Category Archives: language

Minds of All Sizes Think Alike

Or «les esprits de toutes tailles se rencontrent».

This post is a response to the following post about Social Network Analysis (SNA), social change, and communication.

…My heart’s in Accra » Shortcuts in the social graph.

I have too many disparate things to say about that post to make it into a neat and tidy “quickie,” yet I feel like I should probably be working on other things. So we’ll see how this goes.

First, a bit of context..

[This “bit of context” may be a bit long so, please bear with me. Or you could get straight to the point, if you don’t think you can bear the context bit.]

I’ve never met Ethan Zuckerman (@EthanZ), who wrote the post to which I’m responding. And I don’t think we’ve had any extended conversation in the past. Further, I doubt that I’m on his radar. He’s probably seen my name, since I’ve commented on some of his posts and some of his contacts may have had references to me through social media. But I very much doubt that he’s ever mentioned me to anyone. I’m not noticeable to him.

I, on the other hand, have mentioned Zuckerman on several occasions. Latest time I remember was in class, a few weeks ago. It’s a course on Africa and I was giving students a list of online sources with relevance to our work. Zuckerman’s connection to Africa may not be his main thing, despite his blog’s name, but it’s part of the reason I got interested in his work, a few years ago.

In fact, there’s something embarrassing, here.. I so associate Zuckerman to Africa that my mind can’t help but link him to Erik Hersman, aka White African. I did meet Herman. [To be exact, I met Erik at BarCampAustin, which is quite possibly the conference-like event which has had the most influence on me, in the past few years (I go to a lot of these events).] When I did meet Hersman, I made a faux-pas in associating him with Zuckerman. Good-natured as he seemed to be, Hersman smiled as he corrected me.

EthanZ and I have other contacts in common. Jeremy Clarke, for instance, who co-organizes WordCamp Montreal and has been quite active in Montreal’s geek scene. Jeremy’s also a developer for Global Voices, a blogging community that Zuckerman co-founded. I’m assuming Clarke and Zuckerman know each other.

Another mutual contact is Christopher Lydon, host of Radio Open Source. Chris and I have exchanged a few emails, and Zuckerman has been on ROS on a few occasions.

According to Facebook, Zuckerman and I have four contacts in common. Apart from Clarke and Hersman, there’s P. Kerim Friedman and Gerd Leonhard. Kerim is a fellow linguistic anthropologist and we’ve collaborated on the official Society for Linguistic Anthropology (SLA) site. I got in touch with Leonhard through “Music 2.0” issues, as he was interviewed by Charles McEnerney on Well-Rounded Radio.

On LinkedIn, Zuckerman is part of my third degree, with McEnerney as one of my first-degree contacts who could connect me to Zuckerman, through Zuckerman’s contacts.

(Yes, I’m fully aware of the fact that I haven’t name a single woman in this list. Nor someone who doesn’t write in English with some frequency, for that matter.)

By this time, my guess is that you may be either annoyed or confused. “Surely, he can’t be that obsessed with Zuckerman as to stalk him in every network.”

No, I’m not at all obsessed with Ethan Zuckerman in any way, shape, or form. Though I mention him on occasion and I might have a good conversation with him if the occasion arises, I wouldn’t go hang out in Cambridge just in case I might meet him. Though I certainly respect his work, I wouldn’t treat him as my “idol” or anything like that. In other words, he isn’t a focus in my life.

And that’s a key point, to me.

In certain contexts, when social networks are discussed, too much is made of the importance of individuals. Yet, there’s something to be said about relative importance.

In his “shortcuts” post, Zuckerman talks about a special kind of individuals. Those who are able to bypass something of a clustering effect happening in many human networks. Malcolm Gladwell (probably “inspired” by somebody else) has used “connectors” to label a fairly similar category of people and, given Gladwell’s notoriety in some circles, the name has resonance in some contexts (mostly “business-focused people,” I would say, with a clear idea in my mind of the groupthink worldview implied).

In one of my earliest blogposts, I talked about an effect happening through a similar mechanism, calling it the “Social Butterfly Effect” (SBE). I still like it, as a concept. Now, I admit that it focuses on a certain type of individuals. But it’s more about their position in “the grand scheme of things” than about who they are, though I do associate myself with this “type.”

The basic idea is quite simple. People who participate in different (sub)networks, who make such (sub)networks sparser, are having unpredictable and unmeasurable effects on what is transmitted through the network(s).

On one hand, it’s linked to my fragmentary/naïve understanding of the Butterfly Effect in the study of climate and as a component of Chaos Theory.

On the other hand, it’s related to Granovetter‘s well-known notion of “weak ties.” And it seems like Granovetter is making something of a comeback, as we discuss different mechanisms behind social change.

Interestingly, much of what is being said about weak ties, these past few weeks, relates to Gladwell’s flamebait apparent lack of insight in describing current social processes. Sounds like Gladwell may be too caught up in the importance of individuals to truly grok the power of networks.

Case in point.. One of the most useful pieces I’ve read about weak ties, recently, was Jonah Lehrer‘s direct response to Gladwell:

Weak Ties, Twitter and Revolution | Wired Science | Wired.com.

Reading Lehrer’s piece, one gets the clear impression that Gladwell hadn’t “done his homework” on Granovetter before launching his trolling “controversial” piece on activism.

But I digress. Slightly.

Like the Gladwell-specific coverage, Zuckerman’s blogpost is also about social change and he’s already responded to Gladwell. One way to put it is that, as a figure, Gladwell has shaped the discussion in a way similar to a magnetic field orienting iron filings around it. Since it’s a localized effect having to do with polarization, the analogy is fairly useful, as analogies go.

Which brings me to groupthink, the apparent target of Zuckerman’s piece.

Still haven’t read Irving Janis but I’ve been quite interested in groupthink for a while. Awareness of the concept is something I immediately recognize, praise, and associate with critical thinking.

In fact, it’s one of several things I was pleasantly surprised to find in an introductory sociology WikiBook I ended up using in my  “Intro. to Society” course, last year. Critical thinking was the main theme of that course, and this short section was quite fitting in the overall discussion.

So, what of groupthink and networks? Zuckerman sounds worried:

This is interesting to me because I’m intrigued – and worried – by information flows through social networks. If we’re getting more (not lots yet, but more) information through social networks and less through curated media like newspapers, do we run the risk of encountering only information that our friends have access to? Are we likely to be overinformed about some conversations and underinformed about others? And could this isolation lead to ideological polarization, as Cass Sunstein and others suggest? And if those fears are true, is there anything we can do to rewire social networks so that we’re getting richer, more diverse information?

Similar questions have animated many discussions in media-focused circles, especially in those contexts where the relative value (and meaning) of “old vs. new media” may be debated. At about the same time as I started blogging, I remember discussing things with a statistician friend about the polarization effect of media, strong confirmation bias in reading news stories, and political lateralization.

In the United States, especially, there’s a narrative (heard loud and clear) that people who disagree on some basic ideas are unable to hear one another. “Shockingly,” some say, “conservatives and liberals read different things.” Or “those on (the) two sides of (the) debate understand things in completely different ways.” It even reminds me of the connotations of Tannen’s booktitle, You Just Don’t Understand. Irreconciliable differences. (And the first time I mention a woman in this decidedly imbalanced post.)

While, as a French-Canadian ethnographer, my perspective is quite different from Zuckerman, I can’t help but sympathize with the feeling. Not that I associate groupthink with a risk in social media (au contraire!). But, like Zuckerman, I wish to find ways to move beyond these boundaries we impose on ourselves.

Zuckerman specifically discusses the attempt by Onnik Krikorian (@OneWMPhoto) to connect Armenians (at least those in Hayastan) and Azeris, with Facebook “affording” Krikorian some measure of success. This case is now well-known in media-centric circles and it has almost become shorthand for the power of social media. Given a personal interest in Armenians (at least in the Diaspora), my reaction to Krikorian’s success are less related to the media aspect than to the personal one.

At a personal level, boundaries may seem difficult to surmount but they can also be fairly porous and even blurry. Identity may be negotiated. Individuals crossing boundaries may be perceived in diverse ways, some of which have little to do with other people crossing the same boundaries. Things are lived directly, from friendships to wars, from breakups to reconciliations. Significant events happen regardless of the way  they’re being perceived across boundaries.

Not that boundaries don’t matter but they don’t necessarily circumscribe what happens in “personal lives.” To use an seemingly-arbitrary example, code-switching doesn’t “feel” strange at an individual level. It’s only when people insist on separating languages using fairly artificial criteria that alternance between them sounds awkward.

In other words, people cross boundaries all the time and “there’s nothing to it.”

Boundaries have quite a different aspect, at the macrolevel implied by the journalistic worldview (with nation-based checkbox democracy at its core and business-savvy professionalization as its mission). To “macros” like journos and politicos, boundaries look like borders, appearing clearly on maps (including mind ones) and implying important disconnects. The border between Armenia and Azerbaijan is a boundary separating two groups and the conflicts between these two groups reify that boundary. Reaching out across the border is a diplomatic process and necessitates finding the right individuals for the task. Most of the important statuses are ascribed, which may sound horrible to some holding neoliberal ideas about freewill and “individual freedoms.”

Though it’s quite common for networked activities to be somewhat constrained by boundaries, a key feature of networks is that they’re typically boundless. Sure, there are networks which are artificially isolated from the rest. The main example I can find is that of a computer virology laboratory.

Because, technically, you only need one link between two networks to transform them into a single network. So, it’s quite possible to perceive Verizon’s wireless network as a distinct entity, limited by the national boundaries of the U.S. of A. But the simple fact that someone can use Verizon’s network to contact someone in Ségou shows that the network isn’t isolated. Simple, but important to point out.

Especially since we’re talking about a number of things happening on a single network: The Internet. (Yes, there is such a thing as Internet2 and there are some technical distinctions at stake. But we’re still talking about an interconnected world.)

As is well-known, there are significant clusters in this One Network. McLuhan’s once-popular “Global Village” fallacy used to hide this, but we now fully realize that language barriers, national borders, and political lateralization go with “low-bandwidth communication,” in some spots of The Network. “Gs don’t talk to Cs so even though they’re part of the same network, there’s a weak spot, there.” In a Shannon/Weaver view, it sounds quite important to identify these weak spots. “Africa is only connected to North America via a few lines so access is limited, making things difficult for Africans.” Makes sense.

But going back to weak ties, connectors, Zuckerman’s shortcuts, and my own social butterflies, the picture may be a little bit more fleshed out.

Actually, the image I have in mind has, on one side, a wire mesh serving as the floor of an anechoic chamber  and on the other some laser beams going in pseudorandom directions as in Entrapment or Mission Impossible. In the wire mesh, weaker spots might cause a person to fall through and land on those artificial stalagmites. With the laser beams, the pseudorandom structure makes it more difficult to “find a path through the maze.” Though some (engineers) may see the mesh as the ideal structure for any network, there’s something humanly fascinating about the pseudorandom structure of social networks.

Obviously, I have many other ideas in mind. For instance, I wanted to mention “Isabel Wilkerson’s Leaderless March that Remade America.” Or go back to that intro soci Wikibook to talk about some very simple and well-understood ideas about social movements, which often seem to be lacking in discussions of social change. I even wanted to recount some anecdotes of neat network effects in my own life, such as the serendipity coming from discuss disparate subjects to unlike people or the misleading impression that measuring individualized influence is a way to understand social media. Not to mention a whole part I had in my mind about Actor Network Theory, non-human actors, and material culture (the other course I currently teach).

But I feel like going back to more time-sensitive things.

Still, I should probably say a few words about this post’s title.

My mother and I were discussing parallel inventions and polygenesis with the specific theme of moving away from the focus on individualized credit. My favourite example, and one I wish Gladwell (!) had used in Outliers (I actually asked him about it) is that of Gregor Mendel and the “rediscovery” of his laws by de Vries, Correns, and Tschermak. A semi-Marxian version of the synchronous polygenesis part might hold that “ideas are in the air” or that the timing of such dicoveries and inventions has to do with zeitgeist. A neoliberal version could be the “great minds think alike” expression or its French equivalent «Les grands esprits se rencontrent» (“The great spirits meet each other”). Due to my reluctance in sizing up minds, I’d have a hard time using that as a title. In the past, I used a similar title to refer to another form of serendipity:

To me, most normally constituted minds are “great,” so I still could have used the expression as a title. But an advantage of tweaking an expression is that it brings attention to what it implies.

In this case, the “thinking alike” may be a form of groupthink.

 

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Academics and Their Publics

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Academics are misunderstood.

Almost by definition.

Pretty much any academic eventually feels that s/he is misunderstood. Misunderstandings about some core notions in about any academic field are involved in some of the most common pet peeves among academics.

In other words, there’s nothing as transdisciplinary as misunderstanding.

It can happen in the close proximity of a given department (“colleagues in my department misunderstand my work”). It can happen through disciplinary boundaries (“people in that field have always misunderstood our field”). And, it can happen generally: “Nobody gets us.”

It’s not paranoia and it’s probably not self-victimization. But there almost seems to be a form of “onedownmanship” at stake with academics from different disciplines claiming that they’re more misunderstood than others. In fact, I personally get the feeling that ethnographers are more among the most misunderstood people around, but even short discussions with friends in other fields (including mathematics) have helped me get the idea that, basically, we’re all misunderstood at the same “level” but there are variations in the ways we’re misunderstood. For instance, anthropologists in general are mistaken for what they aren’t based on partial understanding by the general population.

An example from my own experience, related to my decision to call myself an “informal ethnographer.” When you tell people you’re an anthropologist, they form an image in their minds which is very likely to be inaccurate. But they do typically have an image in their minds. On the other hand, very few people have any idea about what “ethnography” means, so they’re less likely to form an opinion of what you do from prior knowledge. They may puzzle over the term and try to take a guess as to what “ethnographer” might mean but, in my experience, calling myself an “ethnographer” has been a more efficient way to be understood than calling myself an “anthropologist.”

This may all sound like nitpicking but, from the inside, it’s quite impactful. Linguists are frequently asked about the number of languages they speak. Mathematicians are taken to be number freaks. Psychologists are perceived through the filters of “pop psych.” There are many stereotypes associated with engineers. Etc.

These misunderstandings have an impact on anyone’s work. Not only can it be demoralizing and can it impact one’s sense of self-worth, but it can influence funding decisions as well as the use of research results. These misunderstandings can underminine learning across disciplines. In survey courses, basic misunderstandings can make things very difficult for everyone. At a rather basic level, academics fight misunderstandings more than they fight ignorance.

The  main reason I’m discussing this is that I’ve been given several occasions to think about the interface between the Ivory Tower and the rest of the world. It’s been a major theme in my blogposts about intellectuals, especially the ones in French. Two years ago, for instance, I wrote a post in French about popularizers. A bit more recently, I’ve been blogging about specific instances of misunderstandings associated with popularizers, including Malcolm Gladwell’s approach to expertise. Last year, I did a podcast episode about ethnography and the Ivory Tower. And, just within the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a few things which all seem to me to connect with this same issue: common misunderstandings about academic work. The connections are my own, and may not be so obvious to anyone else. But they’re part of my motivations to blog about this important issue.

In no particular order:

But, of course, I think about many other things. Including (again, in no particular order):

One discussion I remember, which seems to fit, included comments about Germaine Dieterlen by a friend who also did research in West Africa. Can’t remember the specifics but the gist of my friend’s comment was that “you get to respect work by the likes of Germaine Dieterlen once you start doing field research in the region.” In my academic background, appreciation of Germaine Dieterlen’s may not be unconditional, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on extensive work in the field. In other words, while some parts of Dieterlen’s work may be controversial and it’s extremely likely that she “got a lot of things wrong,” her work seems to be taken seriously by several French-speaking africanists I’ve met. And not only do I respect everyone but I would likely praise someone who was able to work in the field for so long. She’s not my heroine (I don’t really have heroes) or my role-model, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me that respect for her wasn’t widespread. If it had seemed that Dieterlen’s work had been misunderstood, my reflex would possibly have been to rehabilitate her.

In fact, there’s  a strong academic tradition of rehabilitating deceased scholars. The first example which comes to mind is a series of articles (PDF, in French) and book chapters by UWO linguistic anthropologist Regna Darnell.about “Benjamin Lee Whorf as a key figure in linguistic anthropology.” Of course, saying that these texts by Darnell constitute a rehabilitation of Whorf reveals a type of evaluation of her work. But that evaluation comes from a third person, not from me. The likely reason for this case coming up to my mind is that the so-called “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” is among the most misunderstood notions from linguistic anthropology. Moreover, both Whorf and Sapir are frequently misunderstood, which can make matters difficulty for many linguistic anthropologists talking with people outside the discipline.

The opposite process is also common: the “slaughtering” of “sacred cows.” (First heard about sacred cows through an article by ethnomusicologist Marcia Herndon.) In some significant ways, any scholar (alive or not) can be the object of not only critiques and criticisms but a kind of off-handed dismissal. Though this often happens within an academic context, the effects are especially lasting outside of academia. In other words, any scholar’s name is likely to be “sullied,” at one point or another. Typically, there seems to be a correlation between the popularity of a scholar and the likelihood of her/his reputation being significantly tarnished at some point in time. While there may still be people who treat Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Socrates, Einstein, or Rousseau as near divinities, there are people who will avoid any discussion about anything they’ve done or said. One way to put it is that they’re all misunderstood. Another way to put it is that their main insights have seeped through “common knowledge” but that their individual reputations have decreased.

Perhaps the most difficult case to discuss is that of Marx (Karl, not Harpo). Textbooks in introductory sociology typically have him as a key figure in the discipline and it seems clear that his insight on social issues was fundamental in social sciences. But, outside of some key academic contexts, his name is associated with a large series of social events about which people tend to have rather negative reactions. Even more so than for Paul de Man or  Martin Heidegger, Marx’s work is entangled in public opinion about his ideas. Haven’t checked for examples but I’m quite sure that Marx’s work is banned in a number of academic contexts. However, even some of Marx’s most ardent opponents are likely to agree with several aspects of Marx’s work and it’s sometimes funny how Marxian some anti-Marxists may be.

But I digress…

Typically, the “slaughtering of sacred cows” relates to disciplinary boundaries instead of social ones. At least, there’s a significant difference between your discipline’s own “sacred cows” and what you perceive another discipline’s “sacred cows” to be. Within a discipline, the process of dismissing a prior scholar’s work is almost œdipean (speaking of Freud). But dismissal of another discipline’s key figures is tantamount to a rejection of that other discipline. It’s one thing for a physicist to show that Newton was an alchemist. It’d be another thing entirely for a social scientist to deconstruct James Watson’s comments about race or for a theologian to argue with Darwin. Though discussions may have to do with individuals, the effects of the latter can widen gaps between scholarly disciplines.

And speaking of disciplinarity, there’s a whole set of issues having to do with discussions “outside of someone’s area of expertise.” On one side, comments made by academics about issues outside of their individual areas of expertise can be very tricky and can occasionally contribute to core misunderstandings. The fear of “talking through one’s hat” is quite significant, in no small part because a scholar’s prestige and esteem may greatly decrease as a result of some blatantly inaccurate statements (although some award-winning scholars seem not to be overly impacted by such issues).

On the other side, scholars who have to impart expert knowledge to people outside of their discipline  often have to “water down” or “boil down” their ideas and, in effect, oversimplifying these issues and concepts. Partly because of status (prestige and esteem), lowering standards is also very tricky. In some ways, this second situation may be more interesting. And it seems unavoidable.

How can you prevent misunderstandings when people may not have the necessary background to understand what you’re saying?

This question may reveal a rather specific attitude: “it’s their fault if they don’t understand.” Such an attitude may even be widespread. Seems to me, it’s not rare to hear someone gloating about other people “getting it wrong,” with the suggestion that “we got it right.”  As part of negotiations surrounding expert status, such an attitude could even be a pretty rational approach. If you’re trying to position yourself as an expert and don’t suffer from an “impostor syndrome,” you can easily get the impression that non-specialists have it all wrong and that only experts like you can get to the truth. Yes, I’m being somewhat sarcastic and caricatural, here. Academics aren’t frequently that dismissive of other people’s difficulties understanding what seem like simple concepts. But, in the gap between academics and the general population a special type of intellectual snobbery can sometimes be found.

Obviously, I have a lot more to say about misunderstood academics. For instance, I wanted to address specific issues related to each of the links above. I also had pet peeves about widespread use of concepts and issues like “communities” and “Eskimo words for snow” about which I sometimes need to vent. And I originally wanted this post to be about “cultural awareness,” which ends up being a core aspect of my work. I even had what I might consider a “neat” bit about public opinion. Not to mention my whole discussion of academic obfuscation (remind me about “we-ness and distinction”).

But this is probably long enough and the timing is right for me to do something else.

I’ll end with an unverified anecdote that I like. This anecdote speaks to snobbery toward academics.

[It’s one of those anecdotes which was mentioned in a course I took a long time ago. Even if it’s completely fallacious, it’s still inspiring, like a tale, cautionary or otherwise.]

As the story goes (at least, what I remember of it), some ethnographers had been doing fieldwork  in an Australian cultural context and were focusing their research on a complex kinship system known in this context. Through collaboration with “key informants,” the ethnographers eventually succeeded in understanding some key aspects of this kinship system.

As should be expected, these kinship-focused ethnographers wrote accounts of this kinship system at the end of their field research and became known as specialists of this system.

After a while, the fieldworkers went back to the field and met with the same people who had described this kinship system during the initial field trip. Through these discussions with their “key informants,” the ethnographers end up hearing about a radically different kinship system from the one about which they had learnt, written, and taught.

The local informants then told the ethnographers: “We would have told you earlier about this but we didn’t think you were able to understand it.”


In Phase

Lissajous curve

Lissajous curve

Something which happens to me on a rather regular basis (and about which I blogged before) is that I’ll hear about something right after thinking about it. For instance, if I think about the fact that a given tool should exist, it may be announced right at that moment.

Hey, I was just thinking about this!

The effect is a bit strange but it’s quite easy to explain. It feels like a “premonition,” but it probably has more to do with “being in phase.” In some cases, it may also be that I heard about that something but hadn’t registered the information. I know it happens a lot and  it might not be too hard to trace back. But I prefer thinking about phase.

And, yes, I am thinking about phase difference in waves. Not in a very precise sense, but the image still works, for me. Especially with the Lissajous representation, as above.

See, I don’t particularly want to be “ahead of the curve” and I don’t particularly mind being “behind the curve.” But when I’m right “in the curve,” something interesting happens. I’m “in the now.”

I originally thought about being “in tune” and it could also be about “in sync” or even “matching impedances.” But I still like the waves analogy. Especially since, when two waves are in phase, they reinforce one another. As analogies go, it’s not only a beautiful one, but a powerful one. And, yes, I do think about my sweetheart.

One reason I like the concept of phase difference is that I think through sound. My first exposure to the concept comes from courses in musical acoustics, almost twenty years ago. It wasn’t the main thing I’d remember from the course and it’s not something I investigated at any point since. Like I keep telling students, some things hit you long after you’ve heard about it in a course. Lifelong learning and “landminds” are based on such elements, even tiny unimportant ones. Phase difference is one such thing.

And it’s no big deal, of course. It’s not like I spent days thinking about these concepts. But I’ve been feeling like writing, lately, and this is as good an opportunity as any.

The trigger for this particular thing is rather silly and is probably explained more accurately, come to think of it, by “unconsciously registering” something before consciously registering it.

Was having breakfast and started thinking about the importance of being environmentally responsible, the paradox of “consumption as freedom,” the consequences of some lifestyle choices including carfree living, etc. This stream of thought led me, not unexpectedly, to the perspectives on climate change, people’s perception of scientific evidence, and the so-called ClimateGate. I care a lot about critical thinking, regardless of whether or not I agree with a certain idea, so I think the email controversy shows the importance of transparency. So far, nothing unexpected. Within a couple of minutes, I had covered a few of the subjects du jour. And that’s what struck me, because right then, I (over)heard a radio host introduce a guest whose talk is titled:

What is the role of climate scientists in the climate change debate?

Obviously, Tremblay addressed ClimateGate quite directly. So my thoughts were “in phase” with Tremblay’s.

A few minutes prior to (over)hearing this introduction, I (over)heard a comment about topics of social conversations at different points in recent history. According to screenwriter Fabienne Larouche, issues covered in the first seasons of her “flagship” tv series are still at the forefront in Quebec society today, fourteen years later. So I was probably even more “in tune” with the notion of being “in phase.” Especially with my society.

I said “(over)heard” because I wasn’t really listening to that radio show. It was just playing in the background and I wasn’t paying much attention. I don’t tend to listen to live radio but I do listen to some radio recordings as podcasts. One reason I like doing so is that I can pay much closer attention to what I hear. Another is that I can listen to what I want when I feel like listen to it, which means that I can prepare myself for a heady topic or choose some tech-fluff to wind down after a course. There’s also the serendipity of listening to very disparate programmes in the same listening session, as if I were “turning the dial” after each show on a worldwide radio (I often switch between French and English and/or between European and North American sources). For a while now, I’ve been listening to podcasts at double-speed, which helps me focus on what’s most significant.

(In Jazz, we talk about “top notes,” meaning the ones which are more prominent. It’s easier to focus on them at double-speed than at normal speed so “double-times” have an interesting cognitive effect.)

So, I felt “in phase.” As mentioned, it probably has much more to do with having passively heard things without paying attention yet letting it “seep into my brain” to create connections between a few subjects which get me to the same point as what comes later. A large part of this is well-known in psychology, especially in terms of cognition. We start noticing things when they enter into a schema we have in our mind. These things we start noticing were there all along so the “discovery” is only in our mind (in the sense that it wouldn’t be a discovery for others). When we learn a new word, for instance, we start hearing it everywhere.

But there are also words which start being used by everyone because they have been diffused largely at a given point in time. An actual neologism can travel quickly and a word in our passive vocabulary can also come to prominence, especially in mainstream media. Clearly, this is an issue of interest to psychologists, folklorists, and media analysts alike. I’m enough of a folklorist and media observer to think about the social processes behind the diffusion of terms regardless of what psychologists think.

A few months back, I got the impression that the word “nimble” had suddenly increased in currency after it was used in a speech by the current PotUS. Since I’m a non-native speaker of English, I’m likely to be accused of noticing the word because it’s part my own passive vocabulary. I have examples in French, though some are with words which were new to me, at the time («peoplisation», «battante»…). I probably won’t be able to defend myself from those who say that it’s just a matter of my own exposure to those terms. Though there are ways to analyze the currency of a given term, I’m not sure I trust this type of analysis a lot more than my gut feeling, at least in terms of realtime trends.

Which makes me think of “memetics.” Not in the strict sense that Dawkins would like us to use. But in the way popular culture cares about the propagation of “units of thought.” I recently read a fascinating blogpost (in French) about  memetics from this perspective, playing Dawkins against himself. As coincidences keep happening (or, more accurately, as I’m accutely tuned to find coincidences everywhere), I’ve been having a discussion about Mahir‘s personal homepage (aka “I kiss you”), who became an “Internet celebrity” through this process which is now called memetic. The reason his page was noticed isn’t that it was so unique. But it had this je ne sais quoi which captured the imagination, at the time (the latter part of the “Dot-Com Bubble”). As some literary critics and many other humanists teach us, it’s not the item itself which counts, it’s how we receive it (yes, I tend to be on the “reception” and “eye of the beholder” side of things). Mahir was striking because he was, indeed, “out of phase” with the times.

As I think about phase, I keep hearing the other acoustic analogy: the tuning of sine waves. When a sine wave is very slightly “out of tune” with another, we hear a very slow oscillation (interference beats) until they produce resonance. There’s a direct relationship between beat tones and phase, but I think “in tune” and “in phase” remain separate analogies.

One reason I like to think about waves for these analogies is that I tend to perceive temporal change through these concepts. If we think of historical change through cycles, being “in phase” is a matter of matching two change processes until they’re aligned but the cycles may be in harmonic relationships. One can move twice as fast as society and still be “in phase” with it.

Sure, I’m overextending the analogies, and there’s something far-fetched about this. But that’s pretty much what I like about analogical thinking. As I’m under the weather, this kind of rambling is almost therapeutic.


Scriptocentrism and the Freedom to Think

As a comment on my previous blogpost on books, a friend sent me (through Facebook) a link to a blogpost about a petition to Amazon with the following statement:

The freedom to read is tantamount to the freedom to think.

As this friend and I are both anthros+africanists, I’m reacting (perhaps a bit strongly) to that statement.

Given my perspective, I would dare say that I find this statement (brought about by DbD)… ethnocentric.

There, I said it.

And I’ll try to back it up in this blogpost in order to spark even more discussion.

We won’t exhaust this topic any time soon, but I feel there’s a lot we can do about it which has rarely been done.

I won’t use the textbook case of “Language in the Inner City,” but it could help us talk about who decides, in a given social context, what is important. We both come from a literacy-focused background, so we may have to take a step back. Not sure if Bourdieu has commented on Labov, especially in terms of what all this means for “education,” but I’d even want to bring in Ivan Illich, at some point.

Hunters with whom I’ve been working, in Mali, vary greatly in terms of literacy. Some of them have a strong university background and one can even write French legalese (he’s a judge). Others (or some of the same) have gone to Koranic school long enough that can read classical Arabic. Some have the minimal knowledge of Arabic which suffices, for them, to do divination. Many of them have a very low level of functional literacy. There’s always someone around them who can read and write, so they’re usually not out of the loop and it’s not like the social hierarchy stereotypical of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages in Europe. It’s a very different social context which can hardly be superimposed with the history of writing and the printing press in Europe.

In terms of “freedom to thinik,” I really wouldn’t say that they’re lacking. Of course, “free thinker” has a specific meaning in liberal societies with a European background. But even this meaning can be applied to many people I’ve met in Mali.

And I go back to the social context. Those with the highest degree of functional literacy aren’t necessarily those with the highest social status. And unlike Harlem described by Labov, it’s a relatively independent context from the one in which literacy is a sine qua non. Sure, it’s a neocolonial context and Euro-Americans keep insisting that literacy in Latin script is “the most important thing ever” if they are to become a true liberal democracy. Yet, internally, it’s perfectly possible for someone to think freely, get recognition, and help other people to think without going through the written medium.

Many of those I know who have almost nonexistent skills in the written medium also have enough power (in a Weberian sense) that they get others to do the reading and writing for them. And because there are many social means to ensure that communication has worked appropriately, these “scribes” aren’t very likely to use this to take anything away from those for whom they read and write.

In Switzerland, one of my recent ancestors was functionally illiterate. Because of this, she “signed away” most of her wealth. Down the line, I’m one of her very few heirs. So, in a way, I lost part of my inheritance due to illiteracy.

Unless the switch to a European model for notarial services becomes complete, a case like this is unlikely to occur among people I know in Mali. If it does happen, it’s clearly not a failure of the oral system but a problem with this kind of transition. It’s somewhat similar to the situation with women in diverse parts of the continent during the period of direct colonialism: the fact that women have lost what powers they had (say, in a matrilineal/matrilocal society) has to do with the switch to a hierarchical system which put the emphasis on new factors which excluded the type of influence women had.

In other words, I fully understand the connections between liberalism and literacy and I’ve heard enough about the importance of the printing press and journalism in these liberal societies to understand what role reading has played in those contexts. I simply dispute the notion that these connections should be universal.

Yes, I wish the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (including the (in)famous Article 26, which caused so many issues) were more culturally aware.

I started reading Deschooling Society a few weeks ago. In terms of “insight density,” it’s much higher than the book which prompted this discussion. While reading the first chapter, I constructed a number of ideas which I personally find useful.

I haven’t finished reading the book. Yet. I might eventually finish it. But much of what I wanted to get from that book, I was able to get from diverse sources. Including that part of the book I did read, sequentially. But, also, everything which has been written about Illich since 1971. And I’ll be interested in reading comments by the reading group at Wikiversity.

Given my background, I have as many “things to say” about the issues surrounding schooling as what I’ve read. If I had the time, I could write as much on what I’ve read from that book and it’d probably bring me a lot of benefits.

I’ve heard enough strong reactions against this attitude I’m displaying that I can hear it, already: “how can you talk about a book you haven’t read.” And I sincerely think these people miss an important point. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that their reading habits are off (that’d be mean), especially since those are well-adapted to certain contexts, including what I call scriptocentrism. Not that these people are scriptocentric. But their attitude “goes well with” scriptocentrism.

Academia, despite being to context for an enormous amount of writing and reading, isn’t displaying that kind of scriptocentrism. Sure, a lot of what we do needs to be written (although, it’s often surprising how much insight goes unwritten in the work of many an academic). And we do get evaluated through our writing. Not to mention that we need to write in a very specific mode, which almost causes a diglossia.

But we simply don’t feel forced to “read the whole text.”

A colleague has described this as the “dirty little secret” of academia. And one which changes many things for students, to the point that it almost sounds as if it remains a secret so as to separate students into categories of “those who get it” and “the mass.”

It doesn’t take a semester to read a textbook so there are students who get the impression that they can simply read the book in a weekend and take the exams. These students may succeed, depending on the course. In fact, they may get really good grades. But they run into a wall if they want to go on with a career making any use of knowledge construction skills.

Bill Reimer has interesting documents about “better reading.” It’s a PowerPoint presentation accompanied by exercises in a PDF format. (No, I won’t discuss format here.)

I keep pointing students to those documents for a simple reason: Reimer isn’t advocating reading every word in sequence. His “skim then focus” advice might be the one piece which is harder to get through to people but it’s tremendously effective in academic contexts. It’s also one which is well-adapted to the kind of online reading I’m thinking about. And not necessarily that good for physical books. Sure, you can efficiently flip pages in a book. But skimming a text on paper is more likely to be about what stands out visually than about the structure of the text. Especially with book-length texts. The same advice holds with physical books, of course. After all, this kind of advice originally comes from that historical period which I might describe as the “heyday of books”: the late 20th Century. But I’d say that the kind of “better reading” Reimer describes is enhanced in the context of online textuality. Not just the “Read/Write Web” but Instant Messaging, email, forums, ICQ, wikis, hypertext, Gopher, even PowerPoint…

Much of this has to do with different models of human communication. The Shannon/Weaver crowd have a linear/directional model, based on information processing. Codec and modem. Something which, after Irvine’s Shadow Conversations, I tend to call “the football theory of communication.” This model might be the best-known one, especially among those who study in departments of communication along with other would-be journalists. Works well for a “broadcast” medium with mostly indirect interaction (books, television, radio, cinema, press conferences, etc.). Doesn’t work so well for the backchannel-heavy “smalltalk”  stuff of most human communication actually going on in this world.

Some cognitivists (including Chomsky) have a schema-based model. Constructivists (from Piaget on) have an elaborate model based on knowledge. Several linguistic anthropologists (including yours truly but also Judith Irvine, Richard Bauman, and Dell Hymes) have a model which gives more than lipservice to the notion of performance. And there’s a functional model of any human communication in Jakobson’s classic text on verbal communication. It’s a model which can sound as if it were linear/bidirectional but it’s much broader than this. His six “functions of verbal communication” do come from six elements of the communication process (channel, code, form, context, speaker, listener). But each of these elements embeds a complex reality and Jakobson’s model seems completely compatible with a holistic approach to human communication. In fact, Jakobson has had a tremendous impact on a large variety of people, including many key figures in linguistic anthropology along with Lévi-Strauss and, yes, even Chomsky.

(Sometimes, I wish more people knew about Jakobson. Oh, wait! Since Jakobson was living in the US, I need to americanize this statement: “Jakobson is the most underrated scholar ever.”)

All these models do (or, in my mind, should) integrate written communication. Yet scriptocentrism has often led us far away from “texts as communication” and into “text as an object.” Scriptocentrism works well with modernity. Going away from scriptocentrism is a way to accept our postmodern reality.


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.


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


Blogging Academe

LibriVox founder and Montreal geek Hugh McGuire recently posted a blog entry in which he gave a series of nine arguments for academics to blog:

Why Academics Should Blog

Hugh’s post reminded me of one of my favourite blogposts by an academic, a pointed defence of blogging by Mark Liberman, of Language Log fame.
Raising standards –by lowering them

While I do agree with Hugh’s points, I would like to reframe and rephrase them.

Clearly, I’m enthusiastic about blogging. Not that I think every academic should, needs to, ought to blog. But I do see clear benefits of blogging in academic contexts.

Academics do a number of different things, from search committees to academic advising. Here, I focus on three main dimensions of an academic’s life: research, teaching, and community outreach. Other items in a professor’s job description may benefit from blogging but these three main components tend to be rather prominent in terms of PTR (promotion, tenure, reappointment). What’s more, blogging can help integrate these dimensions of academic life in a single set of activities.

Impact

In relation to scholarship, the term “impact” often refers to the measurable effects of a scholar’s publication through a specific field. “Citation impact,” for instance, refers to the number of times a given journal article has been cited by other scholars. This kind of measurement is directly linked to Google’s PageRank algorithm which is used to assess the relevance of their search results. The very concept of “citation impact” relates very directly to the “publish or perish” system which, I would argue, does more to increase stress levels among full-time academic than to enhance scholarship. As such, it may need some rethinking. What does “citation impact” really measure? Is the most frequently cited text on a given subject necessarily the most relevant? Isn’t there a clustering effect, with some small groups of well-known scholars citing one another without paying attention to whatever else may happen in their field, especially in other languages?

An advantage of blogging is that this type of impact is easy to monitor. Most blogging platforms have specific features for “statistics,” which let bloggers see which of their posts have been visited (“hit”) most frequently. More sophisticated analysis is available on some blogging platforms, especially on paid ones. These are meant to help bloggers monetize their blogs through advertising. But the same features can be quite useful to an academic who wants to see which blog entries seem to attract the most traffic.

Closer to “citation impact” is the fact that links to a given post are visible within that post through the ping and trackback systems. If another blogger links to this very blogpost, a link to that second blogger’s post will appear under mine as a link. In other words, a blogpost can embed future references.

In terms of teaching, thinking about impact through blogging can also have interesting effects. If students are blogging, they can cite and link to diverse items and these connections can serve as a representation of the constructive character of learning. But even if students don’t blog, a teacher blogging course-related material can increase the visibility of that course. In some cases, this visibility may lead to inter-institutional collaboration or increased enrollment.

Transparency

While secrecy may be essential in some academic projects, most academics tend to adopt a favourable attitude toward transparency. Academia is about sharing information and spreading knowledge, not about protecting information or about limiting knowledge to a select few.

Bloggers typically value transparency.

There are several ethical issues which relate to transparency. Some ethical principles prevent transparency (for instance, most research projects involving “human subjects” require anonymity). But academic ethics typically go with increased transparency on the part of the researcher. For instance, informed consent by a “human subject” requires complete disclosure of how the data will be used and protected. There are usually requirements for the primary investigator to be reachable during the research project.

Transparency is also valuable in teaching. While some things should probably remain secret (say, answers to exam questions), easy access to a number of documents makes a lot of sense in learning contexts.

Public Intellectuals

It seems that the term “intellectual” gained currency as a label for individuals engaged in public debates. While public engagement has taken a different type of significance, over the years, but the responsibility for intellectuals to communicate publicly is still a matter of interest.

Through blogging, anyone can engage in public debate, discourse, or dialogue.

Reciprocity

Scholars working with “human subjects” often think about reciprocity. While remuneration may be the primary mode of retribution for participation in a research project, a broader concept of reciprocity is often at stake. Those who participated in the project usually have a “right to know” about the results of that study. Even when it isn’t the case and the results of the study remain secret, the asymmetry of human subjects revealing something about themselves to scholars who reveal nothing seems to clash with fundamental principles in contemporary academia.

Reciprocity in teaching can lead directly to some important constructivist principles. The roles of learners and teachers, while not completely interchangeable, are reciprocal. A teacher may learn and a learner may teach.

Playing with Concepts

Blogging makes it easy to try concepts out. More than “thinking out loud,” the type of blogging activity I’m thinking about can serve as a way to “put ideas on paper” (without actual paper) and eventually get feedback on those ideas.

In my experience, microblogging (Identi.ca, Twitter…) has been more efficient than extended blogging in terms of getting conceptual feedback. In fact, social networks (Facebook, more specifically) have been even more conducive to hashing out concepts.

Many academics do hash concepts out with students, especially with graduate students. The advantage is that students are likely to understand concepts quickly as they already share some of the same references as the academic who is playing with those concepts. There’s already a context for mutual understanding. The disadvantage is that a classroom context is fairly narrow to really try out the implications of a concept.

A method I like to use is to use fairly catchy phrases and leave concepts fairly raw, at first. I then try the same concept in diverse contexts, on my blogs or off.

The main example I have in mind is the “social butterfly effect.” It may sound silly at first but I find it can be a basis for discussion, especially if it spreads a bit.

A subpoint, here, is that this method allows for “gauging interest” in new concepts and it can often lead one in completely new directions. By blogging about concepts, an academic can tell if this concept has a chance to stick in a broad frame (outside the Ivory Tower) and may be given insight from outside disciplines.

Playing with Writing

This one probably applies more to “junior academics” (including students) but it can also work with established academics who enjoy diversifying their writing styles. Simply put: blogwriting is writing practise.

A common idea, in cognitive research on expertise, is that it takes about ten thousand hours to become an expert. For better or worse, academics are experts at writing. And we gain that expertise through practise. In this context, it’s easy to see blogging as a “writing exercise.” At least, that would be a perspective to which I can relate.

My impression is that writing skills are most efficiently acquired through practise. The type of practise I have in mind is “low-stakes,” in the sense that the outcomes of a writing exercise are relatively inconsequential. The basis for this perspective is that self-consciousness, inhibition, and self-censorship tend to get in the way of fluid writing. High-stakes writing (such as graded assignments) can make a lot of sense at several stages in the learning process, but overemphasis on evaluating someone’s writing skills will likely stress out the writer more than make her/him motivated to write.

This impression is to a large extent personal. I readily notice that when I get too self-conscious about my own writing (self-unconscious, even), my writing becomes much less fluid. In fact, because writing about writing tends to make one self-conscious, my writing this post is much less efficient than my usual writing sessions.

In my mind, there’s a cognitive basis to this form of low-stakes, casual writing. As with language acquisition, learning occurs whether or not we’re corrected. According to most research in language acquisition, children acquire their native languages through exposure, not through a formal learning process. My guess is that the same apply to writing.

In some ways, this is a defence of drafts. “Draft out your ideas without overthinking what might be wrong about your writing.” Useful advice, at least in my experience. The further point is to do something with those drafts, the basis for the RERO principle: “release your text in the wild, even if it may not correspond to your standards.” Every text is a work in progress. Especially in a context where you’re likely to get feedback (i.e., blogging). Trial and error, with a feedback mechanism. In my experience, feedback on writing tends to be given in a thoughtful and subtle fashion while feedback on ideas can be quite harsh.

The notion of writing styles is relevant, here. Some of Hugh’s arguments about the need for blogging in academia revolve around the notion that “academics are bad writers.” My position is that academics are expert writers but that academic writing is a very specific beast. Hugh’s writing standards might clash with typical writing habits among academics (which often include neologisms and convoluted metaphors). Are Hugh’s standards appropriate in terms of academic writing? Possibly, but why then are academic texts rating so low on writing standards after having been reviewed by peers and heavily edited? The relativist’s answer is, to me, much more convincing: academic texts are typically judged through standards which are context-specific. Judging academic writing with outside standards is like judging French writing with English standards (or judging prose through the standards of classic poetry).

Still, there’s something to be said about readability. Especially when these texts are to be used outside academia. Much academic writing is meant to remain within the walls of the Ivory Tower yet most academic disciplines benefit from some interaction with “the general public.” Though it may not be taught in universities and colleges, the skill of writing for a broader public is quite valuable. In fact, it may easily be transferable to teaching, especially if students come from other disciplines. Furthermore, writing outside one’s discipline is required in any type of interdisciplinary context, including project proposals for funding agencies.

No specific writing style is implied in blogging. A blogger can use whatever style she/he chooses for her/his posts. At the same time, blogging tends to encourage writing which is broadly readable and makes regular use of hyperlinks to connect to further information. In my opinion, this type of writing is a quite appropriate one in which academics can extend their skills.

“Public Review”

Much of the preceding connects with peer review, which was the basis of Mark Liberman’s post.

In academia’s recent history, “peer reviewed publications” have become the hallmark of scholarly writing. Yet, as Steve McIntyre claims, the current state of academic peer review may not be as efficient at ensuring scholarly quality as its proponents claim it to be. As opposed to financial auditing, for instance, peer review implies very limited assessment based on data. And I would add that the very notion of “peer” could be assessed more carefully in such a context.

Overall, peer review seems to be relatively inefficient as a “reality check.” This might sound like a bold claim and I should provide data to support it. But I mostly want to provoke some thought as to what the peer review process really implies. This is not about reinventing the wheel but it is about making sure we question assumptions about the process.

Blogging implies public scrutiny. This directly relates to transparency, discussed above. But there is also the notion of giving the public the chance to engage with the outcomes of academic research. Sure, the general public sounds like a dangerous place to propose some ideas (especially if they have to do with health or national security). But we may give some thought to Linus’s law and think about the value of “crowdsourcing” academic falsification.

Food for Thought

There’s a lot more I want to add but I should heed my call to RERO. Otherwise, this post will remain in my draft posts for an indefinite period of time, gathering dust and not allowing any timely discussion. Perhaps more than at any other point, I would be grateful for any thoughtful comment about academic blogging.

In fact, I will post this blog entry “as is,” without careful proofreading. Hopefully, it will be the start of a discussion.

I will “send you off” with a few links related to blogging in academic contexts, followed by Hugh’s list of arguments.

Links on Academic Blogging

(With an Anthropological emphasis)

Hugh’s List

  1. You need to improve your writing
  2. Some of your ideas are dumb
  3. The point of academia is to expand knowledge
  4. Blogging expands your readership
  5. Blogging protects and promotes your ideas
  6. Blogging is Reputation
  7. Linking is better than footnotes
  8. Journals and blogs can (and should) coexist
  9. What have journals done for you lately?