la recherche. Le vulgarisateur individuel représente la communauté académique dans son ensemble qui, elle, est souvent conçue comme ne devant pas donner trop d’importance à la personalité du chercheur.

Dans le milieu académique, les attitudes face aux vulgarisateurs sont assez variées. Il y a parfois un certain respect, parfois une certaine jalousie. Mais il y a aussi beaucoup de crainte que le travail académique soit galvaudé par la vulgarisation.

Il y a un ensemble de réactions qui viennent du fait que la vulgarisation du travail académique est souvent au cœur de ce que les enseignants universitaires doivent contrecarrer chez plusieurs étudiants. La tâche de remettre en cause ce que des vulgarisateurs ont dit peut donner lieu à des situations difficiles. Plusieurs sujets sont «sensibles» (“touhcy subjects”).

D’ailleurs, la sensibilité d’un sujet dépend souvent de la spécialisation disciplinaire. Une ingénieure peut avoir des réactions très fortes à propos d’un sujet qui lui tient à cœur, par exemple au sujet d’un langage de programmation. Au cours d’une discussion autour de ce type de sujet, cette ingénieure peut se plaindre de la vulgarisation, exiger de la rigueur, condescendre au sujet des connaissances des gens. Mais cette même ingénieure peut ne voir aucun problème à discuter de questions sociales d’une façon par trop simpliste et se surprendre des réactions des gens. La même situation se produit à l’inverse, bien sûr. Mais je me concerne plus d’être humain que de «génie»! 😉

Il y a un peu de mépris, dans tout ça. La discipline des autres semble toujours plus simple que la sienne et on s’y croit toujours meilleur qu’on ne l’est vraiment.

C’est un peu comme si un professeur d’histoire de l’art publiait un livre sur la biologie moléculaire (sans avoir de formation dans un domaine biologique quelconque) ou si le détenteur d’un prix Nobel de physique publiait des propos sur l’histoire de la littérature (sans avoir pris connaissance du domaine).

Puisque je suis surtout anthropologue, je peux utiliser l’exemple de l’anthropologie.

Comme beaucoup d’autres disciplines, l’anthropologie est très mal représentée dans le public en général ou même dans le milieu académique. D’ailleurs, nous avons parfois l’impression que notre discipline est moins bien représentée que celle des autres. Il y a probablement un biais normal là-dessous. Mais je crois qu’il y a quelque-chose que les gens qui n’ont jamais travaillé en tant qu’anthropologue ne saisissent pas très bien.

Nombreux sont les collègues qui se méprennent au sujet de notre discipline. Les commentaires au sujet de l’anthropologie prononcés par des chercheurs provenant d’autres disciplines sont aussi exacts que si on définissait la biologie comme la critique des relations de pouvoir et la sociologie comme l’étude des courants marins. Qui plus est, plusieurs de nos collègues nous traitent de façon condescendante même lorsque leurs propres disciplines ont largement bénéficié de recherches anthropologiques.

Le problème est moins aigu en anthropologie physique et en archéologie que parmi les «disciplines ethnographiques» (comme l’ethnolinguistique, l’ethnohistoire et l’ethnologie). L’anthropologie judiciaire, l’archéologie préhistorique, la paléontologie humaine et la primatologie sont généralement considérée comme assez “sexy” et, même si le travail effectué par les chercheurs dans ces domaines est très différent de l’idéal présenté au public, il y a un certain lien entre le personnage imaginé par le public et la personne affublée de ce personnage. Oh, bien sûr, on a toujours des étudiants qui intègrent l’anthropologie pour devenir Jane Goodall, Kathy Reichs ou Indiana Jones. Mais c’est plus facile de ramener les gens sur terre en leur montrant le vrai travail du chercheur (surtout si ces gens sont déjà passionés par le sujet) que de franchir le fossé qu’il y a entre l’idée (souvent exotique et/ou ésotérique) que les gens se font de l’ethnographe.

En anthropologie, un des vulgarisateurs qui nous donne du fil à retordre, c’est Jared Diamond. Probablement pas un mauvais bougre. Mais c’est un de ceux qui nous forcent à travailler à rebours. Certains le croient anthropologue (alors que c’est un physiologiste et biologiste travaillant en géographie). Certaines personnes découvrent, grâce à Diamond, certains aspects liés à l’anthropologie. Mais le travail de Diamond sur des questions anthropologiques semble peu approprié parmi la communauté des anthropologues.

En anthropologie linguistique, comme dans d’autres domaines d’étude du langage, nous sommes aux prises avec des gens comme Noam Chomsky et Steven Pinker. L’un comme l’autre peut, à juste titre, être considéré comme innovateur dans son domaine. D’ailleurs, Chomsky a été (individuellement) un personnage si important dans la l’histoire de la linguistique de la fin du siècle dernier qu’on peut parler de «dominance», voire d’hégémonie chomskyenne. Pinker est depuis longtemps une «étoile montante» de la science cognitive et plusieurs cognitivistes tiennent compte de ses recherches. Toutefois, ils occupent tous les deux unou deplace assez large dans «l’esprit du public» au sujet du langage. Pinker tient plus directement le rôle du vulgarisateur dans ses activités, mais Chomsky est tout aussi efficace en tant que «figure» de la linguistique. J’aurais aussi pu parler de Deborah Tannen ou de Robin Lakoff, qui abordent toutes deux des aspects du langage qui sont importants en anthropologie linguistique. Mais elles semblent bien moins connues que Pinker et Chomsky. Détail intéressant: sur Wikipédia en français, elles sont énumérées parmi les linguistes mais elles n’ont pas leurs propres articles. Pourtant, l’ex-époux de Robin Tolmach Lakoff, George Lakoff, fait l’objet d’un article relativement détaillé. Sur Wikipedia en anglais, Robin Lakoff a son propre article mais les liens sur “Lakoff” et même “Professor Lakoff” redirigent le lecteur vers le même George avec mention de «la sociolinguiste» pour disambiguer. C’est peut-être logique, normal ou prévisible. Mais ça reste amusant.

D’ailleurs, je me demande maintenant s’il n’y a pas un certain biais, un certain obstacle à la reconnaissance des femmes dans le domaine de la vulgarisation. Parmi les chercheures qui tiennent le rôle de vulgarisatrices, j’ai de la difficulté à penser à des femme très connues du public en général. Il y a bien eu Margaret Mead, mais son rôle était légèrement différent (entre autres à cause du développement de la discipline, à l’époque). Il y a aussi Jane Goodall et Kathy Reichs, mentionnées plus haut. Mais on semble les connaître plus par leurs vies ou leurs travaux de fiction que par leurs activités de vulgarisation académique comme tel. On se méprend moins à cause d’elles sur les buts de la recherche que l’on ne se méprend à cause de gens comme Diamond ou Pinker. Y a-t-il d’autres femmes dont les activités médiatiques et bibliographiques ont, présentement, le même type d’impact que celles de Pinker, Chomsky ou Diamond? J’espère bien mais, honnêtement, j’ai de la difficulté à en trouver. Reichs est une bonne candidate mais, à ce que je sache, elle a toujours publié des ouvrages de fiction et non le type de texte semi-académique auquel je donne (de façon inexacte) le nom de «littérature grise».

Peut-être ne suis-je que biaisé. Je vois les femmes comme mieux à même de «faire la part des choses» entre travail académique et activités médiatiques que les hommes dont je parle ici. Ou bien j’ai tout simplement de la difficulté à critiquer les femmes.

Toujours est-il que…

J’ai, personnellement, un rapport assez particulier à la vulgarisation. Je la considère importante et je respecte ceux qui la font. Mais j’ai des opinions assez mitigées par rapport aux travaux effectués par divers vulgarisateurs.

J’ai assisté à divers événements centrés sur certains d’entre eux. Entre autres, une présentation de Pinker liée au lancement d’un de ses livres. Bien que cette présentation ait été effectuée dans sa ville natale et au sein de l’université où il a débuté ses études, Pinker n’avait alors pas su adapter sa présentation à son public. Selon moi, un des critères servant à évaluer la performance d’un vulgarisateur, c’est sa capacité à travailler avec «son» public.

Douglas Hofstadter m’avait semblé intellectuellement imprudent, lors de sa participation à un colloque sur la cognition à l’Université d’Indiana (pendant ma scolarité de doctorat au sein de cette institution assoifée de prestige). Ses propos ressemblaient plus à ceux d’un auteur de science fiction qu’à ceux d’un cognitiviste. Faut dire que j’ai jamais été impressionné par ses textes.

Vendredi soir dernier, j’ai assisté à une présentation du philosophe Daniel Dennett. Cette présentation, organisée par l’Institut de sciences cognitives de l’UQÀM, faisait partie d’une conférence plus large. Mais je n’ai remarqué que la présentation de Dennett, dans le programme distribué par courriel.

C’est d’ailleurs cette présentation qui m’a motivé à écrire ce billet. Le titre de ce billet se veut être une espèce de jeu de mots un peu facile. Il y a un aspect zeugmatique, ce que j’aime bien. J’avais d’abord décidé de l’écrire en anglais et de le nommer “grey literature and grey beards”, en référence partielle à un commentaire, laissé par Valérie Bourdeau sur mon «mur» Facebook, au sujet des barbus au type académique présents lors de l’événement. Encore là, un petit coup de jeu de mots.

Faut dire que Dennett a beaucoup utilisé l’humour, lors de sa présentation. Entre autres, plusieurs commentaires ressemblaient à des «blagues d’initiés» pour ceux qui connaissent bien son œuvre. Ces blagues étaient un peu «faciles», mais elles n’étaient pas dénuée d’à propos.

Mes notes prises au cours de la présentation de Dennett à l’aide de mon iPod touch, portent plutôt sur la forme de cette présentation que sur son contenu. J’ai quand même relevé certains commentaires au sujet de Dan Sperber, dont j’ai lu certains travaux et qui me semble justement cerner certaines questions importantes à l’égard de la cognition en contexte social d’une façon plus profonde que celle de Dennett ou de son ami Dawkins. Ces commentaires de Dennett au sujet de Sperber m’ont semblé un peu «rapides», ne tenant pas vraiment en compte la teneur réelle des travaux de Sperber. Pas que je suis nécessairement un fan inconditionnel de Sperber, mais les contre-arguments semblaient un peu spécieux.

La présentation dans son ensemble était assez intéressante et, en mettant en parallèle plusieurs idées assez distinctes, peut avoir été stimulante pour plusieurs personnes. Et probablement assez efficace pour ce qui est de la vente de livres.

Pour dire la franche vérité, j’ai trouvé cette présentation plus utile que ce à quoi je m’attendais. Force m’est d’admettre que, malgré mon respect pour le travail de vulgarisation, je m’attendais à quelque-chose de très superficiel. Et même si Dennett n’a pas atteint de grandes profondeurs lors de cette présentation, il s’est montré capable de permettre aux membres de l’auditoire de conserver leurs sens critiques, ce qui est rare dans la sphère médiatique qu’occupe parfois Dennett (surtout au sujet du dogmatisme, religieux ou athée). En d’autres termes, Dennett ressemblait davantage à un bon prof qu’à un vulgarisateur typique. Puisqu’il enseigne à Tufts, établissement difficile pour l’enseignement, je trouve cette qualité encore plus remarquable.

Ce qui est aussi intéressant, c’est que Dennett a parlé lui-même de vulgarisation. Il semblait soit prendre parti pour la vulgarisation ou se défendre de simplifier à outrance les questions complexes dont il traitait. De plus, Dennet a su critiquer directement le réductionnisme, un sujet qui me tient particulièrement à cœur. Dans un certain monde «scientiste», la science est exhaustivement explicative et toute question est concevable comme une réduction à des facteurs simples. C’est, selon moi, une approche simpliste, source de méprise et de situations embarrassantes. Dennett semble avoir une perspective similaire et s’est prononcé à la fois contre le réductionnisme scientifique en général et contre le déterminisme génétique en particulier (une forme particulièrement populaire de réductionnisme, à l’heure actuelle).

Ce n’est qu’après avoir commencé la rédaction de ce billet que j’ai écouté l’entrevue (audio) accordée par Hubert Reeves à l’émission Les années lumière de Radio-Canada. Non seulement Hubert Reeves y parle-t-il de vulgarisation mais, comme Dennett, il se prononce directement contre le réductionnisme. Très agréable et utile.

Une des choses que les vulgarisateurs arrivent à faire c’est le pont entre diverses disciplines. Soit à l’intérieur d’un des grands champs du monde académique (arts, sciences humaines, sciences naturelles…) ou même entre ces grands champs d’investigation (typiquement, entre Art et Science). Il y a rarement une balance réelle. Il s’agit souvent d’un scientifique qui parle d’art ou de sciences sociales, parfois avec des résultats plutôt mitigés. Mais la tendance est déjà vers le «généralisme créatif», vers une épistémologie large qui intègre diverses approches et conserve son sens critique dans diverses situations. Il y a quelque-chose de «raffraîchissant», dans tout ça.

Ce que j’apprécie peut-être le plus des vulgarisateurs, et ce que j’entreprends à ma façon, c’est l’implication sociale. Un peu comme des Bourdieu ou Attali en France, les vulgarisateurs du monde anglophone réussissent à sortir de la tour d’ivoire et à s’intégrer à la communauté sociale.

Un truc qui m’embête un peu, dans tout ça, c’est que certaines de mes activités (entre autres, les blogues) sont assez proches de la «littérature grise» et de la vulgarisation. Ce n’est peut-être qu’un problème dans le système actuel qui domine le milieu académique. Mais je ressens parfois un certain malaise. D’autant plus que, contrairement aux grands vulgarisateurs, je ne suis pas très doué dans la vente de textes.

Mais, ça, c’est mon problème. Je n’ai peut-être que la barbe de grise, mais peut-être qu’un jour je me transformerai en éminence grise… 😀

Judging Eastern Canadian Espresso

For an ethnographer, it’s always a treat to gain entry in a new group. These past few days, I was given a glimpse, and possibly even some new contacts, into an espresso scene which includes dedicated coffee professionals from diverse regions.

I was acting as a sensory judge for the Eastern Regional competition of the Canadian Barista Championship, right here in Montreal.

Part of this event was blogged:

» Blog Archive » Bravo Montreal!

Though the event was held on Sunday (June 15) and Monday (June 16), I haven’t been able to report back on the experience until today. And I still haven’t completely debriefed with myself about this.

A general comment I can make is that there does seem to be a move toward an enhanced espresso scene in Eastern Canada. And although this recent competition’s first place was given to a barista from Ottawa (sincere congratulations, Laura!), I maintain that Montreal can be at the centre of a coffee renaissance.

Of course, I’m completely biased. And I’ve been talking about this same issue for a while. What is new, for me, is direct experience in Montreal’s espresso scene. Participant-observation in a very literal sense.

As a personal aside: though it’s the furthest thing from what I try to be, some people tend to find me intimidating, in daily life. As a judge, I was apparently quite intimidating, even to people who already knew me. I usually feel weird when people find me intimidating but, given the context, the reaction seems quite appropriate. I had to maintain a straight face and to refrain from interacting with competitors throughout the competition. Though it was a bit hard to do at first, it seems to have worked. And I felt very consistent, fair, and impartial throughout the competition.

Also somewhat personal, but more directly related to the task at hand, being a judge required me to temporarily change my perspective on espresso. Specifically, I had to separate my personal taste from the competition calibration. This barista championship has some strict guidelines, taken from the World Barista Championship. We weren’t judging whether or not the espresso was flavourful or complex. We were assessing the degree to which baristas were able to produce espresso which responded to some very specific criteria. To this ethical hedonist, it was a challenge. But it wasn’t as difficult a challenge as I expected.

Since my approach to food and beverages is based on reflective olfaction, the fact that aromas weren’t part of the judging calibration seemed especially surprising to me.

Obviously, I observed a lot more. And I could blog about my perception of the competitors. Yet because I was acting as a judge, talking about specific competitors would seem unethical. On the other hand, I will have occasions to talk with some former competitors and give them my impression of their work. This should be quite fun.

So, overall, I’m quite grateful to everyone involved for an occasion to get a glimpse into a part of Eastern Canada’s espresso scene.

Should be fun during the national competition of the Canadian Barista Championship, which will be held on October 21 and 21, during the Canadian Coffee & Tea Show. Not sure I’ll be a judge then, but I’m convinced it’ll be a fine event.

Audio People of the World: “You, Knight!”

Much to be said about a recent ITConversations podcast episode. Ostensibly, this episode was about the LibriVox success story. (LibriVox is a community project producing public domain audiobooks from public domain books in diverse languages.) Yet, during this conversation, Web analyst (and Microsoft employee) Jon Udell along with LibriVox founder Hugh McGuire managed to share much insight on such varied issues as community-building, project management, grassroots movement, open source development, participatory culture, and aurality/orality.

After the chat, Udell and McGuire followed up, on their respective blogs. Udell developed a useful script to make all LibriVox books into RSS feeds for use in iTunes and other media players. Such a collaboration is an appropriate example of the power of “scratch your own itch” development, described during the podcast conversation. The conversation also prompted Librivox reader Sean McGaughey to describe LibriVox as a killer app. [Update: Blog version of the same description.]

I was led to this podcast episode through a visit to LibriVox reader Kara Shallenberg’s blog. Started listening to the LibriVox podcast after reading about LibriVox on fellow YulBlogger Patrick Tanguay’s own blog. Among other things, LibriVox helped me appreciate Canadian Literature and I’m quite glad that the project may contribute to Montreal’s widespread recognition at the cutting edge of technology and culture.

As an aural learner, I was quite taken by Udell and McGuire’s comments on auditory media. It seems that these two guys really grok what is so neat about sound. At least, their ideas about sound are quite compatible with my own ideas about music, language, and the cultural importance of sound.

We might be in a minority, North Americans who care about sound. Many people (including some online visionaries) seem to care more about visuality. In fact, given the large number of Web designers in the “Web 2.0” movement, it might be said that auditory media have often been considered a subset of “audiovisual content.” Yet there is something to be said about sound standing alone in digital life.

For instance, McGuire and Udell talk about the possibility for people to undertake other activities while listening to audiobooks and other auditory content. Commuting is probably the easiest one to grasp, for most people, and while it might be fun to watch a DVD on a plane or bus, audio podcasts are possibly the ideal “distraction” for (hearing) commuters. Listening to podcasts while moving around has led to very stimulating experiences.

Fans of McLuhan would probably think of “hot” and “cool” media. The difference between video and audio podcasts clearly relates to McLuhan’s ideas about participation.

There’s also the issue of rhythm. While moving images certainly can be rhythmic, speech and musical rhythm seem, to me, to be more readily associated with diverse human activities. No idea where to look for the cognitive side of this but it’s clearly worth investigating.

For lack of a better word, sound is more “abstract” than other sensory experiences. Acoustic signals do have a physical reality but the practise of listening has been used to elicit important ideas about abstract structures in Euro-American aesthetics.

Lots more to talk about but it will do for today.

Art and Consumption

Guess I should re-read Adorno.

World Intellectual Property Exploitation Organization Ultimately Threatened (WIPEOUT)

I do hope they realize it. The infamous, and famously exploitative, lobby group for “intellectual property” is ultimately going to lose.

Signs of their ultimate demise abound in the actions of both the RIAA and the MPAA (as well as equivalent lobby groups in other North America and Europe). These people just don’t get it.

Been laughing out loud at some comments about the recent debate over the alleged benefits of extending British copyright for performing artists over the fifty years that anyone in their right mind would think is fair. Even some musicians are revealing the lack of breadth in their argument: they just want to be able to live off the money from their recordings from the late 1950s and early 1960s. That would stimulate innovation how, exactly? The fact that it took these people that long to realize that copyrights are meant to be temporary is preciously funny. “Oh, wait! I thought I was supposed to keep my monopoly over these recordings forever.”

Also funny is the stance of Apple Corps. and the remaining Beatles over what should be done with their music. Their first recordings will come out of copyright in the UK (and several other places) in a few years. Instead of taking advantage of the situation by making sure that the last people who by their music get added value, they prevent online music stores from selling their tracks and release a set of anachronistic remixes. Weird.

Been thinking for a while about a type of “two cultures” theory. What Larry Lessig calls “Free Culture” on one side and “Commerical Culture” on the other. The meaning of “culture” used in those cases can be relatively close to anthropological concepts, though it’s also about “creative culture,” including arts and entertainments. In the U.S. of A., Lessig’s primary target, “free culture” seems to be under attack. Elsewhere, it florishes. In any way we think about it, “free culture” is more beneficial for the greater group than a “closed culture,” whether it’s based on commercial value, on jealousy, or both. If we think competitively, there is little doubt in my head that “free culture” will eventually win and that U.S. “commercial culture” (or “permission culture,” as Lessig calls it) will collapse, bringing down a large part of U.S. society.

That is, unless some people finally wake up.

Individualism, Freedom, and Food

A surprisingly superficial podcast episode on what could have been a very deep subject.

Open Source » Blog Archive » The End of Free Will?

start a conversation about manipulation, persuasion and freedom from choice

To summarize the main issue of that episode: is marketing and "upselling" by restaurant chains undermining the individual freedom to choose quality food? Apparently simple a question, but billed as much more than that.

Maybe they refrained from delving deeper into any of those issues because philosophical discussions, perhaps aesthetic ones especially, are off limits in "polite company" in U.S. media. Too bad.

Actually, I’m genuinely disappointed. Not necessarily because restaurant chains are very important an issue for me (in Montreal, they don’t seem to have the exact same type of impact and I love to cook). But because the show’s participants all came very close to saying very important things about individualism, food, and freedom. The first two are too rarely discussed, IMHO, and the third could have been the "hook" to discuss the other two.

Ah, well…

If you want to know more about my thoughts on this podcast episode, check out some of the tags below.

Medici and Innovation

First encountered the notion of the Medici effect through this interview with Frans Johansson in Ubiquity, a journal frequently mentioned on the Humanist Discussion Group.
A recent article about important changes coming from simple ideas made me post a short blog entry about changes from simple ideas. Interestingly enough, Johansson himself posted a comment to that entry.
This is in fact a frequent stream of thought, for me. In both business and academia, we tend to live through ideas. Specific ideas. Especially those which can generate money or research projects. An important dimension of the “Medici Effect” seems to be that simple ideas can lead to great accomplishments. Another important dimension is that ideas are both generated in and implemented by groups. Some social contexts seem especially conducive to new ideas. This perspective is well-known enough that even Denys Arcand’s Invasions Barbares had something to say about it.
There’s a lot of directions one could take to talk about innovation from that point. Among the possible threads: artistic creativity, personal innovation, sense of discovery, the economies of ideas, ideas come from the people, “intellectual property,” fluid/organic innovation, boundless ideas, innovation through links between ideas, Lavoisier on ideas (nothing is created or lost, everything is transformed, including ideas), and so on and so forth.
My personal feeling is that the very concept of innovation has become something of a “core value” for a number of people, especially in industrialized society. The type of “newer is better” view of “progress” in both society and technology.
In my mind, the best thing to do is simply to bring ideas together, a “shock of ideas” («le choc des idées»). Hence the long list of tags… 😉

Northampton Coffee: Espresso

Already mentioned them elsewhere but Northampton Coffee is a place where espresso is really taken as an art form

Belgian Artist and German Engineer

This one might already be somewhere in my beer entries. Still, it's worth repeating… 😉

Much of craft beer culture in North America uses a continuum based on two important images from two important brewing traditions: Belgian Ales and German Lagers. Not that these are at all exclusive associations. Belgium produces many lager beers and Germany produces many ales. Other brewing traditions (especially from the Czech Republic or from the British Isles and former British colonies) also have their own ales and lager beers. But these two “national” traditions are quite important in craft beer culture's imagination and self-identification.

The German Lagers used as a prototype are usually clean, crisp, refreshing, balanced, and especially consistent. The Belgian Ales used as a prototype are usually complex, smooth, soothing, malty, and especially distinctive. Many beers are located along this continuum. And it's not unusual to see malty brews associated with complexity or crisp brews with clean-tasting. The values of consistency and distinctiveness are quite important in craft brewing as it influences brewing practise. Those of a more creative approach may tend to prefer brewing Belgian Ales, even when the results are disappointing while those with a more technical perspective may prefer brewing German Lagers, even if their taste is relatively unassertive. In such a context, the images/stereotypes of a German Engineer (GE: who wants his work to always be perfect and dependable) and the Belgian Artist (BA: who wants his work to make a statement) seem useful, if simplistic.

For one thing, those images don't necessarily correspond to beer styles. Many of the BA beers could in fact be based on German beers like the Hefeweizen and Berliner Weiss. Similarly, GE beers are likely to be ales, especially British ones. But the brewing traditions of Germany and Belgium are perceived through those models/prototypes.

And speaking of beer in Germany, see Ron Pattison's criticism of the so-called “purity” law, his take on German Beer, and especially Thomas Perera's description of the German beer spirit.

For Belgium, there's a wealth of resources (including on Ron Pattison's site) but its beer scene is characteristically described by disparate details as it's difficult to make sense of Belgian beer in general.

Of course, discussions of regional differences within these two countries in brewing patterns are extremely important. But these differences are rarely seen by North American craft beer people as implying much distinction in brewing philosophy.

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Still Defining Art?

In a rant about one of the books chosen for Oprah's book club,'s Hillary Frey attempts to define art negatively:

His story might be shocking, but it isn't art.

The piece (which looks like a negative review of the book) is littered with opinionated bits of supposedly self-evident condescension. Interesting to see that some people still clench to this view of art and criticism. No analysis of the phenomenon through which this book was chosen for Oprah's book club ("the most successful book club in the world," Frey tells us without citing any evidence outside the U.S.). A header of "Is this even writing?" introducing the second "page" of the piece (as if writing were defined by the content). Some gushing comments about the book club and its host ("Like practically everyone else in America, I love Oprah."). Much projection of attitudes and sentiments on readers of the piece ("There is something inherently creepy…"). Vacuous predictions of the phenomenon's outcome ("Readers will dissect the "rage" Frey carries like an old blanket throughout his book."). And, of course, apparent disdain for those people who "will in the end rely on their skills in pop psychology as they try to make something of this memoir."

Not saying that the book deserves a better treatment. Haven't read it. But that's not the point. The piece isn't really a full-fledged review of that book about which Hillary Frey seems to have such a strong aversion (apparently, it has a lot to do with punctuation, for some reason). But it is a rant about a social phenomenon which is addressed only obliquely. Hillary Frey's disappointment is visibly about a decision taken by Oprah's almighty and benevolent book club (Frey cites a publisher's comment on book sales to show that Oprah herself "did a worthy and wonderful thing" with her club). But the crux of the matter is that, "[w]ith James Frey, the book club is losing its identity as a literary feature, morphing into yet another vehicle for self-help." This would have been a great opportunity for Frey to undertake some kind of analysis or even just a reflection on the implications of this change. Yet it's simply a way to introduce the previous quote about art. So, now, artists are not only responsible for their work but for the inclusion of their work in the reading list of a television personality. Fun!

Yes, self-help books sell. Whether or not they deserve respect from a would-be literary critic, they have a large impact on U.S. society. Oprah's television show certainly connects with self-help books and the very notion of self-help. For those who mostly know Oprah Winfrey through Oprah, the connection between the book club and James Frey's A Million Little Pieces seems rather unsurprising. Self-help books and Oprah are part of the same social phenomenon. One could even talk about individualism and self-reliance in the U.S. (guests on Oprah often advocate for people finding solutions "in themselves," AFAIK). And these connections may have little to do with Oprah Winfrey herself, though it does seem to relate to her television persona. Some could analyze the phenomenon in financial terms, others in psychological terms. Yet others might see changes in the very concept of "literature," happening since at least the 1950s.

It's fascinating to see how convinced some people can be of the value of their own opinions and tastes. And how unlikely it is for some people to look at the broader picture.

Ah, well…

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