Category Archives: fieldwork

Why I Need an iPad

I’m one of those who feel the iPad is the right tool for the job.

This is mostly meant as a reply to this blogthread. But it’s also more generally about my personal reaction to Apple’s iPad announcement.

Some background.

I’m an ethnographer and a teacher. I read a fair deal, write a lot of notes, and work in a variety of contexts. These days, I tend to spend a good amount of time in cafés and other public places where I like to work without being too isolated. I also commute using public transit, listen to lots of podcast, and create my own. I’m also very aural.

I’ve used a number of PDAs, over the years, from a Newton MessagePad 130 (1997) to a variety of PalmOS devices (until 2008). In fact, some people readily associated me with PDA use.

As soon as I learnt about the iPod touch, I needed one. As soon as I’ve heard about the SafariPad, I wanted one. I’ve been an intense ‘touch user since the iPhone OS 2.0 release and I’m a happy camper.

(A major reason I never bought an iPhone, apart from price, is that it requires a contract.)

In my experience, the ‘touch is the most appropriate device for all sorts of activities which are either part of an other activity (reading during a commute) or are simply too short in duration to constitute an actual “computer session.” You don’t “sit down to work at your ‘touch” the way you might sit in front of a laptop or desktop screen. This works great for “looking up stufff” or “checking email.” It also makes a lot of sense during commutes in crowded buses or metros.

In those cases, the iPod touch is almost ideal. Ubiquitous access to Internet would be nice, but that’s not a deal-breaker. Alternative text-input methods would help in some cases, but I do end up being about as fast on my ‘touch as I was with Graffiti on PalmOS.

For other tasks, I have a Mac mini. Sure, it’s limited. But it does the job. In fact, I have no intention of switching for another desktop and I even have an eMachines collecting dust (it’s too noisy to make a good server).

What I miss, though, is a laptop. I used an iBook G3 for several years and loved it. For a little while later, I was able to share a MacBook with somebody else and it was a wonderful experience. I even got to play with the OLPC XO for a few weeks. That one was not so pleasant an experience but it did give me a taste for netbooks. And it made me think about other types of iPhone-like devices. Especially in educational contexts. (As I mentioned, I’m a teacher)

I’ve been laptop-less for a while, now. And though my ‘touch replaces it in many contexts, there are still times when I’d really need a laptop. And these have to do with what I might call “mobile sessions.”

For instance: liveblogging a conference or meeting. I’ve used my ‘touch for this very purpose on a good number of occasions. But it gets rather uncomfortable, after a while, and it’s not very fast. A laptop is better for this, with a keyboard and a larger form factor. But the iPad will be even better because of lower risks of RSI. A related example: just imagine TweetDeck on iPad.

Possibly my favourite example of a context in which the iPad will be ideal: presentations. Even before learning about the prospect of getting iWork on a tablet, presentations were a context in which I really missed a laptop.

Sure, in most cases, these days, there’s a computer (usually a desktop running XP) hooked to a projector. You just need to download your presentation file from Slideshare, show it from Prezi, or transfer it through USB. No biggie.

But it’s not the extra steps which change everything. It’s the uncertainty. Even if it’s often unfounded, I usually get worried that something might just not work, along the way. The slides might not show the same way as you see it because something is missing on that computer or that computer is simply using a different version of the presentation software. In fact, that software is typically Microsoft PowerPoint which, while convenient, fits much less in my workflow than does Apple Keynote.

The other big thing about presentations is the “presenter mode,” allowing you to get more content than (or different content from) what the audience sees. In most contexts where I’ve used someone else’s computer to do a presentation, the projector was mirroring the computer’s screen, not using it as a different space. PowerPoint has this convenient “presenter view” but very rarely did I see it as an available option on “the computer in the room.” I wish I could use my ‘touch to drive presentations, which I could do if I installed software on that “computer in the room.” But it’s not something that is likely to happen, in most cases.

A MacBook solves all of these problems. and it’s an obvious use for laptops. But how, then, is the iPad better? Basically because of interface. Switching slides on a laptop isn’t hard, but it’s more awkward than we realize. Even before watching the demo of Keynote on the iPad, I could simply imagine the actual pleasure of flipping through slides using a touch interface. The fit is “natural.”

I sincerely think that Keynote on the iPad will change a number of things, for me. Including the way I teach.

Then, there’s reading.

Now, I’m not one of those people who just can’t read on a computer screen. In fact, I even grade assignments directly from the screen. But I must admit that online reading hasn’t been ideal, for me. I’ve read full books as PDF files or dedicated formats on PalmOS, but it wasn’t so much fun, in terms of the reading process. And I’ve used my ‘touch to read things through Stanza or ReadItLater. But it doesn’t work so well for longer reading sessions. Even in terms of holding the ‘touch, it’s not so obvious. And, what’s funny, even a laptop isn’t that ideal, for me, as a reading device. In a sense, this is when the keyboard “gets in the way.”

Sure, I could get a Kindle. I’m not a big fan of dedicated devices and, at least on paper, I find the Kindle a bit limited for my needs. Especially in terms of sources. I’d like to be able to use documents in a variety of formats and put them in a reading list, for extended reading sessions. No, not “curled up in bed.” But maybe lying down in a sofa without external lighting. Given my experience with the ‘touch, the iPad is very likely the ideal device for this.

Then, there’s the overall “multi-touch device” thing. People have already been quite creative with the small touchscreen on iPhones and ‘touches, I can just imagine what may be done with a larger screen. Lots has been said about differences in “screen real estate” in laptop or desktop screens. We all know it can make a big difference in terms of what you can display at the same time. In some cases, two screens isn’t even a luxury, for instance when you code and display a page at the same time (LaTeX, CSS…). Certainly, the same qualitative difference applies to multitouch devices. Probably even more so, since the display is also used for input. What Han found missing in the iPhone’s multitouch was the ability to use both hands. With the iPad, Han’s vision is finding its space.

Oh, sure, the iPad is very restricted. For instance, it’s easy to imagine how much more useful it’d be if it did support multitasking with third-party apps. And a front-facing camera is something I was expecting in the first iPhone. It would just make so much sense that a friend seems very disappointed by this lack of videoconferencing potential. But we’re probably talking about predetermined expectations, here. We’re comparing the iPad with something we had in mind.

Then, there’s the issue of the competition. Tablets have been released and some multitouch tablets have recently been announced. What makes the iPad better than these? Well, we could all get in the same OS wars as have been happening with laptops and desktops. In my case, the investment in applications, files, and expertise that I have made in a Mac ecosystem rendered my XP years relatively uncomfortable and me appreciate returning to the Mac. My iPod touch fits right in that context. Oh, sure, I could use it with a Windows machine, which is in fact what I did for the first several months. But the relationship between the iPhone OS and Mac OS X is such that using devices in those two systems is much more efficient, in terms of my own workflow, than I could get while using XP and iPhone OS. There are some technical dimensions to this, such as the integration between iCal and the iPhone OS Calendar, or even the filesystem. But I’m actually thinking more about the cognitive dimensions of recognizing some of the same interface elements. “Look and feel” isn’t just about shiny and “purty.” It’s about interactions between a human brain, a complex sensorimotor apparatus, and a machine. Things go more quickly when you don’t have to think too much about where some tools are, as you’re working.

So my reasons for wanting an iPad aren’t about being dazzled by a revolutionary device. They are about the right tool for the job.

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Transparency and Secrecy

[Started working on this post on December 1st, based on something which happened a few days prior. Since then, several things happened which also connected to this post. Thought the timing was right to revisit the entry and finally publish it. Especially since a friend just teased me for not blogging in a while.]

I’m such a strong advocate of transparency that I have a real problem with secrecy.

I know, transparency is not exactly the mirror opposite of secrecy. But I think my transparency-radical perspective causes some problem in terms of secrecy-management.

“Haven’t you been working with a secret society in Mali?,” you ask. Well, yes, I have. And secrecy hasn’t been a problem in that context because it’s codified. Instead of a notion of “absolute secrecy,” the Malian donsow I’ve been working with have a subtle, nuanced, complex, layered, contextually realistic, elaborate, and fascinating perspective on how knowledge is processed, “transmitted,” managed. In fact, my dissertation research had a lot to do with this form of knowledge management. The term “knowledge people” (“karamoko,” from kalan+mogo=learning+people) truly applies to members of hunter’s associations in Mali as well as to other local experts. These people make a clear difference between knowledge and information. And I can readily relate to their approach. Maybe I’ve “gone native,” but it’s more likely that I was already in that mode before I ever went to Mali (almost 11 years ago).

Of course, a high value for transparency is a hallmark of academia. The notion that “information wants to be free” makes more sense from an academic perspective than from one focused on a currency-based economy. Even when people are clear that “free” stands for “freedom”/«libre» and not for “gratis”/«gratuit» (i.e. “free as in speech, not free as in beer”), there persists a notion that “free comes at a cost” among those people who are so focused on growth and profit. IMHO, most the issues with the switch to “immaterial economies” (“information economy,” “attention economy,” “digital economy”) have to do with this clash between the value of knowledge and a strict sense of “property value.”

But I digress.

Or, do I…?

The phrase “radical transparency” has been used in business circles related to “information and communication technology,” a context in which the “information wants to be free” stance is almost the basis of a movement.

I’m probably more naïve than most people I have met in Mali. While there, a friend told me that he thought that people from the United States were naïve. While he wasn’t referring to me, I can easily acknowledge that the naïveté he described is probably characteristic of my own attitude. I’m North American enough to accept this.

My dedication to transparency was tested by an apparently banal set of circumstances, a few days before I drafted this post. I was given, in public, information which could potentially be harmful if revealed to a certain person. The harm which could be done is relatively small. The person who gave me that information wasn’t overstating it. The effects of my sharing this information wouldn’t be tragic. But I was torn between my radical transparency stance and my desire to do as little harm as humanly possible. So I refrained from sharing this information and decided to write this post instead.

And this post has been sitting in my “draft box” for a while. I wrote a good number of entries in the meantime but I still had this one at the back of my mind. On the backburner. This is where social media becomes something more of a way of life than an activity. Even when I don’t do anything on this blog, I think about it quite a bit.

As mentioned in the preamble, a number of things have happened since I drafted this post which also relate to transparency and secrecy. Including both professional and personal occurrences. Some of these comfort me in my radical transparency position while others help me manage secrecy in a thoughtful way.

On the professional front, first. I’ve recently signed a freelance ethnography contract with Toronto-based consultancy firm Idea Couture. The contract included a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Even before signing the contract/NDA, I was asking fellow ethnographer and blogger Morgan Gerard about disclosure. Thanks to him, I now know that I can already disclose several things about this contract and that, once the results are public, I’ll be able to talk about this freely. Which all comforts me on a very deep level. This is precisely the kind of information and knowledge management I can relate to. The level of secrecy is easily understandable (inopportune disclosure could be detrimental to the client). My commitment to transparency is unwavering. If all contracts are like this, I’ll be quite happy to be a freelance ethnographer. It may not be my only job (I already know that I’ll be teaching online, again). But it already fits in my personal approach to information, knowledge, insight.

I’ll surely blog about private-sector ethnography. At this point, I’ve mostly been preparing through reading material in the field and discussing things with friends or colleagues. I was probably even more careful than I needed to be, but I was still able to exchange ideas about market research ethnography with people in diverse fields. I sincerely think that these exchanges not only add value to my current work for Idea Couture but position me quite well for the future. I really am preparing for freelance ethnography. I’m already thinking like a freelance ethnographer.

There’s a surprising degree of “cohesiveness” in my life, these days. Or, at least, I perceive my life as “making sense.”

And different things have made me say that 2009 would be my year. I get additional evidence of this on a regular basis.

Which brings me to personal issues, still about transparency and secrecy.

Something has happened in my personal life, recently, that I’m currently unable to share. It’s a happy circumstance and I’ll be sharing it later, but it’s semi-secret for now.

Thing is, though, transparency was involved in that my dedication to radical transparency has already been paying off in these personal respects. More specifically, my being transparent has been valued rather highly and there’s something about this type of validation which touches me deeply.

As can probably be noticed, I’m also becoming more public about some emotional dimensions of my life. As an artist and a humanist, I’ve always been a sensitive person, in-tune with his emotions. Specially positive ones. I now feel accepted as a sensitive person, even if several people in my life tend to push sensitivity to the side. In other words, I’ve grown a lot in the past several months and I now want to share my growth with others. Despite reluctance toward the “touchy-feely,” specially in geek and other male-centric circles, I’ve decided to “let it all loose.” I fully respect those who dislike this. But I need to be myself.


Ethnographic Disciplines

Just because this might be useful in the future…
I perceive a number of academic disciplines to be “ethnographic” in the sense that they use the conceptual and epistemic apparatus of “ethnography.” (“Ethnography” taken here as an epistemological position in human research, not as “the description of a people” in either literary or methodological uses.)

I don’t mean by this that practitioners are all expected to undertake ethnographic field research or that their methods are exclusively ethnographic. I specifically wish to point out that ethnography is not an “exclusive prerogative” of anthropology. And I perceive important connections between these disciplines.

In no particular order:

  • Ethnohistory
  • Ethnolinguistics (partly associated with Linguistic Anthropology)
  • Folkloristics
  • Ethnomusicology
  • Ethnocinematography (partly associated with Visual Anthropology)
  • Ethnology (Cultural Anthropology)

The following disciplines (the “micros”), while not ethnographic per se, often have ethnographic components at the present time.

  • Microhistory
  • Microsociology
  • Microeconomics

Health research and market research also make frequent use of ethnographic methods, these days (especially through “qualitative data analysis” software). But I’m not clear on how dedicated these researchers are to the epistemological bases for ethnography.

It may all sound very idiosyncratic. But I still think it works, as a way to provide working definitions for disciplines and approaches.

Thoughts, comments, suggestions, questions?


Enthused Tech

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

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

Slideshare

(Full multimedia recording available here)

During the session, Nellie Deutsch shared the following link:

Diffusion of Innovations, by Everett Rogers (1995)

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

Technology Adoption and Active Reading

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

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

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

RERO‘s my battle cry.

TBC


Took a While

The latest episode of Télé-Québec’s Les Francs Tireurs had a segment on international humatarian aid. (Especially of the Euro-American CICR and Reporters sans frontières style.) Maybe there are more (I don’t to watch much television) but this one was the first television report which had a thoughtful and insightful discussion of the negative impacts of humanitarian aid.

Of course, several parts of the discussion were probably edited out (hosts on the show are sometimes explicit about the “need” for editing) and it did sound at times like discussions that most anthropology students have had at one point or another (usually pretty early on in their training) but it was quite refreshing, especially when compared to the usual news reports on how bad the situation is supposed to be anywhere else in the world (i.e., any place where people live a different lifestyle).

What’s funny is that the two main participants in the show were quite honest about the biases of Quebec society in terms of humanitarian aid. This is a society (my own upbringing) in which people pride themselves to be “open-minded” (often meaning “more open-minded that you“). Yet people take humanitarian aid as a sacred principle, not to be criticised. Some aid workers in Africa and elsewhere seem to think that their mission (the religious connotations were discussed on the television show) is to help Others become more like them. Pretty charitable when you see your own habits as the only appropriate way to live, but pretty damaging when you transform knowledgeable human beings into the object of pity.


iRiver H120 (Digital Audio Jukebox)

Recently purchased a brand new iRiver H120 with remote control on eBay from OutletMP3. Paid 132.50$ plus 18$ shipping. Also purchased a 3-year warranty through SquareTrade for 16$.
Item arrived as described, with both the European power adapter (in the original box) and a North American power adapter (in the shipping box). The remote control is included in the package but is outside of the original box. OutletMP3 sells those iRiver H120 devices with or without remote control (usually at about the same price).
Yes. “Would do business with OutletMP3 again.” (As it turns out, they sell iriver products quite frequently on eBay and they have an eBay store with “Buy It Now” iRiver H120 devices without remote for 150$ each.)
The best things about this device are its recording features. Those iRiver H1x0 models can record uncompressed sound in WAV format at 16bit with a sampling rate of 48 kHz (so-called “DAT quality”), 44.1 kHz (so-called “CD-quality”), or lower (“FM-quality,” “voice quality”). It also records directly to MP3 files (with the official firmware) in a variety of encoding settings (up to 320 kbps). It has an internal microphone for voice dictation as well as an input for external microphone, analog line in, or optical in.
The box includes a surprisingly decent lavaliere-style monophonic microphone. Not an excellent microphone in any way but clearly better than one might expect (though Laith Ulaby had told me that this microphone was decent).

In terms of operation, the unit has some strengths. The overall interface is much less convenient than that of the iPod, say, but the battery lasts longer than most iPods (for playback). The iRiver H120’s remote has a small LCD screen which shows enough information for most needs making it possible for me to keep the H120 in my pant pocket and operate the device with the remote. While, among portable players, only the iPod has native support for AAC and lossless formats, iRiver players support Ogg Vorbis and WMA. Haven’t done anything in Ogg format yet but it might be an interesting option (though it does make files less compatible with other players).

Apart from navigation and interface, the main differences with my previous iPod 2G have to do with iTunes integration. The iPod‘s synchronization with iTunes made it rather convenient to create and update playlists or to transfer podcasts. iRiver’s models may not be used in the same fashion. However, the iRiver H120 can in fact be used with iTunes through a plugin meant for Archos players. However, this plugin seems to have some problems with a few files (probably because of invalid characters like ‘/’ and ‘:’ in filenames), generates non-working playlists on Mac OS X, and puts all filed in an “Artist/Album” hierarchy which makes iRiver navigation more complicated.

What surprised me somewhat was that the H120, a USB 2.0 device, works perfectly well with my old iBook (Dual USB) which only has USB 1.1 ports. No need for special drivers and the device then works pretty much like a (20GB) USB drive. Since the iRiver H120 works as a USB drive, it’s easy to transfer files to and from the device (contrary to the iPod which makes somewhat more difficult). All audio files can be put at the root level on the iRiver and audio recordings made on the iRiver are in the “RECORD” folder at the root level of the drive. While the iBook’s USB 1.1 ports are much slower than USB 2.0 ones, they do the job well enough for my needs. (Will be going back to my entry-level emachines H3070 in a few days.) A 400 MB file recorded on the iRiver (about 40 minutes of 16 bit stereo sound at 44.1 kHz) transferred to the iBook through USB 1.1 in less than ten minutes. Slow, but bearable. My old iPod used a Firewire 400 (aka IEEE 1394 or i.Link) connection which is about the same speed as USB 2.0 in most conditions. My entry-level emachines desktop has both USB 2.0 and Firewire 400 ports (thanks to an inexpensive Firewire card).

Was thinking about putting Rockbox on the H120 but SquareTrade tells me that it may void their warranty, which would be an inconvenient. The Rockbox has some neat features and seems safe enough to use on “production machines,” but its features aren’t that compelling for me at this point.
The H120 has a radio (FM) tuner, which could be useful to some people but isn’t really a compelling feature for me. Haven’t listen to much radio in the past several years. Podcasts are soooo much better!

Speaking of podcasts… One of my reasons for purchasing this machine (instead of a more recent iPod) was the ease of recording. This is clearly not a professional recording device but the sound quality seems quite decent for my needs at this point. Should be using it to record lectures and distribute them as podcasts or “lecturecasts” (yeah, ugly name, sorry!). In my mind, educational podcasting can supplement lectures quite nicely. Have been to a few workshops and presentations on technology use in teaching and most people seem to agree that technology is no replacement for good pedagogy but that good pedagogy can be supplemented and complemented (if not complimented!) by interesting tools. Had been thinking about a recording iPod to integrate podcasts with course material. It would have been quite useful, especially in connection with iLife and iWork. But an iPod 5G (with video) is already much more expensive than my iRiver H120 and the add-ons to enable 44.1 kHz / 16 bit recording on the iPod are only now getting to market at a price almost half that of my brand new iRiver H120. Plus, though the iPod is well-integrated with iTunes on Windows, iLife and iWork applications are only available on Mac OS X 10.4 and, thus, will not run on the entry-level emachines H3070 which will become my primary machine again in a few days.
In other words, my ideal podcasting/lecturecasting solution is out of my reach at this point. And contrary to tenure-track faculty, lecturers and adjunct faculty get no technology budget for their own use.
Ah, well…

Still, my iRiver H120 will work fine as a recorder. Already did a few essays with voice and environmental sounds. The lavaliere microphone was quite convenient to record myself while taking a walk which sounds like an unusual activity but was in fact quite relaxing and rather pleasant. In terms of environmental sounds, the same microphone picked up a number of bird songs (as well as fan noises).
Among the things that distinguish the H120 from a professional recorder is the lack of a proper calibration mechanism. It’s not possible to adjust the recording levels of the two channels independently and it’s even not possible to adjust volume during recording. (There’s a guide offering some guidance on how to work within those constraints.) Quite unsurprisingly (for what is mostly an MP3 player) but also making the device less of a professional device, its jacks are 3.5 mm “stereo mini-plugs” (instead of, say, XLR jacks). For that matter, the iRiver H120 compares favourably to several comparably-priced MiniDisc recorders, even Hi-MD models. Did field research with a used ATRAC 4.0 MiniDisc recorder. That setup worked somewhat adequately but this iRiver H120 is much of an improvement for me.

Got a few pet peeves about the iRiver H120. For instance, it has no actual clock so recorded files do not carry a timestamp. A minor quibble, of course, but it would have been useful. The overall navigation is as awkward as that of my first MP3 device, the RioVolt (which also used iRiver firmware). One navigational issue is that navigating up and down in the folder hierarchy is done through the stop and play buttons instead of, say, using one of the three jog switches on the remote. Some functions only work when the device is stopped while others work while it’s playing. Switching from hard-disk playing to recording or to FM is a bit awkward and cumbersome. The unit takes a while to turn on and doesn’t really have a convenient sleep mode. While it is possible to resume playing on a track that has been stopped, this feature seems not to work every time. Fast forwarding rate (“scan speed”) is set in a menu instead of being dynamic as on the iPod. The device doesn’t support ratings or, really, descriptions (although Rockbox might be able to support those).

Also got a few well-appreciated features, apart from those stated above. The EQ and SRS presets are appropriate and relatively easy to use. Contrary to the iPod 2G it is possible to play files at a higher rate (increasing the “playback speed”) making it possible to listen to voice at a higher speech rate (and higher frequency). It’s also possible to delete files directly from the device.

At any rate, that’s already a long entry and experience with my H120 will probably push me to write more about the device.

Feel free to comment or send questions through email.


Equipment for Digital Audio Recording in the Field (Rough Draft)

[Been wanting to blog more extensively about this but my new resolution is RERO.]

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