Category Archives: experimentation

WordPress as Content Directory: Getting Somewhere

{I tend to ramble a bit. If you just want a step-by-step tutorial, you can skip to here.}

Woohoo!

I feel like I’ve reached a milestone in a project I’ve had in mind, ever since I learnt about Custom Post Types in WordPress 3.0: Using WordPress as a content directory.

The concept may not be so obvious to anyone else, but it’s very clear to me. And probably much clearer for anyone who has any level of WordPress skills (I’m still a kind of WP newbie).

Basically, I’d like to set something up through WordPress to make it easy to create, review, and publish entries in content databases. WordPress is now a Content Management System and the type of “content management” I’d like to enable has to do with something of a directory system.

Why WordPress? Almost glad you asked.

These days, several of the projects on which I work revolve around WordPress. By pure coincidence. Or because WordPress is “teh awsum.” No idea how representative my sample is. But I got to work on WordPress for (among other things): an academic association, an adult learners’ week, an institute for citizenship and social change, and some of my own learning-related projects.

There are people out there arguing about the relative value of WordPress and other Content Management Systems. Sometimes, WordPress may fall short of people’s expectations. Sometimes, the pro-WordPress rhetoric is strong enough to sound like fanboism. But the matter goes beyond marketshare, opinions, and preferences.

In my case, WordPress just happens to be a rather central part of my life, these days. To me, it’s both a question of WordPress being “the right tool for the job” and the work I end up doing being appropriate for WordPress treatment. More than a simple causality (“I use WordPress because of the projects I do” or “I do these projects because I use WordPress”), it’s a complex interaction which involves diverse tools, my skillset, my social networks, and my interests.

Of course, WordPress isn’t perfect nor is it ideal for every situation. There are cases in which it might make much more sense to use another tool (Twitter, TikiWiki, Facebook, Moodle, Tumblr, Drupal..). And there are several things I wish WordPress did more elegantly (such as integrating all dimensions in a single tool). But I frequently end up with WordPress.

Here are some things I like about WordPress:

This last one is where the choice of WordPress for content directories starts making the most sense. Not only is it easy for me to use and build on WordPress but the learning curves are such that it’s easy for me to teach WordPress to others.

A nice example is the post editing interface (same in the software and service). It’s powerful, flexible, and robust, but it’s also very easy to use. It takes a few minutes to learn and is quite sufficient to do a lot of work.

This is exactly where I’m getting to the core idea for my content directories.

I emailed the following description to the digital content editor for the academic organization for which I want to create such content directories:

You know the post editing interface? What if instead of editing posts, someone could edit other types of contents, like syllabi, calls for papers, and teaching resources? What if fields were pretty much like the form I had created for [a committee]? What if submissions could be made by people with a specific role? What if submissions could then be reviewed by other people, with another role? What if display of these items were standardised?

Not exactly sure how clear my vision was in her head, but it’s very clear for me. And it came from different things I’ve seen about custom post types in WordPress 3.0.

For instance, the following post has been quite inspiring:

I almost had a drift-off moment.

But I wasn’t able to wrap my head around all the necessary elements. I perused and read a number of things about custom post types, I tried a few things. But I always got stuck at some point.

Recently, a valuable piece of the puzzle was provided by Kyle Jones (whose blog I follow because of his work on WordPress/BuddyPress in learning, a focus I share).

Setting up a Staff Directory using WordPress Custom Post Types and Plugins | The Corkboard.

As I discussed in the comments to this post, it contained almost everything I needed to make this work. But the two problems Jones mentioned were major hurdles, for me.

After reading that post, though, I decided to investigate further. I eventually got some material which helped me a bit, but it still wasn’t sufficient. Until tonight, I kept running into obstacles which made the process quite difficult.

Then, while trying to solve a problem I was having with Jones’s code, I stumbled upon the following:

Rock-Solid WordPress 3.0 Themes using Custom Post Types | Blancer.com Tutorials and projects.

This post was useful enough that I created a shortlink for it, so I could have it on my iPad and follow along: http://bit.ly/RockSolidCustomWP

By itself, it might not have been sufficient for me to really understand the whole process. And, following that tutorial, I replaced the first bits of code with use of the neat plugins mentioned by Jones in his own tutorial: More Types, More Taxonomies, and More Fields.

I played with this a few times but I can now provide an actual tutorial. I’m now doing the whole thing “from scratch” and will write down all steps.

This is with the WordPress 3.0 blogging software installed on a Bluehost account. (The WordPress.com blogging service doesn’t support custom post types.) I use the default Twenty Ten theme as a parent theme.

Since I use WordPress Multisite, I’m creating a new test blog (in Super Admin->Sites, “Add New”). Of course, this wasn’t required, but it helps me make sure the process is reproducible.

Since I already installed the three “More Plugins” (but they’re not “network activated”) I go in the Plugins menu to activate each of them.

I can now create the new “Product” type, based on that Blancer tutorial. To do so, I go to the “More Types” Settings menu, I click on “Add New Post Type,” and I fill in the following information: post type names (singular and plural) and the thumbnail feature. Other options are set by default.

I also set the “Permalink base” in Advanced settings. Not sure it’s required but it seems to make sense.

I click on the “Save” button at the bottom of the page (forgot to do this, the last time).

I then go to the “More Fields” settings menu to create a custom box for the post editing interface.

I add the box title and change the “Use with post types” options (no use in having this in posts).

(Didn’t forget to click “save,” this time!)

I can now add the “Price” field. To do so, I need to click on the “Edit” link next to the “Product Options” box I just created and add click “Add New Field.”

I add the “Field title” and “Custom field key”:

I set the “Field type” to Number.

I also set the slug for this field.

I then go to the “More Taxonomies” settings menu to add a new product classification.

I click “Add New Taxonomy,” and fill in taxonomy names, allow permalinks, add slug, and show tag cloud.

I also specify that this taxonomy is only used for the “Product” type.

(Save!)

Now, the rest is more directly taken from the Blancer tutorial. But instead of copy-paste, I added the files directly to a Twenty Ten child theme. The files are available in this archive.

Here’s the style.css code:

/*
Theme Name: Product Directory
Theme URI: http://enkerli.com/
Description: A product directory child theme based on Kyle Jones, Blancer, and Twenty Ten
Author: Alexandre Enkerli
Version: 0.1
Template: twentyten
*/

@import url("../twentyten/style.css");

The code for functions.php:

<!--?php /**  * ProductDir functions and definitions  * @package WordPress  * @subpackage Product_Directory  * @since Product Directory 0.1  */ /*Custom Columns*/ add_filter("manage_edit-product_columns", "prod_edit_columns"); add_action("manage_posts_custom_column",  "prod_custom_columns"); function prod_edit_columns($columns){ 		$columns = array( 			"cb" =--> "<input type="\&quot;checkbox\&quot;" />",
			"title" => "Product Title",
			"description" => "Description",
			"price" => "Price",
			"catalog" => "Catalog",
		);

		return $columns;
}

function prod_custom_columns($column){
		global $post;
		switch ($column)
		{
			case "description":
				the_excerpt();
				break;
			case "price":
				$custom = get_post_custom();
				echo $custom["price"][0];
				break;
			case "catalog":
				echo get_the_term_list($post->ID, 'catalog', '', ', ','');
				break;
		}
}
?>

And the code in single-product.php:

<!--?php /**  * Template Name: Product - Single  * The Template for displaying all single products.  *  * @package WordPress  * @subpackage Product_Dir  * @since Product Directory 1.0  */ get_header(); ?-->
<div id="container">
<div id="content">
<!--?php the_post(); ?-->

<!--?php 	$custom = get_post_custom($post--->ID);
	$price = "$". $custom["price"][0];

?>
<div id="post-<?php the_ID(); ?><br />">>
<h1 class="entry-title"><!--?php the_title(); ?--> - <!--?=$price?--></h1>
<div class="entry-meta">
<div class="entry-content">
<div style="width: 30%; float: left;">
			<!--?php the_post_thumbnail( array(100,100) ); ?-->
			<!--?php the_content(); ?--></div>
<div style="width: 10%; float: right;">
			Price
<!--?=$price?--></div>
</div>
</div>
</div>
<!-- #content --></div>
<!-- #container -->

<!--?php get_footer(); ?-->

That’s it!

Well, almost..

One thing is that I have to activate my new child theme.

So, I go to the “Themes” Super Admin menu and enable the Product Directory theme (this step isn’t needed with single-site WordPress).

I then activate the theme in Appearance->Themes (in my case, on the second page).

One thing I’ve learnt the hard way is that the permalink structure may not work if I don’t go and “nudge it.” So I go to the “Permalinks” Settings menu:

And I click on “Save Changes” without changing anything. (I know, it’s counterintuitive. And it’s even possible that it could work without this step. But I spent enough time scratching my head about this one that I find it important.)

Now, I’m done. I can create new product posts by clicking on the “Add New” Products menu.

I can then fill in the product details, using the main WYSIWYG box as a description, the “price” field as a price, the “featured image” as the product image, and a taxonomy as a classification (by clicking “Add new” for any tag I want to add, and choosing a parent for some of them).

Now, in the product management interface (available in Products->Products), I can see the proper columns.

Here’s what the product page looks like:

And I’ve accomplished my mission.

The whole process can be achieved rather quickly, once you know what you’re doing. As I’ve been told (by the ever-so-helpful Justin Tadlock of Theme Hybrid fame, among other things), it’s important to get the data down first. While I agree with the statement and its implications, I needed to understand how to build these things from start to finish.

In fact, getting the data right is made relatively easy by my background as an ethnographer with a strong interest in cognitive anthropology, ethnosemantics, folk taxonomies (aka “folksonomies“), ethnography of communication, and ethnoscience. In other words, “getting the data” is part of my expertise.

The more technical aspects, however, were a bit difficult. I understood most of the principles and I could trace several puzzle pieces, but there’s a fair deal I didn’t know or hadn’t done myself. Putting together bits and pieces from diverse tutorials and posts didn’t work so well because it wasn’t always clear what went where or what had to remain unchanged in the code. I struggled with many details such as the fact that Kyle Jones’s code for custom columns wasn’t working first because it was incorrectly copied, then because I was using it on a post type which was “officially” based on pages (instead of posts). Having forgotten the part about “touching” the Permalinks settings, I was unable to get a satisfying output using Jones’s explanations (the fact that he doesn’t use titles didn’t really help me, in this specific case). So it was much harder for me to figure out how to do this than it now is for me to build content directories.

I still have some technical issues to face. Some which are near essential, such as a way to create archive templates for custom post types. Other issues have to do with features I’d like my content directories to have, such as clearly defined roles (the “More Plugins” support roles, but I still need to find out how to define them in WordPress). Yet other issues are likely to come up as I start building content directories, install them in specific contexts, teach people how to use them, observe how they’re being used and, most importantly, get feedback about their use.

But I’m past a certain point in my self-learning journey. I’ve built my confidence (an important but often dismissed component of gaining expertise and experience). I found proper resources. I understood what components were minimally necessary or required. I succeeded in implementing the system and testing it. And I’ve written enough about the whole process that things are even clearer for me.

And, who knows, I may get feedback, questions, or advice..


Actively Reading: Organic Ideas for Startups

Been using Diigo as a way to annotate online texts. In this case, I was as interested in the tone as in the text itself. At the same time, I kept thinking about things which seem to be missing from Diigo.

One thing I like about this text is its tone. There’s an honesty, an ingenuity that I find rare in this type of writing.

  • startup ideas
    • The background is important, in terms of the type of ideas about which we’re constructing something.
  • what do you wish someone would make for you?
    • My own itch has to do with Diigo, actually. There’s a lot I wish Diigo would make for me. I may be perceived as an annoyance, but I think my wishlist may lead to something bigger and possibly quite successful.
    • The difference between this question and the “scratch your own itch” principle seems significant, and this distinction may have some implications in terms of success: we’re already talking about others, not just running ideas in our own head.
  • what do you wish someone would make for you?
    • It’s somewhat different from the well-known “scratch your own itch” principle. In this difference might be located something significant. In a way, part of the potential for this version to lead to success comes from the fact that it’s already connected with others, instead of being about running ideas in your own mind.
  • grow organically
    • The core topic of the piece, put in a comparative context. The comparison isn’t the one people tend to make and one may argue about the examples used. But the concept of organic ideas is fascinating and inspiring.
  • you decide, from afar,
    • What we call, in anthropology, the “armchair” approach. Also known as “backbenching.” For this to work, you need to have a deep knowledge of the situation, which is part of the point in this piece. Nice that it’s not demonizing this position but putting it in context.
  • Apple
    was the first type
    • One might argue that it was a hybrid case. Although, it does sound like the very beginnings of Apple weren’t about “thinking from afar.”
  • class of users other than you
    • Since developers are part of a very specific “class” of people, this isn’t insignificant a way to phrase this.
  • They still rely on this principle today, incidentally.
    The iPhone is the phone Steve Jobs wants.
    • Apple tends to be perceived in a different light. According to many people, it’s the “textbook example” of a company where decisions are made without concerns for what people need. “Steve Jobs uses a top-down approach,” “They don’t even use focus groups,” “They don’t let me use their tools the way I want to use them.” But we’re not talking about the same distinction between top-down and bottom-up. Though “organic ideas” seem to imply that it’s a grassroots/bottom-up phenomenon, the core distinction isn’t about the origin of the ideas (from the “top,” in both cases) but on the reasoning behind these ideas.
  • We didn’t need this software ourselves.
    • Sounds partly like a disclaimer but this approach is quite common and “there’s nothing wrong with it.”
  • comparatively old
    • Age and life experience make for an interesting angle. It’s not that this strategy needs people of a specific age to work. It’s that there’s a connection between one’s experience and the way things may pan out.
  • There is no sharp line between the two types of ideas,
    • Those in the “engineering worldview” might go nuts, at this point. I can hear the claims of “hand waving.” But we’re talking about something complex, here, not a merely complicated problem.
  • Apple type
    • One thing to note in the three examples here: they’re all made by pairs of guys. Jobs and Woz, Gates and Allen, Page and Brin. In many cases, the formula might be that one guy (or gal, one wishes) comes up with ideas knowing that the other can implement them. Again, it’s about getting somebody else to build it for you, not about scratching your own itch.
  • Bill Gates was writing something he would use
    • Again, Gates may not be the most obvious example, since he’s mostly known for another approach. It’s not inaccurate to say he was solving his own problem, at the time, but it may not be that convincing as an example.
  • Larry and Sergey when they wrote the first versions of Google.
    • Although, the inception of the original ideas was academic in context. They weren’t solving a search problem or thinking about monetization. They were discovering the power of CitationRank.
  • generally preferable
    • Nicely relativistic.
  • It takes experience
    to predict what other people will want.
    • And possibly a lot more. Interesting that he doesn’t mention empirical data.
  • young founders
    • They sound like a fascinating group to observe. They do wonders when they open up to others, but they seem to have a tendency to impose their worldviews.
  • I’d encourage you to focus initially on organic ideas
    • Now, this advice sounds more like the “scratch your own itch” advocation. But there’s a key difference in that it’s stated as part of a broader process. It’s more of a “walk before you run” or “do your homework” piece of advice, not a “you can’t come up with good ideas if you just think about how people will use your tool.”
  • missing or broken
    • It can cover a lot, but it’s couched in terms of the typical “problem-solving” approach at the centre of the engineering worldview. Since we’re talking about developing tools, it makes sense. But there could be a broader version, admitting for dreams, inspiration, aspiration. Not necessarily of the “what would make you happy?” kind, although there’s a lot to be said about happiness and imagination. You’re brainstorming, here.
  • immediate answers
    • Which might imply that there’s a second step. If you keep asking yourself the same question, you may be able to get a very large number of ideas. The second step could be to prioritize them but I prefer “outlining” as a process: you shuffle things together and you group some ideas to get one which covers several. What’s common between your need for a simpler way to code on the Altair and your values? Why do you care so much about algorithms instead of human encoding?
  • You may need to stand outside yourself a bit to see brokenness
    • Ah, yes! “Taking a step back,” “distancing yourself,” “seeing the forest for the trees”… A core dimension of the ethnographic approach and the need for a back-and-forth between “inside” and “outside.” There’s a reflexive component in this “being an outsider to yourself.” It’s not only psychological, it’s a way to get into the social, which can lead to broader success if it’s indeed not just about scratching your own itch.
  • get used to it and take it for granted
    • That’s enculturation, to you. When you do things a certain way simply because “we’ve always done them that way,” you may not create these organic ideas. But it’s a fine way to do your work. Asking yourself important questions about what’s wrong with your situation works well in terms of getting new ideas. But, sometimes, you need to get some work done.
  • a Facebook
    • Yet another recontextualized example. Zuckerberg wasn’t trying to solve that specific brokenness, as far as we know. But Facebook became part of what it is when Zuck began scratching that itch.
  • organic startup ideas usually don’t
    seem like startup ideas at first
    • Which gets us to the pivotal importance of working with others. Per this article, VCs and “angel investors,” probably. But, in the case of some of cases cited, those we tend to forget, like Paul Allen, Narendra, and the Winklevosses.
  • end up making
    something of value to a lot of people
    • Trial and error, it’s an iterative process. So you must recognize errors quickly and not invest too much effort in a specific brokenness. Part of this requires maturity.
  • something
    other people dismiss as a toy
    • The passage on which Gruber focused and an interesting tidbit. Not that central, come to think of it. But it’s important to note that people’s dismissive attitude may be misled, that “toys” may hide tools, that it’s probably a good idea not to take all feedback to heart…
  • At this point, when someone comes to us with
    something that users like but that we could envision forum trolls
    dismissing as a toy, it makes us especially likely to invest.
  • the best source of organic ones
    • Especially to investors. Potentially self-serving… in a useful way.
  • they’re at the forefront of technology
    • That part I would dispute, actually. Unless we talk about a specific subgroup of young founders and a specific set of tools. Young founders tend to be oblivious to a large field in technology, including social tools.
  • they’re in a position to discover
    valuable types of fixable brokenness first
    • The focus on fixable brokenness makes sense if we’re thinking exclusively through the engineering worldview, but it’s at the centre of some failures like the Google Buzz launch.
  • you still have to work hard
    • Of the “inspiration shouldn’t make use forget perspiration” kind. Makes for a more thoughtful approach than the frequent “all you need to do…” claims.
  • I’d encourage anyone
    starting a startup to become one of its users, however unnatural it
    seems.
    • Not merely an argument for dogfooding. It’s deeper than that. Googloids probably use Google tools but they didn’t actually become users. They’re beta testers with a strong background in troubleshooting. Not the best way to figure out what users really want or how the tool will ultimately fail.
  • It’s hard to compete directly with open source software
    • Open Source as competition isn’t new as a concept, but it takes time to seep in.
  • there has to be some part
    you can charge for
    • The breach through which old-school “business models” enter with little attention paid to everything else. To the extent that much of the whole piece might crumble from pressure built up by the “beancounter” worldview. Good thing he acknowledges it.

Installing BuddyPress on a Webhost

[Jump here for more technical details.]

A few months ago, I installed BuddyPress on my Mac to try it out. It was a bit of an involved process, so I documented it:

WordPress MU, BuddyPress, and bbPress on Local Machine « Disparate.

More recently, I decided to get a webhost. Both to run some tests and, eventually, to build something useful. BuddyPress seems like a good way to go at it, especially since it’s improved a lot, in the past several months.

In fact, the installation process is much simpler, now, and I ran into some difficulties because I was following my own instructions (though adapting the process to my webhost). So a new blogpost may be in order. My previous one was very (possibly too) detailed. This one is much simpler, technically.

One thing to make clear is that BuddyPress is a set of plugins meant for WordPress µ (“WordPress MU,” “WPMU,” “WPµ”), the multi-user version of the WordPress blogging platform. BP is meant as a way to make WPµ more “social,” with such useful features as flexible profiles, user-to-user relationships, and forums (through bbPress, yet another one of those independent projects based on WordPress).

While BuddyPress depends on WPµ and does follow a blogging logic, I’m thinking about it as a social platform. Once I build it into something practical, I’ll probably use the blogging features but, in a way, it’s more of a tool to engage people in online social activities. BuddyPress probably doesn’t work as a way to “build a community” from scratch. But I think it can be quite useful as a way to engage members of an existing community, even if this engagement follows a blogger’s version of a Pareto distribution (which, hopefully, is dissociated from elitist principles).

But I digress, of course. This blogpost is more about the practical issue of adding a BuddyPress installation to a webhost.

Webhosts have come a long way, recently. Especially in terms of shared webhosting focused on LAMP (or PHP/MySQL, more specifically) for blogs and content-management. I don’t have any data on this, but it seems to me that a lot of people these days are relying on third-party webhosts instead of relying on their own servers when they want to build on their own blogging and content-management platforms. Of course, there’s a lot more people who prefer to use preexisting blog and content-management systems. For instance, it seems that there are more bloggers on WordPress.com than on other WordPress installations. And WP.com blogs probably represent a small number of people in comparison to the number of people who visit these blogs. So, in a way, those who run their own WordPress installations are a minority in the group of active WordPress bloggers which, itself, is a minority of blog visitors. Again, let’s hope this “power distribution” not a basis for elite theory!

Yes, another digression. I did tell you to skip, if you wanted the technical details!

I became part of the “self-hosted WordPress” community through a project on which I started work during the summer. It’s a website for an academic organization and I’m acting as the organization’s “Web Guru” (no, I didn’t choose the title). The site was already based on WordPress but I was rebuilding much of it in collaboration with the then-current “Digital Content Editor.” Through this project, I got to learn a lot about WordPress, themes, PHP, CSS, etc. And it was my first experience using a cPanel- (and Fantastico-)enabled webhost (BlueHost, at the time). It’s also how I decided to install WordPress on my local machine and did some amount of work from that machine.

But the local installation wasn’t an ideal solution for two reasons: a) I had to be in front of that local machine to work on this project; and b) it was much harder to show the results to the person with whom I was collaborating.

So, in the Fall, I decided to get my own staging server. After a few quick searches, I decided HostGator, partly because it was available on a monthly basis. Since this staging server was meant as a temporary solution, HG was close to ideal. It was easy to set up as a PayPal “subscription,” wasn’t that expensive (9$/month), had adequate support, and included everything that I needed at that point to install a current version of WordPress and play with theme files (after importing content from the original site). I’m really glad I made that decision because it made a number of things easier, including working from different computers, and sending links to get feedback.

While monthly HostGator fees were reasonable, it was still a more expensive proposition than what I had in mind for a longer-term solution. So, recently, a few weeks after releasing the new version of the organization’s website, I decided to cancel my HostGator subscription. A decision I made without any regret or bad feeling. HostGator was good to me. It’s just that I didn’t have any reason to keep that account or to do anything major with the domain name I was using on HG.

Though only a few weeks elapsed since I canceled that account, I didn’t immediately set out to transition to a new webhost. I didn’t go from HostGator to another webhost.

But having my own webhost still remained at the back of my mind as something which might be useful. For instance, while not really making a staging server necessary, a new phase in the academic website project brought up a sandboxing idea. Also, I went to a “WordPress Montreal” meeting and got to think about further WordPress development/deployment, including using BuddyPress for my own needs (both as my own project and as a way to build my own knowledge of the platform) instead of it being part of an organization’s project. I was also thinking about other interesting platforms which necessitate a webhost.

(More on these other platforms at a later point in time. Bottom line is, I’m happy with the prospects.)

So I wanted a new webhost. I set out to do some comparison shopping, as I’m wont to do. In my (allegedly limited) experience, finding the ideal webhost is particularly difficult. For one thing, search results are cluttered with a variety of “unuseful” things such as rants, advertising, and limited comparisons. And it’s actually not that easy to give a new webhost a try. For one thing, these hosting companies don’t necessarily have the most liberal refund policies you could imagine. And, switching a domain name between different hosts and registrars is a complicated process through which a name may remain “hostage.” Had I realized what was involved, I might have used a domain name to which I have no attachment or actually eschewed the whole domain transition and just try the webhost without a dedicated domain name.

Doh!
Live and learn. I sure do. Loving almost every minute of it.

At any rate, I had a relatively hard time finding my webhost.

I really didn’t need “bells and whistles.” For instance, all the AdSense, shopping cart, and other business-oriented features which seem to be publicized by most webhosting companies have no interest, to me.

I didn’t even care so much about absolute degree of reliability or speed. What I’m to do with this host is fairly basic stuff. The core idea is to use my own host to bypass some limitations. For instance, WordPress.com doesn’t allow for plugins yet most of the WordPress fun has to do with plugins.

I did want an “unlimited” host, as much as possible. Not because expect to have huge resource needs but I just didn’t want to have to monitor bandwidth.

I thought that my needs would be basic enough that any cPanel-enabled webhost would fit. As much as I could see, I needed FTP access to something which had PHP 5 and MySQL 5. I expected to install things myself, without use of the webhost’s scripts but I also thought the host would have some useful scripts. Although I had already registered the domain I wanted to use (through Name.com), I thought it might be useful to have a free domain in the webhosting package. Not that domain names are expensive, it’s more of a matter of convenience in terms of payment or setup.

I ended up with FatCow. But, honestly, I’d probably go with a different host if I were to start over (which I may do with another project).

I paid 88$ for two years of “unlimited” hosting, which is quite reasonable. And, on paper, FatCow has everything I need (and I bunch of things I don’t need). The missing parts aren’t anything major but have to do with minor annoyances. In other words, no real deal-breaker, here. But there’s a few things I wish I had realized before I committed on FatCow with a domain name I actually want to use.

Something which was almost a deal-breaker for me is the fact that FatCow requires payment for any additional subdomain. And these aren’t cheap: the minimum is 5$/month for five subdomains, up to 25$/month for unlimited subdomains! Even at a “regular” price of 88$/year for the basic webhosting plan, the “unlimited subdomains” feature (included in some webhosting plans elsewhere) is more than three times more expensive than the core plan.

As I don’t absolutely need extra subdomains, this is mostly a minor irritant. But it’s one reason I’ll probably be using another webhost for other projects.

Other issues with FatCow are probably not enough to motivate a switch.

For instance, the PHP version installed on FatCow (5.2.1) is a few minor releases behind the one needed by some interesting web applications. No biggie, especially if PHP is updated in a relatively reasonable timeframe. But still makes for a slight frustration.

The MySQL version seems recent enough, but it uses non-standard tools to manage it, which makes for some confusion. Attempting to create some MySQL databases with obvious names (say “wordpress”) fails because the database allegedly exists (even though it doesn’t show up in the MySQL administration). In the same vein, the URL of the MySQL is <username>.fatcowmysql.com instead of localhost as most installers seem to expect. Easy to handle once you realize it, but it makes for some confusion.

In terms of Fantastico-like simplified installation of webapps, FatCow uses InstallCentral, which looks like it might be its own Fantastico replacement. InstallCentral is decent enough as an installation tool and FatCow does provide for some of the most popular blog and CMS platforms. But, in some cases, the application version installed by FatCow is old enough (2005!)  that it requires multiple upgrades to get to a current version. Compared to other installation tools, FatCow’s InstallCentral doesn’t seem really efficient at keeping track of installed and released versions.

Something which is partly a neat feature and partly a potential issue is the way FatCow handles Apache-related security. This isn’t something which is so clear to me, so I might be wrong.

Accounts on both BlueHost and HostGator include a public_html directory where all sorts of things go, especially if they’re related to publicly-accessible content. This directory serves as the website’s root, so one expects content to be available there. The “index.html” or “index.php” file in this directory serves as the website’s frontpage. It’s fairly obvious, but it does require that one would understand a few things about webservers. FatCow doesn’t seem to create a public_html directory in a user’s server space. Or, more accurately, it seems that the root directory (aka ‘/’) is in fact public_html. In this sense, a user doesn’t have to think about which directory to use to share things on the Web. But it also means that some higher-level directories aren’t available. I’ve already run into some issues with this and I’ll probably be looking for a workaround. I’m assuming there’s one. But it’s sometimes easier to use generally-applicable advice than to find a custom solution.

Further, in terms of access control… It seems that webapps typically make use of diverse directories and .htaccess files to manage some forms of access controls. Unix-style file permissions are also involved but the kind of access needed for a web app is somewhat different from the “User/Group/All” of Unix filesystems. AFAICT, FatCow does support those .htaccess files. But it has its own tools for building them. That can be a neat feature, as it makes it easier, for instance, to password-protect some directories. But it could also be the source of some confusion.

There are other issues I have with FatCow, but it’s probably enough for now.

So… On to the installation process… 😉

It only takes a few minutes and is rather straightforward. This is the most verbose version of that process you could imagine…

Surprised? 😎

Disclaimer: I’m mostly documenting how I did it and there are some things about which I’m unclear. So it may not work for you. If it doesn’t, I may be able to help but I provide no guarantee that I will. I’m an anthropologist, not a Web development expert.

As always, YMMV.

A few instructions here are specific to FatCow, but the general process is probably valid on other hosts.

I’m presenting things in a sequence which should make sense. I used a slightly different order myself, but I think this one should still work. (If it doesn’t, drop me a comment!)

In these instructions, straight quotes (“”) are used to isolate elements from the rest of the text. They shouldn’t be typed or pasted.

I use “example.com” to refer to the domain on which the installation is done. In my case, it’s the domain name I transfered to FatCow from another registrar but it could probably be done without a dedicated domain (in which case it would be “<username>.fatcow.com” where “<username>” is your FatCow username).

I started with creating a MySQL database for WordPress MU. FatCow does have phpMyAdmin but the default tool in the cPanel is labeled “Manage MySQL.” It’s slightly easier to use for creating new databases than phpMyAdmin because it creates the database and initial user (with confirmed password) in a single, easy-to-understand dialog box.

So I created that new database, user, and password, noting down this information. Since that password appears in clear text at some point and can easily be changed through the same interface, I used one which was easy to remember but wasn’t one I use elsewhere.
Then, I dowloaded the following files to my local machine in order to upload them to my FatCow server space. The upload can be done through either FTP or FatCow’s FileManager. I tend to prefer FTP (via CyberDuck on the Mac or FileZilla on PC). But the FileManager does allow for easy uploads.
(Wish it could be more direct, using the HTTP links directly instead of downloading to upload. But I haven’t found a way to do it through either FTP or the FileManager.)
At any rate, here are the four files I transfered to my FatCow space, using .zip when there’s a choice (the .tar.gz “tarball” versions also work but require a couple of extra steps).
  1. WordPress MU (wordpress-mu-2.9.1.1.zip, in my case)
  2. Buddymatic (buddymatic.0.9.6.3.1.zip, in my case)
  3. EarlyMorning (only one version, it seems)
  4. EarlyMorning-BP (only one version, it seems)

Only the WordPress MU archive is needed to install BuddyPress. The last three files are needed for EarlyMorning, a BuddyPress theme that I found particularly neat. It’s perfectly possible to install BuddyPress without this specific theme. (Although, doing so, you need to install a BuddyPress-compatible theme, if only by moving some folders to make the default theme available, as I explained in point 15 in that previous tutorial.) Buddymatic itself is a theme framework which includes some child themes, so you don’t need to install EarlyMorning. But installing it is easy enough that I’m adding instructions related to that theme.

These files can be uploaded anywhere in my FatCow space. I uploaded them to a kind of test/upload directory, just to make it clear, for me.

A major FatCow idiosyncrasy is its FileManager (actually called “FileManager Beta” in the documentation but showing up as “FileManager” in the cPanel). From my experience with both BlueHost and HostGator (two well-known webhosting companies), I can say that FC’s FileManager is quite limited. One thing it doesn’t do is uncompress archives. So I have to resort to the “Archive Gateway,” which is surprisingly slow and cumbersome.

At any rate, I used that Archive Gateway to uncompress the four files. WordPress µ first (in the root directory or “/”), then both Buddymatic and EarlyMorning in “/wordpress-mu/wp-content/themes” (you can chose the output directory for zip and tar files), and finally EarlyMorning-BP (anywhere, individual files are moved later). To uncompress each file, select it in the dropdown menu (it can be located in any subdirectory, Archive Gateway looks everywhere), add the output directory in the appropriate field in the case of Buddymatic or EarlyMorning, and press “Extract/Uncompress”. Wait to see a message (in green) at the top of the window saying that the file has been uncompressed successfully.

Then, in the FileManager, the contents of the EarlyMorning-BP directory have to be moved to “/wordpress-mu/wp-content/themes/earlymorning”. (Thought they could be uncompressed there directly, but it created an extra folder.) To move those files in the FileManager, I browse to that earlymorning-bp directory, click on the checkbox to select all, click on the “Move” button (fourth from right, marked with a blue folder), and add the output path: /wordpress-mu/wp-content/themes/earlymorning

These files are tweaks to make the EarlyMorning theme work with BuddyPress.

Then, I had to change two files, through the FileManager (it could also be done with an FTP client).

One change is to EarlyMorning’s style.css:

/wordpress-mu/wp-content/themes/earlymorning/style.css

There, “Template: thematic” has to be changed to “Template: buddymatic” (so, “the” should be changed to “buddy”).

That change is needed because the EarlyMorning theme is a child theme of the “Thematic” WordPress parent theme. Buddymatic is a BuddyPress-savvy version of Thematic and this changes the child-parent relation from Thematic to Buddymatic.

The other change is in the Buddymatic “extensions”:

/wordpress-mu/wp-content/themes/buddymatic/library/extensions/buddypress_extensions.php

There, on line 39, “$bp->root_domain” should be changed to “bp_root_domain()”.

This change is needed because of something I’d consider a bug but that a commenter on another blog was kind enough to troubleshoot. Without this modification, the login button in BuddyPress wasn’t working because it was going to the website’s root (example.com/wp-login.php) instead of the WPµ installation (example.com/wordpress-mu/wp-login.php). I was quite happy to find this workaround but I’m not completely clear on the reason it works.

Then, something I did which might not be needed is to rename the “wordpress-mu” directory. Without that change, the BuddyPress installation would sit at “example.com/wordpress-mu,” which seems a bit cryptic for users. In my mind, “example.com/<name>,” where “<name>” is something meaningful like “social” or “community” works well enough for my needs. Because FatCow charges for subdomains, the “<name>.example.com” option would be costly.

(Of course, WPµ and BuddyPress could be installed in the site’s root and the frontpage for “example.com” could be the BuddyPress frontpage. But since I think of BuddyPress as an add-on to a more complete site, it seems better to have it as a level lower in the site’s hierarchy.)

With all of this done, the actual WPµ installation process can begin.

The first thing is to browse to that directory in which WPµ resides, either “example.com/wordpress-mu” or “example.com/<name>” with the “<name>” you chose. You’re then presented with the WordPress µ Installation screen.

Since FatCow charges for subdomains, it’s important to choose the following option: “Sub-directories (like example.com/blog1).” It’s actually by selecting the other option that I realized that FatCow restricted subdomains.

The Database Name, username and password are the ones you created initially with Manage MySQL. If you forgot that password, you can actually change it with that same tool.

An important FatCow-specific point, here, is that “Database Host” should be “<username>.fatcowmysql.com” (where “<username>” is your FatCow username). In my experience, other webhosts use “localhost” and WPµ defaults to that.

You’re asked to give a name to your blog. In a way, though, if you think of BuddyPress as more of a platform than a blogging system, that name should be rather general. As you’re installing “WordPress Multi-User,” you’ll be able to create many blogs with more specific names, if you want. But the name you’re entering here is for BuddyPress as a whole. As with <name> in “example.com/<name>” (instead of “example.com/wordpress-mu”), it’s a matter of personal opinion.

Something I noticed with the EarlyMorning theme is that it’s a good idea to keep the main blog’s name relatively short. I used thirteen characters and it seemed to fit quite well.

Once you’re done filling in this page, WPµ is installed in a flash. You’re then presented with some information about your installation. It’s probably a good idea to note down some of that information, including the full paths to your installation and the administrator’s password.

But the first thing you should do, as soon as you log in with “admin” as username and the password provided, is probably to the change that administrator password. (In fact, it seems that a frequent advice in the WordPress community is to create a new administrator user account, with a different username than “admin,” and delete the “admin” account. Given some security issues with WordPress in the past, it seems like a good piece of advice. But I won’t describe it here. I did do it in my installation and it’s quite easy to do in WPµ.

Then, you should probably enable plugins here:

example.com/<name>/wp-admin/wpmu-options.php#menu

(From what I understand, it might be possible to install BuddyPress without enabling plugins, since you’re logged in as the administrator, but it still makes sense to enable them and it happens to be what I did.)

You can also change a few other options, but these can be set at another point.

One option which is probably useful, is this one:

Allow new registrations Disabled
Enabled. Blogs and user accounts can be created.
Only user account can be created.

Obviously, it’s not necessary. But in the interest of opening up the BuddyPress to the wider world without worrying too much about a proliferation of blogs, it might make sense. You may end up with some fake user accounts, but that shouldn’t be a difficult problem to solve.

Now comes the installation of the BuddyPress plugin itself. You can do so by going here:

example.com/<name>/wp-admin/plugin-install.php

And do a search for “BuddyPress” as a term. The plugin you want was authored by “The BuddyPress Community.” (In my case, version 1.1.3.) Click the “Install” link to bring up the installation dialog, then click “Install Now” to actually install the plugin.

Once the install is done, click the “Activate” link to complete the basic BuddyPress installation.

You now have a working installation of BuddyPress but the BuddyPress-savvy EarlyMorning isn’t enabled. So you need to go to “example.com/<name>/wp-admin/wpmu-themes.php” to enable both Buddymatic and EarlyMorning. You should then go to “example.com/<name>/wp-admin/themes.php” to activate the EarlyMorning theme.

Something which tripped me up because it’s now much easier than before is that forums (provided through bbPress) are now, literally, a one-click install. If you go here:

example.com/<name>/wp-admin/admin.php?page=bb-forums-setup

You can set up a new bbPress install (“Set up a new bbPress installation”) and everything will work wonderfully in terms of having forums fully integrated in BuddyPress. It’s so seamless that I wasn’t completely sure it had worked.

Besides this, I’d advise that you set up a few widgets for the BuddyPress frontpage. You do so through an easy-to-use drag-and-drop interface here:

example.com/<name>/wp-admin/widgets.php

I especially advise you to add the Twitter RSS widget because it seems to me to fit right in. If I’m not mistaken, the EarlyMorning theme contains specific elements to make this widget look good.

After that, you can just have fun with your new BuddyPress installation. The first thing I did was to register a new user. To do so, I logged out of my admin account,  and clicked on the Sign Up button. Since I “allow new registrations,” it’s a very simple process. In fact, this is one place where I think that BuddyPress shines. Something I didn’t explain is that you can add a series of fields for that registration and the user profile which goes with it.

The whole process really shouldn’t take very long. In fact, the longest parts have probably to do with waiting for Archive Gateway.

The rest is “merely” to get people involved in your BuddyPress installation. It can happen relatively easily, if you already have a group of people trying to do things together online. But it can be much more complicated than any software installation process… 😉


Homeroasting and Coffee Geekness

I’m a coffee geek. By which I mean that I have a geeky attitude to coffee. I’m passionate about the crafts and arts of coffee making, I seek coffee-related knowledge wherever I can find it, I can talk about coffee until people’s eyes glaze over (which happens more quickly than I’d guess possible), and I even dream about coffee gadgets. I’m not a typical gadget freak, as far as geek culture goes, but coffee is one area where I may invest in some gadgetry.

Perhaps my most visible acts of coffee geekery came in the form of updates I posted through diverse platforms about my home coffee brewing experiences. Did it from February to July. These posts contained cryptic details about diverse measurements, including water temperature and index of refraction. It probably contributed to people’s awareness of my coffee geek identity, which itself has been the source of fun things like a friend bringing me back coffee from Ethiopia.

But I digress, a bit. This is both about coffee geekness in general and about homeroasting in particular.

See, I bought myself this Hearthware i-Roast 2 dedicated homeroasting device. And I’m dreaming about coffee again.

Been homeroasting since December 2002, at the time I moved to Moncton, New Brunswick and was lucky enough to get in touch with Terry Montague of Down Esst Coffee.

Though I had been wishing to homeroast for a while before that and had become an intense coffee-lover fifteen years prior to contacting him, Terry is the one who enabled me to start roasting green coffee beans at home. He procured me a popcorn popper, sourced me some quality green beans, gave me some advice. And off I was.

Homeroasting is remarkably easy. And it makes a huge difference in one’s appreciation of coffee. People in the coffee industry, especially baristas and professional roasters, tend to talk about the “channel” going from the farmer to the “consumer.” In some ways, homeroasting gets the coffee-lover a few steps closer to the farmer, both by eliminating a few intermediaries in the channel and by making coffee into much less of a commodity. Once you’ve spent some time smelling the fumes emanated by different coffee varietals and looking carefully at individual beans, you can’t help but get a deeper appreciation for the farmer’s and even the picker’s work. When you roast 150g or less at a time, every coffee bean seems much more valuable. Further, as you experiment with different beans and roast profiles, you get to experience coffee in all of its splendour.

A popcorn popper may sound like a crude way to roast coffee. And it might be. Naysayers may be right in their appraisal of poppers as a coffee roasting method. You’re restricted in different ways and it seems impossible to produce exquisite coffee. But having roasted with a popper for seven years, I can say that my poppers gave me some of my most memorable coffee experiences. Including some of the most pleasant ones, like this organic Sumatra from Theta Ridge Coffee that I roasted in my campus appartment at IUSB and brewed using my beloved Brikka.

Over the years, I’ve roasted a large variety of coffee beans. I typically buy a pound each of three or four varietals and experiment with them for a while.

Mostly because I’ve been moving around quite a bit, I’ve been buying green coffee beans from a rather large variety of places. I try to buy them locally, as much as possible (those beans have travelled far enough and I’ve had enough problems with courier companies). But I did participate in a few mail orders or got beans shipped to me for some reason or another. Sourcing green coffee beans has almost been part of my routine in those different places where I’ve been living since 2002: Moncton, Montreal, Fredericton, South Bend, Northampton, Brockton, Cambridge, and Austin. Off the top of my head, I’ve sourced beans from:

  1. Down East
  2. Toi, moi & café
  3. Brûlerie Saint-Denis
  4. Brûlerie des quatre vents
  5. Terra
  6. Theta Ridge
  7. Dean’s Beans
  8. Green Beanery
  9. Cuvée
  10. Fair Bean
  11. Sweet Maria’s
  12. Evergreen Coffee
  13. Mon café vert
  14. Café-Vrac
  15. Roastmasters
  16. Santropol

And probably a few other places, including this one place in Ethiopia where my friend Erin bought some.

So, over the years, I got beans from a rather large array of places and from a wide range of regional varietals.

I rapidly started blending freshly-roasted beans. Typically, I would start a blend by roasting three batches in a row. I would taste some as “single origin” (coffee made from a single bean varietal, usually from the same farm or estate), shortly after roasting. But, typically, I would mix my batches of freshly roasted coffee to produce a main blend. I would then add fresh batches after a few days to fine-tune the blend to satisfy my needs and enhance my “palate” (my ability to pick up different flavours and aromas).

Once the quantity of green beans in a particular bag would fall below an amount I can reasonably roast as a full batch (minimum around 100g), I would put those green beans in a pre-roast blend, typically in a specially-marked ziplock bag. Roasting this blend would usually be a way for me to add some complexity to my roasted blends.

And complexity I got. Lots of diverse flavours and aromas. Different things to “write home about.”

But I was obviously limited in what I could do with my poppers. The only real controls that I had in homeroasting, apart from blending, consisted in the bean quantity and roasting time. Ambient temperature was clearly a factor, but not one over which I was able to exercise much control. Especially since I frequently ended up roasting outside, so as to not incommodate people with fumes, noise, and chaff. The few homeroast batches which didn’t work probably failed because of low ambient temperature.

One reason I stuck with poppers for so long was that I had heard that dedicated roasters weren’t that durable. I’ve probably used three or four different hot air popcorn poppers, over the years. Eventually, they just stop working, when you use them for coffee beans. As I’d buy them at garage sales and Salvation Army stores for 3-4$, replacing them didn’t feel like such a financially difficult thing to do, though finding them could occasionally be a challenge. Money was also an issue. Though homeroasting was important for me, I wasn’t ready to pay around 200$ for an entry-level dedicated roaster. I was thinking about saving money for a Behmor 1600, which offers several advantages over other roasters. But I finally gave in and bought my i-Roast as a kind of holiday gift to myself.

One broad reason is that my financial situation has improved since I started a kind of partial professional reorientation (PPR). I have a blogpost in mind about this PPR, and I’ll probably write it soon. But this post isn’t about my PPR.

Although, the series of events which led to my purchase does relate to my PPR, somehow.

See, the beans I (indirectly) got from Roastmasters came from a friend who bought a Behmor to roast cocoa beans. The green coffee beans came with the roaster but my friend didn’t want to roast coffee in his brand new Behmor, to avoid the risk of coffee oils and flavours getting into his chocolate. My friend asked me to roast some of these beans for his housemates (he’s not that intensely into coffee, himself). When I went to drop some homeroasted coffee by the Station C co-working space where he spends some of his time, my friend was discussing a project with Duncan Moore, whom I had met a few times but with whom I had had few interactions. The three of us had what we considered a very fruitful yet very short conversation. Later on, I got to do a small but fun project with Duncan. And I decided to invest that money into coffee.

A homeroaster seemed like the most appropriate investment. The Behmor was still out of reach but the i-Roast seemed like a reasonable purchase. Especially if I could buy it used.

But I was also thinking about buying it new, as long as I could get it quickly. It took me several years to make a decision about this purchase but, once I made it, I wanted something as close to “instant gratification” as possible. In some ways, the i-Roast was my equivalent to Little Mrs Sommers‘s “pair of silk stockings.”

At the time, Mon café vert seemed like the only place where I could buy a new i-Roast. I tried several times to reach them to no avail. As I was in the Mile-End as I decided to make that purchase, I went to Caffè in Gamba, both to use the WiFi signal and to check if, by any chance, they might not have started selling roasters. They didn’t, of course, homeroasters isn’t mainstream enough. But, as I was there, I saw the Hario Ceramic Coffee Mill Skerton, a “hand-cranked” coffee grinder about which I had read some rather positive reviews.

For the past few years, I had been using a Bodum Antigua conical burr electric coffee grinder. This grinder was doing the job, but maybe because of “wear and tear,” it started taking a lot longer to grind a small amount of coffee. The grind took so long, at some points, that the grounds were warm to the touch and it seemed like the grinder’s motor was itself heating.

So I started dreaming about the Baratza Vario, a kind of prosumer electric grinder which seemed like the ideal machine for someone who uses diverse coffee making methods. The Vario is rather expensive and seemed like overkill, for my current coffee setup. But I was lusting over it and, yes, dreaming about it.

One day, maybe, I’ll be able to afford a Vario.

In the meantime, and more reasonably, I had been thinking about “Turkish-style mills.” A friend lent me a box-type manual mill at some point and I did find it produced a nice grind, but it wasn’t that convenient for me, partly because the coffee drops into a small drawer which rapidly gets full. A handmill seemed somehow more convenient and there are some generic models which are sold in different parts of the World, especially in the Arab World. So I got the impression that I might be able to find handmills locally and started looking for them all over the place, enquiring at diverse stores and asking friends who have used those mills in the past. Of course, they can be purchased online. But they end up being relatively expensive and my manual experience wasn’t so positive as to convince me to spend so much money on one.

The Skerton was another story. It was much more convenient than a box-type manual mill. And, at Gamba, it was inexpensive enough for me to purchase it on the spot. I don’t tend to do this very often so I did feel strange about such an impulse purchase. But I certainly don’t regret it.

Especially since it complements my other purchases.

So, going to the i-Roast.

Over the years, I had been looking for the i-Roast and Behmor at most of the obvious sites where one might buy used devices like these. eBay, Craig’s List, Kijiji… As a matter of fact, I had seen an i-Roast on one of these, but I was still hesitating. Not exactly sure why, but it probably had to do with the fact that these homeroasters aren’t necessarily that durable and I couldn’t see how old this particular i-Roast was.

I eventually called to find out, after taking my decision to get an i-Roast. Turns out that it’s still under warranty, is in great condition, and was being sold by a very interesting (and clearly trustworthy) alto singer who happens to sing with a friend of mine who is also a local beer homebrewer. The same day I bought the roaster, I went to the cocoa-roasting friend’s place and saw a Behmor for the first time. And I tasted some really nice homemade chocolate. And met other interesting people including a couple that I saw, again, while taking the bus after purchasing the roaster.

The series of coincidences in that whole situation impressed me in a sense of awe. Not out of some strange superstition or other folk belief. But different things are all neatly packaged in a way that most of my life isn’t. Nothing weird about this. The packaging is easy to explain and mostly comes from my own perception. The effect is still there that it all fits.

And the i-Roast 2 itself fits, too.

It’s clearly not the ultimate coffee geek’s ideal roaster. But I get the impression it could become so. In fact, one reason I hesitated to buy the i-Roast 2 is that I was wondering if Hearthware might be coming out with the i-Roast 3, in the not-so-distant future.

I’m guessing that Hearthware might be getting ready to release a new roaster. I’m using unreliable information, but it’s still an educated guess. So, apparently…

I could just imagine what the i-Roast 3 might be. As I’m likely to get, I have a number of crazy ideas.

One “killer feature” actually relates both to the differences between the i-Roast and i-Roast 2 as well as to the geek factor behind homeroasting: roast profiles as computer files. Yes, I know, it sounds crazy. And, somehow, it’s quite unlikely that Hearthware would add such a feature on an entry-level machine. But I seriously think it’d make the roaster much closer to a roasting geek’s ultimate machine.

For one thing, programming a roast profile on the i-Roast is notoriously awkward. Sure, you get used to it. But it’s clearly suboptimal. And one major improvement of the i-Roast 2 over the original i-Roast is that the original version didn’t maintain profiles if you unplugged it. The next step, in my mind, would be to have some way to transfer a profile from a computer to the roaster, say via a slot for SD cards or even a USB port.

What this would open isn’t only the convenience of saving profiles, but actually a way to share them with fellow homeroasters. Since a lot in geek culture has to do with sharing information, a neat effect could come out of shareable roast profiles. In fact, when I looked for example roast profiles, I found forum threads, guides, and incredibly elaborate experiments. Eventually, it might be possible to exchange roasting profiles relating to coffee beans from the same shipment and compare roasting. Given the well-known effects of getting a group of people using online tools to share information, this could greatly improve the state of homeroasting and even make it break out of the very small niche in which it currently sits.

Of course, there are many problems with that approach, including things as trivial as voltage differences as well as bigger issues such as noise levels:

But I’m still dreaming about such things.

In fact, I go a few steps further. A roaster which could somehow connect to a computer might also be used to track data about temperature and voltage. In my own experiments with the i-Roast 2, I’ve been logging temperatures at 15 second intervals along with information about roast profile, quantity of beans, etc. It may sound extreme but it already helped me achieve a result I wanted to achieve. And it’d be precisely the kind of information I would like to share with other homeroasters, eventually building a community of practice.

Nothing but geekness, of course. Shall the geek inherit the Earth?


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 Ping.fm, 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.


War of the Bugs: Playing with Life in the Brewery

Kept brewing and thinking about brewing, after that last post. Been meaning to discuss my approach to “brewing bugs”: the yeast and bacteria strains which are involved in some of my beers. So, it’s a kind of follow-up.

Perhaps more than a reason for me to brew, getting to have fun with these living organisms is something of an achievement. It took a while before it started paying off, but it now does.

Now, I’m no biochemist. In fact, I’m fairly far to “wet sciences” in general. What I do with these organisms is based on a very limited understanding of what goes on during fermentation. But as long as I’m having fun, that should be ok.

This blogpost is about yeast in brewing. My focus is on homebrewing but many things also apply to craft brewing or even to macrobreweries.

There’s supposed to be a saying that “brewers make wort, yeast makes beer.” Whether or not it’s an actual saying, it’s quite accurate.

“Wort” is unfermented beer. It’s a liquid containing fermentable sugars and all sorts of other compounds which will make their way into the final beer after the yeast has had its fun in it. It’s a sweet liquid which tastes pretty much like Malta (e.g. Vitamalt).

Yeast is a single-cell organism which can do a number of neat things including the fine act of converting simple sugars into alcohol and CO2. Yeast cells also do a number of other neat (and not so neat) things with the wort, including the creation of a large array of flavour compounds which can radically change the character of the beer. Among the four main ingredients in beer (water, grain, hops, and yeast), I’d say that yeast often makes the largest contribution to the finished beer’s flavour and aroma profile.

The importance of yeast in brewing has been acknowledged to different degrees in history. The well-known Reinheitsgebot “purity law” of 1516, which specifies permissible ingredients in beer, made no mention of yeast. As the story goes, it took Pasteur (and probably others) to discover the role of yeast in brewing. After this “discovery,” Pasteur and others have been active at isolating diverse yeast strains to be used in brewing. Before that time, it seems that yeast was just occurring naturally in the brewing process.

As may be apparent in my tone, I’m somewhat skeptical of the “discovery” narrative. Yeast may not have been understood very clearly before Pasteur came on the scene, but there’s some evidence showing that yeast’s contribution to brewing had been known in different places at previous points in history. It also seems likely that multiple people had the same basic insight as LP did but may not have had the evidence to support this insight. This narrative is part of the (home)brewing “shared knowledge.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There’s a lot to be said about yeast biochemistry. In fact, the most casual of brewers who spends any significant amount of time with online brewing resources has some understanding, albeit fragmentary, of diverse dimensions of biochemistry through the action of yeast. But this blogpost isn’t about yeast biochemistry.

I’m no expert and biochemistry is a field for experts. What tends to interest me more than the hard science on yeast is the kind of “folk science” brewers create around yeast. Even the most scientific of brewers occasionally talks about yeast in a way which sounds more like folk beliefs than like hard science. In ethnographic disciplines, there’s a field of “ethnoscience” which deals with this kind of “folk knowledge.” My characterization of “folk yeast science” will probably sound overly simplistic and I’m not saying that it accurately represents a common approach to yeast among brewers. It’s more in line with the tone of Horace Miner’s classic text about the Nacirema than with anything else. A caricature, maybe, but one which can provide some insight.

In this case, because it’s a post on my personal blog, it probably provides more insight about yours truly than about anybody else. So be it.

I’m probably more naïve than most. Or, at least, I try to maintain a sense of wonder, as I play with yeast. I’ve done just enough reading about biochemistry to be dangerous. Again, “the brewery is an adult’s chemistry set.”

A broad distinction in the brewer’s approach to yeast is between “pure” and “wild” yeast. Pure yeast usually comes to the brewer from a manufacturer but it originated in a well-known brewery. Wild yeast comes from the environment and should be avoided at all costs. Wild yeast infects and spoils the wort. Pure yeast is a brewer’s best friend as it’s the one which transforms sweet wort into tasty, alcoholic beer. Brewers do everything to “keep the yeast happy.” Though yeast happiness sounds like exaggeration on my part, this kind of anthropomorphic concept is clearly visible in discussions among brewers. (Certainly, “yeast health” is a common concept. It’s not anthropomorphic by itself, but it takes part in the brewer’s approach to yeast as life.) Wild yeast is the reason brewers use sanitizing agents. Pure yeast is carefully handled, preserved, “cultured.” In this context, “wild yeast” is unwanted yeast. “Pure yeast” is the desirable portion of microflora.

It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that many brewers are obsessed with the careful handling of pure yeast and the complete avoidance of wild yeast. The homebrewer’s motto, following Charlie Papazian, may be “Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Homebrew,” when brewers do worry, they often worry about keeping their yeast as pure as possible or keeping their wort as devoid of wild yeast as possible.

In the context of brewers’ folk taxonomy, wild yeast is functionally a “pest,” its impact is largely seen as negative. Pure yeast is beneficial. Terms like “bugs” or “beasties” are applied to both but, with wild yeast, their connotations and associations are negative (“nasty bugs”) while the terms are applied to pure yeast in a more playful, almost endeared tone. “Yeasties” is almost a pet name for pure yeast.

I’ve mentioned “folk taxonomy.” Here, I’m mostly thinking about cognitive anthropology. Taxonomies have been the hallmark of cognitive anthropology, as they reveal a lot about the ways people conceive of diverse parts of reality and are relatively easy to study. Eliciting categories in a folk taxonomy is a relatively simple exercise which can even lead to other interesting things in terms of ethnographic research (including, for instance, establishing rapport with local experts or providing a useful basis to understanding subtleties in the local language). I use terms like “folk” and “local” in a rather vague way. The distinction is often with “Western” or even “scientific.” Given the fact that brewing in North America has some strong underpinnings in science, it’s quite fun to think about North American homebrewers through a model which involves an opposition to “Western/scientific.” Brewers, including a large proportion of homebrewers, tend to be almost stereotypically Western and to work through (and sometimes labour under) an almost-reductionist scientific mindframe. In other words, my talking about “folk taxonomy” is almost a way to tease brewers. But it also relates to my academic interest in cultural diversity, language, worldviews, and humanism.

“Folk taxonomies” can be somewhat fluid but the concept applies mostly to classification systems which are tree-like, with “branches” coming of broader categories. The term “folksonomy” has some currency, these days, to refer to a classification structure which has some relation to folk taxonomy but which doesn’t tend to work through a very clear arborescence. In many contexts, “folksonomy” simply means “tagging,” with the notion that it’s a free-form classification, not amenable to treatment in the usual “hierarchical database” format. Examples of folksonomies often have to do with the way people classify books or other sources of information. A folksonomy is then the opposite of the classification system used in libraries or in Web directories such as the original Yahoo! site. Tags assigned to this blogpost (“Tagged: Belgian artist…”) are part of my own folksonomy for blogposts. Categories on WordPress blogs such as this ones are supposed to create more of a (folk) taxonomy. For several reasons (including the fact that tags weren’t originally available to me for this blog), I tend to use categories as more of a folksonomy, but with a bit more structure. Categories are more stable than tags. For a while, now, I’ve refrained from adding new categories (to my already overly-long list). But I do add lots of new tags.

Anyhoo…

Going back to brewers’ folk taxonomy of yeast strains…

Technically, if I’m not mistaken, the term “pure” should probably refer to the yeast culture, not to the yeast itself. But the overall concept does seem to apply to types of yeast, even if other terms are used. The terms “wild” and “pure” aren’t inappropriate. “Wild” yeast is undomesticated. “Pure” yeast strains were those strains which were selected from wild yeast strains and were isolated in laboratories.

Typically, pure yeast strains come from one of two species of the genus Saccharomyces. One species includes the “top-fermenting” yeast strains used in ales while the other species includes the “bottom-fermenting” yeast strains used in lagers. The distinction between ale and lager is relatively recent, in terms of brewing history, but it’s one which is well-known among brewers. The “ale” species is called cerevisiae (with all sorts of common misspellings) and the “lager” species has been called different names through history, to the extent that the most appropriate name (pastorianus) seems to be the object of specialized, not of common knowledge.

“Wild yeast” can be any yeast strain. In fact, the two species of pure yeast used in brewing exist as wild yeast and brewers’ “folk classification” of microorganisms often lumps bacteria in the “wild yeast” category. The distinction between bacteria and yeast appears relatively unimportant in relation to brewing.

As can be expected from my emphasis on “typically,” above, not all pure yeast strains belong to the “ale” and “lager” species. And as is often the case in research, the exceptions are where things get interesting.

One category of yeast which is indeed pure but which doesn’t belong to one of the two species is wine yeast. While brewers do occasionally use strains of wild yeast when making other beverages besides beer, wine yeast strains mostly don’t appear on the beer brewer’s radar as being important or interesting. Unlike wild yeast, it shouldn’t be avoided at all costs. Unlike pure yeast, it shouldn’t be cherished. In this sense, it could almost serve as «degré zéro» or “null” in the brewer’s yeast taxonomy.

Then, there are yeast strains which are usually considered in a negative way but which are treated as pure strains. I’m mostly thinking about two of the main species in the Brettanomyces genus, commonly referred to as “Brett.” These are winemakers’ pests, especially in the case of oak aging. Oak casks are expensive and they can be ruined by Brett infections. In beer, while Brett strains are usually classified as wild yeast, some breweries have been using Brett in fermentation to effects which are considered by some people to be rather positive while others find these flavours and aromas quite displeasing. It’s part of the brewing discourse to use “barnyard” and “horse blanket” as descriptors for some of the aroma and flavour characteristics given by Brett.

Brewers who consciously involve Brett in the fermentation process are rather uncommon. There are a few breweries in Belgium which make use of Brett, mostly in lambic beers which are fermented “spontaneously” (without the use of controlled innoculation). And there’s a (slightly) growing trend among North American home- and craft brewers toward using Brett and other bugs in brewing.

Because of these North American brewers, Brett strains are now available commercially, as “pure” strains.

Which makes for something quite interesting. Brett is now part of the “pure yeast” category, at least for some brewers. They then use Brett as they would other pure strains, taking precautions to make sure it’s not contaminated. At the same time, Brett is often used in conjunction with other yeast strains and, contrary to the large majority of beer fermentation methods, what brewers use is a complex yeast culture which includes both Saccharomyces and Brett. It may not seem that significant but it brings fermentation out of the strict “mono-yeast” model. Talking about “miscegenation” in social terms would be abusive. But it’s interesting to notice which brewers use Brett in this way. In some sense, it’s an attitude which has dimensions from both the “Belgian Artist” and “German Engineer” poles in my brewing attitude continuum.

Other brewers use Brett in a more carefree way. Since Brett-brewing is based on a complex culture, one can go all the way and mix other bugs. Because Brett has been mostly associated with lambic brewing, since the onset of “pure yeast” brewing, the complex cultures used in lambic breweries serve as the main model. In those breweries, little control can be applied to the balance between yeast strains and the concept of “pure yeast” seems quite foreign. I’ve never visited a lambic brewery (worse yet, I’ve yet to set foot in Belgium), but I get to hear and read a lot about lambic brewing. My perception might be inaccurate, but it also reflects “common knowledge” among North American brewers.

As you might guess, by now, I take part in the trend to brew carefreely. Even carelessly. Which makes me more of a MadMan than the majority of brewers.

Among both winemakers and beer brewers, Brett has the reputation to be “resilient.” Once Brett takes hold of your winery or brewery, it’s hard to get rid of it. Common knowledge about Brett includes different things about its behaviour in the fermentation process (it eats some sugars that Saccharomyces doesn’t, it takes a while to do its work…). But Brett also has a kind of “character,” in an almost-psychological sense.

Which reminds me of a comment by a pro brewer about a well-known strain of lager yeast being “wimpy,” especially in comparison with some well-known British ale yeast strains such as Ringwood. To do their work properly, lager strains tend to require more care than ale strains, for several reasons. Ringwood and some other strains are fast fermenters and tend to “take over,” leaving little room for other bugs.

Come to think of it, I should try brewing with a blend of Ringwood and Brett. It’d be interesting to see “who wins.”

Which brings me to “war.”

Now, I’m as much of a pacifist as one can be. Not only do I not tend to be bellicose and do I cherish peace, I frequently try to avoid conflict and I even believe that there’s a peaceful resolution to most situations.

Yet, one thing I enjoy about brewing is to play with conflicting yeast strains. Pitting one strain against another is my way to “wage wars.” And it’s not very violent.

I also tend to enjoy some games which involve a bit of conflict, including Diplomacy and Civilization. But I tend to play these games as peacefully as possible. Even Spymaster, which rapidly became focused on aggressions, I’ve been playing as a peace-loving, happy-go-lucky character.

But, in the brewery, I kinda like the fact that yeast cells from different strains are “fighting” one another. I don’t picture yeast cells like warriors (with tiny helmets), but I do have fun imagining the “Battle of the Yeast.”

Of course, this has more to do with competition than with conflict. But both are related, in my mind. I’m also not that much into competition and I don’t like to pit people against one another, even in friendly competition. But this is darwinian competition. True “survival of the fittest,” with everything which is implied in terms of being contextually appropriate.

So I’m playing with life, in my brewery. I’m not acting as a Creator over the yeast population, but there’s something about letting yeast cells “having at it” while exercising some level of control that could be compared to some spiritual figures.

Thinking about this also makes me think about the Life game. There are some similarities between what goes on in my wort and what Conway’s game implies. But there are also several differences, including the type of control which can be applied in either case and the fact that the interaction between yeast cells is difficult to visualize. Not to mention that yeast cells are actual, living organisms while the cellular automaton is pure simulation.

The fun I have playing with yeast cells is part of the reason I like to use Brett in my beers. The main reason, though, is that I like the taste of Brett in beer. In fact, I even like it in wine, by transfer from my taste for Brett in beer.

And then, there’s carefree brewing.

As I described above, brewers are very careful to avoid wild yeast and other unwanted bugs in their beers. Sanitizing agents are an important part of the brewer’s arsenal. Which goes well with the “German engineer” dimension of brewing. There’s an extreme position in brewing, even in homebrewing. The “full-sanitization brewery.” Apart from pure yeast, nothing should live in the wort. Actually, nothing else should live in the brewery. If it weren’t for the need to use yeast in the fermentation process, brewing could be done in a completely sterile environment. The reference for this type of brewery is the “wet science” lab. As much as possible, wort shouldn’t come in contact with air (oxidization is another reason behind this; the obsession with bugs and the distaste for oxidization often go together). It’s all about control.

There’s an obvious reason behind this. Wort is exactly the kind of thing wild yeast and other bugs really like. Apparently, slants used to culture microorganisms in labs may contain a malt-based gelatin which is fairly similar to wort. I don’t think it contains hops, but hops are an agent of preservation and could have a positive effect in such a slant.

I keep talking about “wild yeast and other bugs” and I mentioned that, in the brewer’s folk taxonomy, bacteria are equivalent to wild yeast. The distinction between yeast and bacteria matters much less in the brewery than in relation to life sciences. In the conceptual system behind brewing, bacteria is functionally equivalent to wild yeast.

Fear of bacteria and microbes is widespread, in North America. Obviously, there are many excellent medical reasons to fear a number of microorganisms. Bacteria can in fact be deadly, in the right context. Not that the mere presence of bacteria is directly linked with human death. But there’s a clear association, in a number of North American minds, between bacteria and disease.

As a North American, despite my European background, I tended to perceive bacteria in a very negative way. Even today, I react “viscerally” at the mention of bacteria. Though I know that bacteria may in fact be beneficial to human health and that the human body contains a large number of bacterial cells, I have this kind of ingrained fear of bacteria. I love cheese and yogurt, including those which are made with very complex bacterial culture. But even the mere mention of bacteria in this context requires that I think about the distinction between beneficial and dangerous bacteria. In other words, I can admit that I have an irrational fear of bacteria. I can go beyond it, but my conception of microflora is skewed.

For two years in Indiana, I was living with a doctoral student in biochemistry. Though we haven’t spent that much time talking about microorganisms, I was probably influenced by his attitude toward sanitization. What’s funny, though, is that our house wasn’t among the cleanest in which I’ve lived. In terms of “sanitary conditions,” I’ve had much better and a bit worse. (I’ve lived in a house where we received an eviction notice from the county based on safety hazards in that place. Lots of problems with flooding, mould, etc.)

Like most other North American brewers, I used to obsess about sanitization, at every step in the process. I was doing an average job at sanitization and didn’t seem to get any obvious infection. I did get “gushers” (beers which gush out of the bottle when I open it) and a few “bottle bombs” (beer bottles which actually explode). But there were other explanations behind those occurrences than contamination.

The practise of sanitizing everything in the brewery had some significance in other parts of my life. For instance, I tend to think about dishes and dishwashing in a way which has more to do with caution over potential contamination than with dishes appearing clean and/or shiny. I also think about what should be put in the refrigerator and what can be left out, based on my limited understanding of biochemistry. And I think about food safety in a specific way.

In the brewery, however, I moved more and more toward another approach to microflora. Again, a more carefree approach to brewing. And I’m getting results that I enjoy while having a lot of fun. This approach is also based on my pseudo-biochemistry.

One thing is that, in brewing, we usually boil the wort for an hour or more before inoculation with pure yeast. As boiling kills most bugs, there’s something to be said about sanitization being mostly need for equipment which touches the wort after the boil. Part of the equipment is sanitized during the boiling process and what bugs other pieces of equipment may transfer to the wort before boiling are unlikely to have negative effects on the finished beer. With this idea in mind, I became increasingly careless with some pieces of my brewing equipment. Starting with the immersion chiller and kettle, going all the way to the mashtun.

Then, there’s the fact that I use wild yeast in some fermentations. In both brewing and baking, actually. Though my results with completely “wild” fermentations have been mixed to unsatisfactory, some of my results with “partially-wild” fermentations have been quite good.

Common knowledge among brewers is that “no known pathogen can survive in beer.” From a food safety standpoint, beer is “safe” for four main reasons: boiling, alcohol, low pH, and hops. At least, that’s what is shared among brewers, with narratives about diverse historical figures who saved whole populations through beer, making water sanitary. Depending on people’s attitudes toward alcohol, these stories about beer may have different connotations. But it does seem historically accurate to say that beer played an important part in making water drinkable.

So, even wild fermentation is considered safe. People may still get anxious but, apart from off-flavours, the notion is that contaminated beer can do no more harm than other beers.

The most harmful products of fermentation about which brewers may talk are fusel alcohols. These, brewers say, may cause headaches if you get too much of them. Fusels can cause some unwanted consequences, but they’re not living organisms and won’t spread as a disease. In brewer common knowledge, “fusels” mostly have to do with beers with high degrees of alcohol which have been fermented at a high temperature. My personal sense is that fusels aren’t more likely to occur in wild fermentation than with pure fermentation, especially given the fact that most wild fermentation happens with beer with a low degree of alcohol.

Most of the “risks” associated with wild fermentation have to do with flavours and aromas which may be displeasing. Many of these have to do with souring, as some bugs transform different compounds (alcohol especially, if I’m not mistaken) into different types of acids. While Brett and other strains of wild yeast can cause some souring, the acids in questions mostly have to do with bacteria. For instance, lactobacillus creates lactic acid, acetobacter creates acetic acid, etc.

Not only do I like that flavour and aroma characteristics associated with some wild yeast strains (Brett, especially), I also like sour beers. It may sound strange given the fact that I suffer from GERD. But I don’t overindulge in sour beers. I rarely drink large quantities of beer and sour beers would be the last thing I’d drink large quantities of. Besides, there’s a lot to be said about balance in pH. I may be off but I get the impression that there are times in which sour things are either beneficial to me or at least harmless. Part of brewer common knowledge in fact has a whole thing about alkalinity and pH. I’m not exactly clear on how it affects my body based on ingestion of diverse substances, but I’m probably affected by my background as a homebrewer.

Despite my taste for sour beers, I don’t necessarily have the same reaction to all souring agents. For instance, I have a fairly clear threshold in terms of acetic acid in beer. I enjoy it when a sour beer has some acetic character. But I prefer to limit the “aceticness” of my beers. Two batches I’ve fermented with wild bugs were way too acetic for me and I’m now concerned that other beers may develop the same character. In fact, if there’s a way to prevent acetobacter from getting in my wort while still getting the other bugs working, I could be even more carefree as a brewer than I currently am.

Which is a fair deal. These days, I really am brewing carefreely. Partly because of my “discovery” of lactobacillus.

As brewer common knowledge has it, lactobacillus is just about everywhere. It’s certainly found on grain and it’s present in human saliva. It’s involved in some dairy fermentation and it’s probably the main source of bacterial fear among dairy farmers.

Apart from lambic beers (which all come from a specific region in Belgium), the main sour beer that is part of brewer knowledge is Berliner Weisse. Though I have little data on how Berliner Weisse is fermented, I’ve known for a while that some people create a beer akin to Berliner Weisse through what brewers call a “sour mash” (and which may or may not be related to sour mash in American whiskey production). After thinking about it for years, I’ve done my first sour mash last year. I wasn’t very careful in doing it but I got satisfying results. One advantage of the sour mash is that it happens before boiling, which means that the production of acid can be controlled, to a certain degree. While I did boil my wort coming from sour mash, it’s clear that I still had some lactobacillus in my fermenters. It’s possible that my boil (which was much shorter than the usual) wasn’t enough to kill all the bugs. But, come to think of it, I may have been a bit careless with sanitization of some pieces of equipment which had touched the sour wort before boiling. Whatever the cause, I ended up with some souring bugs in my fermentation. And these worked really well for what I wanted. So much so that I’ve consciously reused that culture in some of my most recent brewing experiments.

So, in my case, lactobacillus is in the “desirable” category of yeast taxonomy. With Brett and diverse Saccharomyces strains, lactobacillus is part of my fermentation apparatus.

As a mad brewer, I can use what I want to use. I may not create life, but I create beer out of this increasingly complex microflora which has been taking over my brewery.

And I’m a happy brewer.


How I Got Into Beer

Was doing some homebrewing experimentation (sour mash, watermelon, honey, complex yeast cultures…) and I got to think about what I’d say in an interview about my brewing activities.

It’s a bit more personal than my usual posts in English (my more personal blogposts are usually in French), but it seems fitting.

I also have something of a backlog of blogposts I really should do ASAP. But blogging is also about seizing the moment. I feel like writing about beer. 😛

So…

As you might know, the drinking age in Quebec is 18, as in most parts of the World except for the US. What is somewhat distinct about Qc with regards to drinking age is that responsible drinking is the key and we tend to have a more “European” attitude toward alcohol: as compared to the Rest of Canada, there’s a fair bit of leeway in terms of when someone is allowed to drink alcohol. We also tend to learn to drink in the family environment, and not necessarily with friends. What it means, I would argue, is that we do our mistakes in a relatively safe context. By the time drinking with peers becomes important (e.g., in university or with colleagues), many of us know that there’s no fun in abusing alcohol and that there are better ways to prove ourselves than binge drinking. According to Barrett Seaman, author of Binge: What Your College Student Won’t Tell You, even students from the US studying at McGill University in Montreal are more likely to drink responsibly than most students he’s seen in the US. (In Montreal, McGill tends to be recognized as a place where binge drinking is most likely to occur, partly because of the presence of US students. In addition, binge drinking is becoming more conspicuous, in Qc, perhaps because of media pressure or because of influence from the US.)

All this to say that it’s rather common for a Québécois teen to at least try alcohol at a relatively age. Because of my family’s connections with Switzerland and France, we probably pushed this even further than most Québécois family. In other words, I had my first sips of alcohol at a relatively early age (I won’t tell) and, by age 16, I could distinguish different varieties of Swiss wines, during an extended trip to Switzerland. Several of these wines were produced by relatives and friends, from their own vineyards. They didn’t contain sulfites and were often quite distinctive. To this day, I miss those wines. In fact, I’d say that Swiss wines are among the best kept secrets of the wine world. Thing is, it seems that Swiss vineyards barely produce enough for local consumption so they don’t try to export any of it.

Anyhoo…

By age 18, my attitude toward alcohol was already quite similar to what it is now: it’s something that shouldn’t be abused but that can be very tasty. I had a similar attitude toward coffee, that I started to drink regularly when I was 15. (Apart from being a homebrewer and a beer geek, I’m also a homeroaster and coffee geek. Someone once called me a “Renaissance drinker.”)

When I started working in French restaurants, it was relatively normal for staff members to drink alcohol at the end of the shift. In fact, at one place where I worked, the staff meal at the end of the evening shift was a lengthy dinner accompanied by some quality wine. My palate was still relatively untrained, but I remember that we would, in fact, discuss the wine on at least some occasions. And I remember one customer, a stage director, who would share his bottle of wine with the staff during his meal: his doctor told him to reduce his alcohol consumption and the wine only came in 750ml bottles. 😉

That same restaurant might have been the first place where I tried a North American craft beer. At least, this is where I started to know about craft beer in North America. It was probably McAuslan‘s St. Ambroise Stout. But I also had opportunities to have some St. Ambroise Pale Ale. I just preferred the Stout.

At one point, that restaurant got promotional beer from a microbrewery called Massawippi. That beer was so unpopular that we weren’t able to give it away to customers. Can’t recall how it tasted but nobody enjoyed it. The reason this brewery is significant is that their license was the one which was bought to create a little microbrewery called Unibroue. So, it seems that my memories go back to some relatively early phases in Quebec’s craft beer history. I also have rather positive memories of when Brasal opened.

Somewhere along the way, I had started to pick up on some European beers. Apart from macros (Guinness, Heineken, etc.), I’m not really sure what I had tried by that point. But even though these were relatively uninspiring beers, they somehow got me to understand that there was more to beer than Molson, Labatt, Laurentide, O’Keefe, and Black Label.

The time I spent living in Switzerland, in 1994-1995, is probably the turning point for me in terms of beer tasting. Not only did I get to drink the occasional EuroLager and generic stout, but I was getting into Belgian Ales and Lambics. My “session beer,” for a while, was a wit sold in CH as Wittekop. Maybe not the most unique wit out there. But it was the house beer at Bleu Lézard, and I drank enough of it then to miss it. I also got to try several of the Trappists. In fact, one of the pubs on the EPFL campus had a pretty good beer selection, including Rochefort, Chimay, Westmalle, and Orval. The first lambic I remember was Mort Subite Gueuze, on tap at a very quirky place that remains on my mind as this near-cinematic experience.

At the end of my time in Switzerland, I took a trip to Prague and Vienna. Already at that time, I was interested enough in beer that a significant proportion of my efforts were about tasting different beers while I was there. I still remember a very tasty “Dopplemalz” beer from Vienna and, though I already preferred ales, several nice lagers from Prague.

A year after coming back to North America, I traveled to Scotland and England with a bunch of friends. Beer was an important part of the trip. Though I had no notion of what CAMRA was, I remember having some real ales in diverse places. Even some of the macro beers were different enough to merit our interest. For instance, we tried Fraoch then, probably before it became available in North America. We also visited a few distilleries which, though I didn’t know it at the time, were my first introduction to some beer brewing concepts.

Which brings me to homebrewing.

The first time I had homebrew was probably at my saxophone teacher’s place. He did a party for all of us and had brewed two batches. One was either a stout or a porter and the other one was probably some kind of blonde ale. What I remember of those beers is very vague (that was probably 19 years ago), but I know I enjoyed the stout and was impressed by the low price-quality ratio. From that point on, I knew I wanted to brew. Not really to cut costs (I wasn’t drinking much, anyway). But to try different beers. Or, at least, to easily get access to those beers which were more interesting than the macrobrewed ones.

I remember another occasion with a homebrewer, a few years later. I only tried a few sips of the beer but I remember that he was talking about the low price. Again, what made an impression on me wasn’t so much the price itself. But the low price for the quality.

At the same time, I had been thinking about all sorts of things which would later become my “hobbies.” I had never had hobbies in my life but I was thinking about homeroasting coffee, as a way to get really fresh coffee and explore diverse flavours. Thing is, I was already this hedonist I keep claiming I am. Tasting diverse things was already an important pleasure in my life.

So, homebrewing was on my mind because of the quality-price ratio and because it could allow me to explore diverse flavours.

When I moved to Bloomington, IN, I got to interact with some homebrewers. More specifically, I went to an amazing party thrown by an ethnomusicologist/homebrewer. The guy’s beer was really quite good. And it came from a full kegging system.

I started dreaming.

Brewpubs, beerpubs, and microbreweries were already part of my life. For instance, without being a true regular, I had been going to Cheval blanc on a number of occasions. And my “go to” beer had been Unibroue, for a while.

At the time, I was moving back and forth between Quebec and Indiana. In Bloomington, I was enjoying beers from Upland’s Brewing Co., which had just opened, and Bloomington Brewing Co., which was distributed around the city. I was also into some other beers, including some macro imports like Newcastle Brown Ale. And, at liquor stores around the city (including Big Red), I was discovering a few American craft beers, though I didn’t know enough to really make my way through those. In fact, I remember asking for Unibroue to be distributed there, which eventually happened. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t try Three Floyds, at the time.

So I was giving craft beer some thought.

Then, in February 1999, I discovered Dieu du ciel. I may have gone there in late 1998, but the significant point was in February 1999. This is when I tried their first batch of “Spring Equinox” Maple Scotch Ale. This is the beer that turned me into a homebrewer. This is the beer that made me changed my perspetive about beer. At that point, I knew that I would eventually have to brew.

Which happened in July 1999, I think. My then-girlfriend had offered me a homebrewing starter kit as a birthday gift. (Or maybe she gave it to me for Christmas… But I think it was summer.) Can’t remember the extent to which I was talking about beer, at that point, but it was probably a fair bit, i.e., I was probably becoming annoying about it. And before getting the kit, I was probably daydreaming about brewing.

Even before getting the kit, I had started doing some reading. The aforementioned ethnomusicologist/homebrewer had sent me a Word file with a set of instructions and some information about equipment. It was actually much more elaborate than the starter kit I eventually got. So I kept wondering about all the issues and started getting some other pieces of equipment. In other words, I was already deep into it.

In fact, when I got my first brewing book, I also started reading feverishly, in a way I hadn’t done in years. Even before brewing the first batch, I was passionate about brewing.

Thanks to the ‘Net, I was rapidly amassing a lot of information about brewing. Including some recipes.

Unsurprisingly, the first beer I brewed was a maple beer, based on my memory of that Dieu du ciel beer. However, for some reason, that first beer was a maple porter, instead of a maple scotch ale. I brewed it with extract and steeped grain. I probably used a fresh pack of Coopers yeast. I don’t think I used fresh hops (the beer wasn’t supposed to be hop-forward). I do know I used maple syrup at the end of boil and maple sugar at priming.

It wasn’t an amazing beer, perhaps. But it was tasty enough. And it got me started. I did a few batches with extract and moved to all-grain almost right away. I remember some comments on my first maple porter, coming from some much more advanced brewers than I was. They couldn’t believe that it was an extract beer. I wasn’t evaluating my extract beer very highly. But I wasn’t ashamed of it either.

Those comments came from brewers who were hanging out on the Biéropholie website. After learning about brewing on my own, I had eventually found the site and had started interacting with some local Québécois homebrewers.

This was my first contact with “craft beer culture.” I had been in touch with fellow craft beer enthusiasts. But hanging out with Bièropholie people and going to social events they had organized was my first foray into something more of a social group with its associated “mode of operation.” It was a fascinating experience. As an ethnographer and social butterfly, this introduction to the social and cultural aspects of homebrewing was decisive. Because I was moving all the time, it was hard for me to stay connected with that group. But I made some ties there and I still bump into a few of the people I met through Bièropholie.

At the time I first started interacting with the Bièropholie gang, I was looking for a brewclub. Many online resources mentioned clubs and associations and they sounded exactly like the kind of thing I needed. Not only for practical reasons (it’s easier to learn techniques in such a context, getting feedback from knowledgeable people is essential, and tasting other people’s beers is an eye-opener), but also for social reasons. Homebrewing was never meant to be a solitary experience, for me.

I was too much of a social butterfly.

Which brings me back to childhood. As a kid, I was often ostracized. And I always tried to build clubs. It never really worked. Things got much better for me after age 15, and I had a rich social life by the time I became a young adult. But, in 2000-2001, I was still looking for a club to which I could belong. Unlike Groucho, I cared a lot about any club which would accept me.

As fun as it was, Bièropholie wasn’t an actual brewclub. Brewers posting on the site mostly met as a group during an annual event, a BBQ which became known as «Xè de mille» (“Nth of 1000”) in 2001. The 2000 edition (“0th of 1000”) was when I had my maple porter tasted by more advanced brewers. Part of event was a bit like what brewclub meetings tend to be: tasting each other’s brews, providing feedback, discussing methods and ingredients, etc. But because people didn’t meet regularly as a group, because people were scattered all around Quebec, and because there wasn’t much in terms of “contribution to primary identity,” it didn’t feel like a brewclub, at least not of the type I was reading about.

The MontreAlers brewclub was formed at about that time. For some reason, it took me a while to learn of its existence. I distinctly remember looking for a Montreal-based club through diverse online resources, including the famed HomeBrew Digest. And I know I tried to contact someone from McGill who apparently had a club going. But I never found the ‘Alers.

I did eventually find the Members of Barleyment. Or, at least, some of the people who belonged to this “virtual brewclub.” It probably wasn’t until I moved to New Brunswick in 2003, but it was another turning point. One MoB member I met was Daniel Chisholm, a homebrewer near Fredericton, NB, who gave me insight on the New Brunswick beer scene (I was teaching in Fredericton at the time). Perhaps more importantly, Daniel also invited me to the Big Strange New Brunswick Brew (BSNBB), a brewing event like the ones I kept dreaming about. This was partly a Big Brew, an occasion for brewers to brew together at the same place. But it was also a very fun social event.

It’s through the BSNBB that I met MontreAlers Andrew Ludwig and John Misrahi. John is the instigator of the MontreAlers brewclub. Coming back to Montreal a few weeks after BSNBB, I was looking forward to attend my first meeting of the ‘Alers brewclub, in July 2003.

Which was another fascinating experience. Through it, I was able to observe different attitudes toward brewing. Misrahi, for instance, is a fellow experimental homebrewer to the point that I took to call him “MadMan Misrahi.” But a majority of ‘Alers are more directly on the “engineering” side of brewing. I also got to observe some interesting social dynamics among brewers, something which remained important as I moved to different places and got to observe other brewclubs and brewers meetings, such as the Chicago Beer Society’s Thirst Fursdays. Eventually, this all formed the backdrop for a set of informal observations which were the corse of a presentation I gave about craft beer and cultural identity.

Through all of these brewing-related groups, I’ve been positioning myself as an experimenter.  My goal isn’t necessarily to consistently make quality beer, to emulate some beers I know, or to win prizes in style-based brewing competitions. My thing is to have fun and try new things. Consistent beer is available anywhere and I drink little enough that I can afford enough of it. But homebrewing is almost a way for me to connect with my childhood.

There can be a “mad scientist” effect to homebrewing. Michael Tonsmeire calls himself The Mad Fermentationist and James Spencer at Basic Brewing has been interviewing a number of homebrewer who do rather unusual experiments.

I count myself among the ranks of the “Mad Brewers.” Oh, we’re not doing anything completely crazy. But slightly mad we are.

Through the selective memory of an adult with regards to his childhood, I might say that I was “always like that.” As a kid, I wanted to be everything at once: mayor, astronaut, fireman, and scholar. The researcher’s spirit had me “always try new things.” I even had a slight illusion of grandeur in that I would picture myself accomplishing all sorts of strange things. Had I known about it as a kid, I would have believed that I could solve the Poincaré conjecture. Mathematicians were strange enough for me.

But there’s something more closely related to homebrewing which comes back to my mind as I do experiments with beer. I had this tendency to do all sorts of concoctions. Not only the magic potions kids do with mud  and dishwashing liquid. But all sorts of potable drinks that a mixologist may experiment with. There wasn’t any alcohol in those drinks, but the principle was the same. Some of them were good enough for my tastes. But I never achieved the kind of breakthrough drink which would please masses. I did, however, got my experimentation spirit to bear on food.

By age nine, I was cooking for myself at lunch. Nothing very elaborate, maybe. It often consisted of reheating leftovers. But I got used to the stove (we didn’t have a microwave oven, at the time). And I sometimes cooked some eggs or similar things. To this day, eggs are still my default food.

And, like many children, I occasionally contributing to cooking. Simple things like mixing ingredients. But also tasting things at different stages in the cooking or baking process. Given the importance of sensory memory, I’d say the tasting part was probably more important in my development than the mixing. But the pride was mostly in being an active contributor in the kitchen.

Had I understood fermentation as a kid, I probably would have been fascinated by it. In a way, I wish I could have been involved in homebrewing at the time.

A homebrewery is an adult’s chemistry set.


Beer Eye for the Coffee Guy (or Gal)

Judged twelve (12) espresso drinks as part of the Eastern Regional Canadian Barista Championship (UStream).

[Never watched Queer Eye. Thought the title would make sense, given both the “taste” and even gender dimensions.]

Had quite a bit of fun.

The experience was quite similar to the one I had last year. There were fewer competitors, this year. But I also think that there were more people in the audience, at least in the morning. One possible reason is that ads about the competition were much more visible this year than last (based on my own experience and on several comments made during the day). Also, I noticed a stronger sense of collegiality among competitors, as several of them have been different things together in the past year.

More specifically, people from Ottawa’s Bridgehead and people from Montreal’s Café Myriade have developed something which, at least from the outside, look like comradery. At the Canadian National Barista Championship, last year, Myriade’s Anthony Benda won the “congeniality” prize. This year, Benda got first place in the ERCBC. Second place went to Bridgehead’s Cliff Hansen, and third place went to Myriade’s Alex Scott.

Bill Herne served as head judge for most of the event. He made it a very pleasant experience for me personally and, I hope, for other judges. His insight on the championship is especially valuable given the fact that he can maintain a certain distance from the specifics.

The event was organized in part by Vida Radovanovic, founder of the Canadian Coffee & Tea Show. Though she’s quick to point to differences between Toronto and Montreal, in terms of these regional competitions, she also seemed pleased with several aspects of this year’s ERCBC.

To me, the championship was mostly an opportunity for thinking and talking about the coffee world.

Met and interacted with diverse people during the day. Some of them were already part of my circle of coffee-loving friends and acquaintances. Some who came to me to talk about coffee after noticing some sign of my connection to the championship. The fact that I was introduced to the audience as a blogger and homeroaster seems to have been relatively significant. And there were several people who were second-degree contacts in my coffee-related social network, making for easy introductions.

A tiny part of the day’s interactions was captured in interviews for CBC Montreal’s Daybreak (unfortunately, the recording is in RealAudio format).

“Coffee as a social phenomenon” was at the centre of several of my own interactions with diverse people. Clearly, some of it has to do with my own interests, especially with “Montreal’s coffee renaissance.” But there were also a clear interest in such things as the marketshare of quality coffee, the expansion of some coffee scenes, and the notion of building a sense of community through coffee. That last part is what motivated me to write this post.

After the event, a member of my coffee-centric social network has started a discussion about community-building in the coffee world and I found myself dumping diverse ideas on him. Several of my ideas have to do with my experience with craft beer in North America. In a way, I’ve been doing informal ethnography of craft beer. Beer has become an area of expertise, for me, and I’d like to pursue more formal projects on it. So beer is on my mind when I think about coffee. And vice-versa. I was probably a coffee geek before I started homebrewing beer but I started brewing beer at home before I took my coffee-related activities to new levels.

So, in my reply on a coffee community, I was mostly thinking about beer-related communities.

Comparing coffee and beer is nothing new, for me. In fact, a colleague has blogged about some of my comments, both formal and informal, about some of those connections.

Differences between beer and coffee are significant. Some may appear trivial but they can all have some impact on the way we talk about cultural and social phenomena surrounding these beverages.

  • Coffee contains caffeine, beer contains alcohol. (Non-alcoholic beers, decaf coffee, and beer with coffee are interesting but they don’t dominate.) Yes: “duh.” But the difference is significant. Alcohol and caffeine not only have different effects but they fit in different parts of our lives.
  • Coffee is often part of a morning ritual,  frequently perceived as part of preparation for work. Beer is often perceived as a signal for leisure time, once you can “wind down.” Of course, there are people (including yours truly) who drink coffee at night and people (especially in Europe) who drink alcohol during a workday. But the differences in the “schedules” for beer and coffee have important consequences on the ways these drinks are integrated in social life.
  • Coffee tends to be much less expensive than beer. Someone’s coffee expenses may easily be much higher than her or his “beer budget,” but the cost of a single serving of coffee is usually significantly lower than a single serving of beer.
  • While it’s possible to drink a few coffees in a row, people usually don’t drink more than two coffees in a single sitting. With beer, it’s not rare that people would drink quite a few pints in the same night. The UK concept of a “session beer” goes well with this fact.
  • Brewing coffee takes a few minutes, brewing beer takes a while (hours for the brewing process, days or even weeks for fermentation).
  • At a “bar,” coffee is usually brewed in front of those who will drink it while beer has been prepared in advance.
  • Brewing coffee at home has been mainstream for quite a while. Beer homebrewing is considered a hobby.
  • Historically, coffee is a recent phenomenon. Beer is among the most ancient human-made beverages in the world.

Despite these significant differences, coffee and beer also have a lot in common. The fact that the term “brew” is used for beer and coffee (along with tea) may be a coincidence, but there are remarkable similarities between the extraction of diverse compounds from grain and from coffee beans. In terms of process, I would argue that beer and coffee are more similar than are, say, coffee and tea or beer and wine.

But the most important similarity, in my mind, is social: beer and coffee are, indeed, central to some communities. So are other drinks, but I’m more involved in groups having to do with coffee or beer than in those having to do with other beverages.

One way to put it, at least in my mind, is that coffee and beer are both connected to revolutions.

Coffee is community-oriented from the very start as coffee beans often come from farming communities and cooperatives. The notion, then, is that there are local communities which derive a significant portion of their income from the global and very unequal coffee trade. Community-oriented people often find coffee-growing to be a useful focus of attention and given the place of coffee in the global economy, it’s unsurprising to see a lot of interest in the concept (if not the detailed principles) of “fair trade” in relation to coffee. For several reasons (including the fact that they’re often produced in what Wallerstein would call “core” countries), the main ingredients in beer (malted barley and hops) don’t bring to mind the same conception of local communities. Still, coffee and beer are important to some local agricultural communities.

For several reasons, I’m much more directly involved with communities which have to do with the creation and consumption of beverages made with coffee beans or with grain.

In my private reply about building a community around coffee, I was mostly thinking about what can be done to bring attention to those who actually drink coffee. Thinking about the role of enthusiasts is an efficient way to think about the craft beer revolution and about geeks in general. After all, would the computer world be the same without the “homebrew computer club?”

My impression is that when coffee professionals think about community, they mostly think about creating better relationships within the coffee business. It may sound like a criticism, but it has more to do with the notion that the trade of coffee has been quite competitive. Building a community could be a very significant change. In a way, that might be a basis for the notion of a “Third Wave” in coffee.

So, using my beer homebrewer’s perspective: what about a community of coffee enthusiasts? Wouldn’t that help?

And I don’t mean “a website devoted to coffee enthusiasts.” There’s a lot of that, already. A lot of people on the Coffee Geek Forums are outsiders to the coffee industry and Home Barista is specifically geared toward the home enthusiasts’ market.

I’m really thinking about fostering a sense of community. In the beer world, this frequently happens in brewclubs or through the Beer Judge Certification Program, which is much stricter than barista championships. Could the same concepts apply to the coffee world? Probably not. But there may still be “lessons to be learnt” from the beer world.

In terms of craft beer in North America, there’s a consensus around the role of beer enthusiasts. A very significant number of craft brewers were homebrewers before “going pro.” One of the main reasons craft beer has become so important is because people wanted to drink it. Craft breweries often do rather well with very small advertising budgets because they attract something akin to cult followings. The practise of writing elaborate comments and reviews has had a significant impact on a good number of craft breweries. And some of the most creative things which happen in beer these days come from informal experiments carried out by homebrewers.

As funny as it may sound (or look), people get beer-related jobs because they really like beer.

The same happens with coffee. On occasion. An enthusiastic coffee lover will either start working at a café or, somewhat more likely, will “drop everything” and open her/his own café out of a passion for coffee. I know several people like this and I know the story is quite telling for many people. But it’s not the dominant narrative in the coffee world where “rags to riches” stories have less to do with a passion for coffee than with business acumen. Things may be changing, though, as coffee becomes more… passion-driven.

To be clear: I’m not saying that serious beer enthusiasts make the bulk of the market for craft beer or that coffee shop owners should cater to the most sophisticated coffee geeks out there. Beer and coffee are both too cheap to warrant this kind of a business strategy. But there’s a lot to be said about involving enthusiasts in the community.

For one thing, coffee and beer can both get viral rather quickly. Because most people in North America can afford beer or coffee, it’s often easy to convince a friend to grab a cup or pint. Coffee enthusiasts who bring friends to a café do more than sell a cup. They help build up a place. And because some people are into the habit of regularly going to the same bar or coffee shop, the effects can be lasting.

Beer enthusiasts often complain about the inadequate beer selection at bars and restaurants. To this day, there are places where I end up not drinking anything besides water after hearing what the beerlist contains. In the coffee world, it seems that the main target these days is the restaurant business. The current state of affairs with coffee at restaurants is often discussed with heavy sighs of disappointment. What I”ve heard from several people in the coffee business is that, too frequently,  restaurant owners give so little attention to coffee that they end up destroying the dining experience of anyone who orders coffee after a meal. Even in my own case, I’ve had enough bad experiences with restaurant coffee (including, or even especially, at higher-end places) that I’m usually reluctant to have coffee at a restaurant. It seems quite absurd, as a quality experience with coffee at the end of a meal can do a lot to a restaurant’s bottom line. But I can’t say that it’s my main concern because I end up having coffee elsewhere, anyway. While restaurants can be the object of a community’s attention and there’s a lot to be said about what restaurants do to a region or neighbourhood, the community dimensions of coffee have less to do with what is sold where than with what people do around coffee.

Which brings me to the issue of education. It’s clearly a focus in the coffee world. In fact, most coffee-related events have some “training” dimension. But this type of education isn’t community-oriented. It’s a service-based approach, such as the one which is increasingly common in academic institutions. While I dislike customer-based learning in universities, I do understand the need for training services in the coffee world. What I perceive insight from the beer world can do is complement these training services instead of replacing them.

An impressive set of learning experiences can be seen among homebrewers. From the most practical of “hands-on training” to some very conceptual/theoretical knowledge exchanges. And much of the learning which occurs is informal, seamless, “organic.” It’s possible to get very solid courses in beer and brewing, but the way most people learn is casual and free. Because homebrewers are organized in relatively tight groups and because the sense of community among homebrewers is also a matter of solidarity.  Or, more simply, because “it’s just a hobby anyway.”

The “education” theme also has to do with “educating the public” into getting more sophisticated about what to order. This does happen in the beer world, but can only be pulled off when people are already interested in knowing more about beer. In relation with the coffee industry, it sometimes seems that “coffee education” is imposed on people from the top-down. And it’s sometimes quite arbitrary. Again, room for the coffee business to read the Cluetrain Manifesto and to learn from communities.

And speaking of Starbucks… One draft blogpost which has been nagging me is about the perception that, somehow, Starbucks has had a positive impact in terms of coffee quality. One important point is that Starbucks took the place of an actual coffee community. Even if it can be proven that coffee quality wouldn’t have been improved in North America if it hadn’t been for Starbucks (a tall order, if you ask me), the issue remains that Starbucks has only paid attention to the real estate dimension of the concept of community. The mermaid corporation has also not doing so well, recently, so we may finally get beyond the financial success story and get into the nitty-gritty of what makes people connect through coffee. The world needs more from coffee than chains selling coffee-flavoured milk.

One notion I wanted to write about is the importance of “national” traditions in both coffee and beer in relation to what is happening in North America, these days. Part of the situation is enough to make me very enthusiastic to be in North America, since it’s increasingly possible to not only get quality beer and coffee but there are many opportunities for brewing coffee and beer in new ways. But that’ll have to wait for another post.

In Western Europe at least, coffee is often associated with the home. The smell of coffee has often been described in novels and it can run deep in social life. There’s no reason homemade coffee can’t be the basis for a sense of community in North America.

Now, if people in the coffee industry would wake up and… think about actual human beings, for a change…


Quest for Expertise

Will at Work Learning: People remember 10%, 20%…Oh Really?.

This post was mentioned on the mailing-list for the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE-L).

In that post, Will Thalheimer traces back a well-known claim about learning to shoddy citations. While it doesn’t invalidate the base claim (that people tend to retain more information through certain cognitive processes), Thalheimer does a good job of showing how a graph which has frequently been seen in educational fields was based on faulty interpretation of work by prominent scholars, mixed with some results from other sources.

Quite interesting. IMHO, demystification and critical thinking are among the most important things we can do in academia. In fact, through training in folkloristics, I have become quite accustomed to this specific type of debunking.

I have in mind a somewhat similar claim that I’m currently trying to trace. Preliminary searches seem to imply that citations of original statements have a similar hyperbolic effect on the status of this claim.

The claim is what a type of “rule of thumb” in cognitive science. A generic version could be stated in the following way:

It takes ten years or 10,000 hours to become an expert in any field.

The claim is a rather famous one from cognitive science. I’ve heard it uttered by colleagues with a background in cognitive science. In 2006, I first heard about such a claim from Philip E. Ross, on an episode of Scientific American‘s Science Talk podcast to discuss his article on expertise. I later read a similar claim in Daniel Levitin’s 2006 This Is Your Brain On Music. The clearest statement I could find back in Levitin’s book is the following (p. 193):

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything.

More recently, during a keynote speech he was giving as part of his latest book tour, I heard a similar claim from presenter extraordinaire Malcolm Gladwell. AFAICT, this claim runs at the centre of Gladwell’s recent book: Outliers: The Story of Success. In fact, it seems that Gladwell uses the same quote from Levitin, on page 40 of Outliers (I just found that out).

I would like to pinpoint the origin for the claim. Contrary to Thalheimer’s debunking, I don’t expect that my search will show that the claim is inaccurate. But I do suspect that the “rule of thumb” versions may be a bit misled. I already notice that most people who set up such claims are doing so without direct reference to the primary literature. This latter comment isn’t damning: in informal contexts, constant referal to primary sources can be extremely cumbersome. But it could still be useful to clear up the issue. Who made this original claim?

I’ve tried a few things already but it’s not working so well. I’m collecting a lot of references, to both online and printed material. Apart from Levitin’s book and a few online comments, I haven’t yet read the material. Eventually, I’d probably like to find a good reference on the cognitive basis for expertise which puts this “rule of thumb” in context and provides more elaborate data on different things which can be done during that extensive “time on task” (including possible skill transfer).

But I should proceed somewhat methodically. This blogpost is but a preliminary step in this process.

Since Philip E. Ross is the first person on record I heard talk about this claim, a logical first step for me is to look through this SciAm article. Doing some text searches on the printable version of his piece, I find a few interesting things including the following (on page 4 of the standard version):

Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field.

Apart from the ten thousand (10,000) hours part of the claim, this is about as clear a statement as I’m looking for. The “Simon” in question is Herbert A. Simon, who did research on chess at the Department of Psychology at Carnegie-Mellon University with colleague William G. Chase.  So I dig for diverse combinations of “Herbert Simon,” “ten(10)-year rule,” “William Chase,” “expert(ise),” and/or “chess.” I eventually find two primary texts by those two authors, both from 1973: (Chase and Simon, 1973a) and (Chase and Simon, 1973b).

The first (1973a) is an article from Cognitive Psychology 4(1): 55-81, available for download on ScienceDirect (toll access). Through text searches for obvious words like “hour*,” “year*,” “time,” or even “ten,” it seems that this article doesn’t include any specific statement about the amount of time required to become an expert. The quote which appears to be the most relevant is the following:

Behind this perceptual analysis, as with all skills (cf., Fitts & Posner, 1967), lies an extensive cognitive apparatus amassed through years of constant practice.

While it does relate to the notion that there’s a cognitive basis to practise, the statement is generic enough to be far from the “rule of thumb.”

The second Chase and Simon reference (1973b) is a chapter entitled “The Mind’s Eye in Chess” (pp. 215-281) in the proceedings of the Eighth Carnegie Symposium on Cognition as edited by William Chase and published by Academic Press under the title Visual Information Processing. I borrowed a copy of those proceedings from Concordia and have been scanning that chapter visually for some statements about the “time on task.” Though that symposium occurred in 1972 (before the first Chase and Simon reference was published), the proceedings were apparently published after the issue of Cognitive Psychology since the authors mention that article for background information.

I do find some interesting quotes, but nothing that specific:

By a rough estimate, the amount of time each player has spent playing chess, studying chess, and otherwise staring at chess positions is perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours for the Master; 1,000 to 5,000 hours for the Class A player; and less than 100 horus for the beginner. (Chase and Simon 1973b: 219)

or:

The organization of the Master’s elaborate repertoire of information takes thousands of hours to build up, and the same is true of any skilled task (e.g., football, music). That is why practice is the major independent variable in the acquisition of skill. (Chase and Simon 1973b: 279, emphasis in the original, last sentences in the text)

Maybe I haven’t scanned these texts properly but those quotes I find seem to imply that Simon hadn’t really devised his “10-year rule” in a clear, numeric version.

I could probably dig for more Herbert Simon wisdom. Before looking (however cursorily) at those 1973 texts, I was using Herbert Simon as a key figure in the origin of that “rule of thumb.” To back up those statements, I should probably dig deeper in the Herbert Simon archives. But that might require more work than is necessary and it might be useful to dig through other sources.

In my personal case, the other main written source for this “rule of thumb” is Dan Levitin. So, using online versions of his book, I look for comments about expertise. (I do own a copy of the book and I’m assuming the Index contains page numbers for references on expertise. But online searches are more efficient and possibly more thorough on specific keywords.) That’s how I found the statement, quoted above. I’m sure it’s the one which was sticking in my head and, as I found out tonight, it’s the one Gladwell used in his first statement on expertise in Outliers.

So, where did Levitin get this? I could possibly ask him (we’ve been in touch and he happens to be local) but looking for those references might require work on his part. A preliminary step would be to look through Levitin’s published references for Your Brain On Music.

Though Levitin is a McGill professor, Your Brain On Music doesn’t follow the typical practise in English-speaking academia of ladling copious citations onto any claim, even the most truistic statements. Nothing strange in this difference in citation practise.  After all, as Levitin explains in his Bibliographic Notes:

This book was written for the non-specialist and not for my colleagues, and so I have tried to simplify topics without oversimplifying them.

In this context, academic-style citation-fests would make the book too heavy. Levitin does, however, provide those “Bibliographic Notes” at the end of his book and on the website for the same book. In the Bibliographic Notes of that site, Levitin adds a statement I find quite interesting in my quest for “sources of claims”:

Because I wrote this book for the general reader, I want to emphasize that there are no new ideas presented in this book, no ideas that have not already been presented in scientific and scholarly journals as listed below.

So, it sounds like going through those references is a good strategy to locate at least solid references on that specific “10,000 hour” claim. Among relevant references on the cognitive basis of expertise (in Chapter 7), I notice the following texts which might include specific statements about the “time on task” to become an expert. (An advantage of the Web version of these bibliographic notes is that Levitin provides some comments on most references; I put Levitin’s comments in parentheses.)

  • Chi, Michelene T.H., Robert Glaser, and Marshall J. Farr, eds. 1988. The Nature of Expertise. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. (Psychological studies of expertise, including chess players)
  • Ericsson, K. A., and J. Smith, eds. 1991. Toward a General Theory of Expertise: prospects and limits. New York: Cambridge University Press. (Psychological studies of expertise, including chess players)
  • Hayes, J. R. 1985. Three problems in teaching general skills. In Thinking and Learning Skills: Research and Open Questions, edited by S. F. Chipman, J. W. Segal and R. Glaser. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. (Source for the study of Mozart’s early works not being highly regarded, and refutation that Mozart didn’t need 10,000 hours like everyone else to become an expert.)
  • Howe, M. J. A., J. W. Davidson, and J. A. Sloboda. 1998. Innate talents: Reality or myth? Behavioral & Brain Sciences 21 (3):399-442. (One of my favorite articles, although I don’t agree with everything in it; an overview of the “talent is a myth” viewpoint.)
  • Sloboda, J. A. 1991. Musical expertise. In Toward a general theory of expertise, edited by K. A. Ericcson (sic) and J. Smith. New York: Cambridge University Press. (Overview of issues and findings in musical expertise literature)

I have yet to read any of those references. I did borrow Ericsson and Smith when I first heard about Levitin’s approach to talent and expertise (probably through a radio and/or podcast appearance). But I had put the issue of expertise on the back-burner. It was always at the back of my mind and I did blog about it, back then. But it took Gladwell’s talk to wake me up. What’s funny, though, is that the “time on task” statements in (Ericsson and Smith,  1991) seem to lead back to (Chase and Simon, 1973b).

At this point, I get the impression that the “it takes a decade and/or 10,000 hours to become an expert”:

  • was originally proposed as a vague hypothesis a while ago (the year 1899 comes up);
  • became an object of some consideration by cognitive psychologists at the end of the 1960s;
  • became more widely accepted in the 1970s;
  • was tested by Benjamin Bloom and others in the 1980s;
  • was precised by Ericsson and others in the late 1980s;
  • gained general popularity in the mid-2000s;
  • is being further popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in late 2008.

Of course, I’ll have to do a fair bit of digging and reading to verify any of this, but it sounds like the broad timeline makes some sense. One thing, though, is that it doesn’t really seem that anybody had the intention of spelling it out as a “rule” or “law” in such a format as is being carried around. If I’m wrong, I’m especially surprised that a clear formulation isn’t easier to find.

As an aside, of sorts… Some people seem to associate the claim with Gladwell, at this point. Not very surprsing, given the popularity of his books, the effectiveness of his public presentations, the current context of his book tour, and the reluctance of the general public to dig any deeper than the latest source.

The problem, though, is that it doesn’t seem that Gladwell himself has done anything to “set the record straight.” He does quote Levitin in Outliers, but I heard him reply to questions and comments as if the research behind the “ten years or ten thousand hours” claim had some association with him. From a popular author like Gladwell, it’s not that awkward. But these situations are perfect opportunities for popularizers like Gladwell to get a broader public interested in academia. As Gladwell allegedly cares about “educational success” (as measured on a linear scale), I would have expected more transparency.

Ah, well…

So, I have some work to do on all of this. It will have to wait but this placeholder might be helpful. In fact, I’ll use it to collect some links.

 

Some relevant blogposts of mine on talent, expertise, effort, and Levitin.

And a whole bunch of weblinks to help me in my future searches (I have yet to really delve in any of this).


Blogging and Literary Standards

I wrote the following comment in response to a conversation between novelist Rick Moody and podcasting pioneer Chris Lydon:

Open Source » Blog Archive » In the Obama Moment: Rick Moody.

In keeping with the RERO principle I describe in that comment, the version on the Open Source site is quite raw. As is my habit, these days, I pushed the “submit” button without rereading what I had written. This version is edited, partly because I noticed some glaring mistakes and partly because I wanted to add some links. (Blog comments are often tagged for moderation if they contain too many links.) As I started editing that comment, I changed a few things, some of which have consequences to the meaning of my comment. There’s this process, in both writing and editing, which “generates new thoughts.” Yet another argument for the RERO principle.

I can already think of an addendum to this post, revolving on my personal position on writing styles (informed by my own blogwriting experience) along with my relative lack of sensitivity for Anglo writing. But I’m still blogging this comment on a standalone basis.

Read on, please… Continue reading


Banality of Heroism

Wow! I’m speechless!

Open Source » Blog Archive » The Banality of Evil, Part II

Continue reading


Defending Quebec’s Cegep System

Disclaimer: So far, I’ve taught at six universities and one college in Indiana, Massachusetts, New Brunswick, and Quebec. In Quebec, I’ve taught at Montreal’s Université de Montréal (French-speaking) and Concordia University (English-speaking). This entry is mostly about my teaching experience in Montreal in contrast to my teaching experience in the MidWest and Northeast regions of the United States. Having spent some time in Mali, Switzerland, and France, I do realise that many education systems outside of Canada and the U.S. work pretty much like Quebec’s.

It’s partly my bias as a Québécois, I’m sure. Or it’s the weather. Yet I can’t help but being amazed at how well-prepared my students at both Concordia University and Université de Montréal have been, so far. Though personal characteristics could conceivably play a part, I usually see my Quebec students’ preparedness in relation to the Cegep system that we have here in Quebec.

“So,” I hear you ask, “what is the Cegep system anyway?” Well, it’s the educational system that we have, here in Quebec. It includes Cegeps.

“But…”

Yeah, I know. 😉

“Cegep” or “CEGEP” (pronounced “sea-jep” or “say-jep”) is a Quebec French acronym which stands for «Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel» (“College of General and Professional Education”). A Cegep is a post-secondary institution («Collège») which serves both as a comprehensive («Général») transitional period between secondary school and university as well as vocational («Professionnel») training («Enseignement») in fields like nursing, robotics, or computer science. People in the U.S. could think of it as a blend of a vocational school, a community college, a prep school, a continuing education program, and a two-year liberal arts college. A Cegep’s degree («diplôme d’études collégiales» or “DEC,” pronounced “deck”) can be compared with things like the French «baccalauréat» or the Swiss «maturité», but less Euro-hierarchical. (Please note that «baccalauréat» (or «bacc.», pronounced “back”) is used in Quebec to refer to the bachelor’s degree.)

Though I haven’t been in direct contact with many Cegep students for quite a while, I find the Cegep system to be one of the best features of the Quebec education system.

Of course, I tend to idealise things a fair bit and I know many people whose opinion of the Cegep system is much less enthusiastic than mine. Still, through both informal and formal discussions with many university students and faculty in Canada, France, Switzerland, and the United States, my positive perspective on the Cegep system keeps being reinforced.

One reason this issue keeps being relevant is that provincial politicians, school board administrators, and some other members of Quebec society occasionally attack the Cegep system for different reasons. On the other hand, I have yet to meet a university professor who has very negative things to say about the Cegep system. They might come out with this blog entry, but it would take a fair bit to get me, as a university instructor, to see Cegeps in very negative a light.

Cegeps were an effect of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution (late 1960s through the 1970s). They’re a somewhat recent phenomenon, so we can’t really see all of their social effects, but have existed for long enough a period of intense social change that they have really taken roots in the fabric of Quebec culture. (I love mixing metaphors! 😉 )

I’m a little bit unclear as to whether or not the requirements have remained the same since my own time as a music student at Cégep Saint-Laurent (1989-1991), but here’s a description in the present tense of how Cegeps worked when I went to one almost twenty years ago. All Quebeckers younger than 21 who wish to go to a university in Quebec need to complete at least two years’ worth of Cegep courses after secondary school (grades 7-11, here). “Professional” (vocational) programs last three years and also work for university requirements if a Cegep graduate wants to go to a university. For those 21 or older, life experience usually counts as equivalent to the Cegep requirement for applying to Quebec universities (at least, that’s the way it was, way back when). Even then, most university applicants go through Cegep even if they are old enough to enter a university program without a DEC as Cegep is an efficient way to prepare for university. Many programs at Quebec universities use representations of Cegep grades (kind of like a normalised GPA) as admission criteria. It wasn’t the case for my B.Sc. in anthropology at Université de Montréal (1991-1994). Unlike the United States where standardised tests are so common, Quebec students don’t take SAT-like general exams before going to university. To an extent, comprehensive training in a Cegep achieves some of the same goals as SAT scores do in the United States.

As far as I know, non-Quebec students need to go through specific requirements before they can begin a Bachelor’s degree at a Quebec university (B.A. and B.S. programs usually last three years, here). I’m not really clear on the details but it implies that even non-Cegep students are specifically prepared to go to university.

Even with students who never went to Cegep, the existence of Cegeps makes a large difference in the Quebec education system as it raises the bar for university behaviour. In Quebec, the kinds of mistakes college students tend to make in their “college years” in the U.S. are supposed to have been done during Cegep years in Quebec. So Quebec’s university students are less likely to make them

Unlike pupils in secondary schools, Cegep students enter a specific study program. On paper, course requirements in a typical Cegep program look quite a bit like freshman and sophomore requirements at a North American university or college outside of Quebec. Students choose their own courses (possibly with an advisor, I can’t remember) and usually get a fair bit of “free” time. At Saint-Laurent, my weekly scheduled only included 15 hours of classes but I also had 15 hours of Big Band rehearsal every week and would usually spend thirty hours of individual instrument practise as well as thirty hours of study every week. Yes, that was a bit much but I feel it really prepared me for an academic career. 😉

The equivalent of “General Education Requirements” in Cegeps include philosophy and physical education courses. The philosophy courses are quite basic but they still prepare students to think about issues which tend to be very important in academic contexts. And, at least in the courses I’ve had at Saint-Laurent, we did read primary texts from important thinkers, like the complete text of Nietzsche’s Zur Genealogie der Moral (translated into French).

As compared to most North American universities, Cegeps charge almost nothing. When I was at Saint-Laurent, we had administrative fees of about $80 and no tuition fees. It has probably changed since that time, but I’m quite sure Cegep fees are nothing like the outrageous tuition fees paid by college and university students in many parts of the United States. What this means to students is that the financial cost of a Cegep program is fairly minimal. Of course, there are many costs associated with going through school during that time. For one thing, a good proportion of Cegep students live in appartments, which can be fairly expensive. And it’s difficult to work full-time while doing a Cegep degree. But, as compared to the typical situation in the U.S., the stakes in dropping a Cegep program or switching to a new one are low enough that students use this time as an opportunity to get to know what they want to do with their lives.

In other words, Cegep students who may look like they’re “wasting their time” are going through the period of socialisation associated with late adolescence in different parts of the world. If, as is quite common, they find out that they don’t necessarily want to get a university degree or that their original degree program was nothing like they planned, they still got something out of their Cegep experience at little cost. Given the functioning costs of universities, such shifts in learning orientation carry very high social and individual costs if they happen in universities. “Wasting” a DEC in Natural Sciences by then moving on to become an artist is nothing as compared to dropping a pre-Med degree to join the Peace Corps. In cases where public funding to universities is important, the difference is extremely significant, socially.

For many people, Cegep is in fact a way to experience student life to see if they like it. As painful as it may be for some academics and prestige-hungry parents to learn, many people don’t really want to spend that many years (and that much money) as college/university students. In fact, there are those brilliant students who, one day, realise that they just want to learn on their own while working as, say, a cashier at a university cafeteria. My guess is that social pressure and diploma prestige are the only reasons such people ever go through post-secondary education in the first place. I also feel that they should have a right to choose the life that they want. You know: “Pursuit of Happiness” and all of that…

As some would be quick to point out, there are some people who spend years and years in Cegeps, unsuccessfully looking for the perfect program for them, and end up working at low-paying jobs all their lives. These may sound like lost souls but I really think that they are more likely to contribute to society as a whole than the equivalent long-term “undecided majors” in U.S. universities.

Because Cegeps’ individual costs are relatively low, Cegep students often do experiment a lot with courses in different fields. It may seem like a stretch but my hunch is that this experimental tendency might be one of the reasons is so productive in creative domains like musical productions and circus shows. If it weren’t for Cegeps, I would never have spent two years of my life in intensive training as a musician. I already (since age 13) that I wanted to become an anthropologist and my DEC in music wasn’t necessary for anything I ever did. But it greatly enhanced my life more than many university programs ever do.

Cegeps often count significant numbers of what U.S. college people tend to call “non-traditional students” (older than the “typical” post-K-12 undergrad). These include fascinating people like mature women who are getting a Cegep degree as part of a life-changing experience (say, after a divorce). Because of this, the average age in a Cegep can be higher than in the typical U.S. graduate school. It also means that Cegep students coming directly from secondary schools are getting accustomed to interacting with people whose life experience may involve parenthood, career development, and long-term personal relationships.

For diverse reasons, Cegeps are the locus of most of the active student movements in Quebec, some of which have led to important strikes and other forms of student protest. Student strikes have had a deep impact in Quebec’s recent history. Not that students have forced long-lasting policy changes by themselves but many members of recent generations of Quebeckers have gotten a taste for political involvement through student protest. Though I was living in Indiana at the time (2004-2005), I have seen important effects of the most recent student strike on some dimensions of Quebec society. At the time, around 200 000 Quebec students went on strike in protest of the provincial government’s changes to the financial aid system. At one point, 100 000 students had taken to the streets to march as part of the student movement. The government eventually backed down on the changes it was implementing and people still talk about the effects of this strike. It is likely that the strike will not have any effect on any specific political party and political scientists would probably say that the strike failed to produce a “political class.” Yet, and this is an important point, the target of the strike wasn’t a political party but a perceived discrepancy between the ideals of two generations. In my personal opinion, such a social movement is much more important than partisan politics. In such a context, it isn’t surprising to see many young Quebeckers become social activists, may it be for environmental causes or to fight some global inequalities. They become like this in Cegeps. Since the majority of secondary school students eventually go to Cegeps, this social involvement has nothing to do with the elitism of “Revolutions” of the early nationalist era. Cegep students are the perfect example of individualistic (one would say «libertaire») social engagement.

Not only are Cegep students socially involved but they are usually considered to be socially mature.

Quite significantly, many young adults in Quebec learn how to drink by the time they finish Cegep. Drinking age is 18 here and people usually start Cegep at age 17. As has been happening in different parts of the world for the longest time, cafés and bars around Cegep and university campuses tend to be important meeting space for students. Coffee is the drink of choice for many students during the day but alcoholic drinks (including craft beer, nowadays) bring students together for long discussions in the evening and nights. Because student alcohol consumption is widely accepted, students never feel the need to hide in residence halls or “greek houses” to enjoy each other’s company.

In such a context, it’s easy to understand why university students in Quebec are very generally seen as responsible adults. In the U.S., I’ve heard both students and professors describe university students of any age as “kids,” a term I find very symptomatic of tricky educational and academic issues. As I see universities as a place to do serious academic work and not as a place for parents to drop their kids until they grow up, I have many reasons to support Quebec’s Cegep system or anything which may achieve the same results. 🙂


French «Intellectuels» (draft)

[Old draft of a post that I never finished writing… Started it in late February.]

Been thinking about intellectuals, especially French ones. It might have been a long-standing issue for me. To this French-speaking North American academic, the theme is obvious.

More specifically, though.

Was listening to a podcast with French journalist Daniel Schneidermann who, among other things, is a blogger. During the podcast, Schneidermann made a simple yet interesting comment about validation by readers. As a journalist, he has an obligationto adopt strict standards, verify sources, etc. As a blogger, he knows that if something that he says is inaccurate, blog readers will quickly point out the mistake. Again, dead simple. One of the basic things people have understood about online communication since at least 1994. But some journalists have typically been slow to understand the implications, perhaps because it causes a sea change in their practise. So Scheidermann’s comment was relatively “refreshing” in such a context.

Wanted to blog on that issue. Went to Scheidermann’s blog and read a few things. Noticed one about a Wikipedia entry on Schneidermann. While the blogger understands the value of reader validation, he seems to be uneasy with the fact that his Wikipedia entry was, when he first read it, disproportionally devoted to some specific issues in his life. Which leads me to the intellectuel thing.

A little over ten years ago, Pierre Bourdieu was on Schneidermann’s television set for a show about television. Bourdieu had been thinking and writing about television’s social impact. The context in which Schneidermann invited Bourdieu was a series of political and social events centering on an important strike with which Bourdieu had been associated. By participating in the show, Bourdieu had the (secret) intention of demonstrating television’s incapacity at taking distance from itself. Bourdieu had participated in another television show a few years prior and apparently saw his presence on a television set as an occasion to experiment with some important issues having to do with the media’s channeling of dialogue. Didn’t see the show but had heard about the events that followed without following it. A brief summary, from very limited evidence.After appearing on the show, Bourdieu published a short piece in Le Monde diplomatique (Schneidermann was a journalist at Le Monde). That piece was strongly-worded but can be seen as a fairly typical media analysis by a social scientist or other scholar. Not Bourdieu’s most memorable work, maybe, but clear and simple, if a bit watered down at times. In fact, the analysis looked more Barthes-type semiotics than Bourdieu’s more, erm, “socially confrontational” work.

Schneidermann’s response to Bourdieu’s analysis looks more like a knee-jerk reaction to what was perceived as personal attacks. Kind of sad, really. In fact, the introduction to that response points out the relevance of Bourdieu’s interrogations.

At any rate, one aspect of Schneidermann’s response which is pretty telling in context is the repeated use of the term intellectuel at key points in that text. It’s not so much about the term itself, although it does easily become a loaded term. An intellectual could simply be…

[Google: define intellectual…]:

a person who uses his or her intellect to study, reflect, or speculate on a variety of different ideas

[ Thank you, Wikipedia! 😉 ]

But, in context, repeated use of the term, along with repeated mentions of Collège de France (a prestigious yet unusual academic institution) may give the impression that Schneidermann was reacting less to Bourdieu as former guest than to the actions of an intellectuel. Obligatory Prévert citation:

Il ne faut pas laisser les intellectuels jouer avec les allumettes.

(Intellectuals shouldn’t be allowed to play with matches.)

Now, second stream of thought on intellectuels. Was teaching an ethnomusicology course at an anthropology department. A frequent reaction by students was that we were intellectualizing music too much. Understandable reaction. Music isn’t just an intellectual object. But, after all, isn’t the role of academia to understand life intellectually?

Those comments tended to come in reaction to some of the more difficult readings. To be fair, other reactions included students who point out that an author’s analysis isn’t going beyond some of the more obvious statements and yet others are cherishing the intellectual dimensions of our perspective on music. Altogether the class went extremely well, but the intellectual character of some of the content was clearly surprising to some.

The third strand or stream of thought on intellectuels came on February 27 in a television show with Jacques Attali. His was a typical attitude of confidence in being a “jack of all trades” who didn’t hesitate to take part in politics, public service, and commercial initiatives. I personally have been influenced by some of Jacques Attali’s work and, though I may disagree with several of his ideas, I have nothing but respect for his carreer. His is a refreshingly unapologetic form of intellectualism. Not exclusion of non-intellectuals. Just an attempt at living peacefully with everyone while thinking about as many issues as possible. He isn’t my hero but he deserves my respect, along with people like Yoro Sidibe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Louis Armstrong, Boris Vian, Jan Garbarek, Georges Brassens, Steven Feld, Roland Barthes, James Brown, and Serge Gainsbourg.

A fourth thread came in a departmental conference at Université de Montréal’s Department of Anthropology. Much discussion of the involvement of anthropologists in social life. And the visit of two public intellectuals who happen to be anthropological provocateurs, here in Quebec: Serge Bouchard and Bernard Arcand.. . .

Never finished this draft.

Should really follow on these threads. They have been haunting me for almost a year. And connect with multiple issues that I tend to think about.

My attitude now is that through blogs, mailing-lists, online forums, classes, lectures, conferences, informal and formal discussions, I’m able to help people think about a large set of different issues, whether or not they agree with me on any single point. Not because I’m somehow better than others: I’m clearly not. Not because my ideas are better than those cherished by others: they clearly aren’t. Possibly because I’m extremely talkative. And enthusiastic about talking to just about anyone. There’s even a slight chance that I may have understood something important about my “role in life,” my “calling.” If so, great. If not, I’m having fun anyway and I don’t mind being (called) an intellectual. 😉


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… 😉


Lectorat de blogue

Une réflexion qui date d’un certain temps mais cette liste (humouristique) de mensonges de blogueur (découverte grâce au podcast de Pointblog.com) me pousse à en faire un billet. Accorde-t-on de l’importance au lectorat de nos blogues?
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