Category Archives: specialization

WordPress as Content Directory: Getting Somewhere

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

Woohoo!

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

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

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

Why WordPress? Almost glad you asked.

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

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

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

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

Here are some things I like about WordPress:

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

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

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

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

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

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

For instance, the following post has been quite inspiring:

I almost had a drift-off moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I set the “Field type” to Number.

I also set the slug for this field.

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

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

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

(Save!)

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

Here’s the style.css code:

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

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

The code for functions.php:

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

		return $columns;
}

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

And the code in single-product.php:

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

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

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

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

That’s it!

Well, almost..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what the product page looks like:

And I’ve accomplished my mission.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.”


Actively Reading: Organic Ideas for Startups

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

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

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

I Hate Books

In a way, this is a followup to a discussion happening on Facebook after something I posted (available publicly on Twitter): “(Alexandre) wishes physical books a quick and painfree death. / aime la connaissance.”

As I expected, the reactions I received were from friends who are aghast: how dare I dismiss physical books? Don’t I know no shame?

Apparently, no, not in this case.

And while I posted it as a quip, it’s the result of a rather long reflection. It’s not that I’m suddenly anti-books. It’s that I stopped buying several of the “pro-book” arguments a while ago.

Sure, sure. Books are the textbook case of technlogy which needs no improvement. eBooks can’t replace the experience of doing this or that with a book. But that’s what folkloristics defines as a functional shift. Like woven baskets which became objects of nostalgia, books are being maintained as the model for a very specific attitude toward knowledge construction based on monolithic authored texts vetted by gatekeepers and sold as access to information.

An important point, here, is that I’m not really thinking about fiction. I used to read two novel-length works a week (collections of short stories, plays…), for a period of about 10 years (ages 13 to 23). So, during that period, I probably read about 1,000 novels, ranging from Proust’s Recherche to Baricco’s Novecentoand the five books of Rabelais’s Pantagruel series. This was after having read a fair deal of adolescent and young adult fiction. By today’s standards, I might be considered fairly well-read.

My life has changed a lot, since that time. I didn’t exactly stop reading fiction but my move through graduate school eventually shifted my reading time from fiction to academic texts. And I started writing more and more, online and offline.
In the same time, the Web had also been making me shift from pointed longform texts to copious amounts of shortform text. Much more polyvocal than what Bakhtin himself would have imagined.

(I’ve also been shifting from French to English, during that time. But that’s almost another story. Or it’s another part of the story which can reamin in the backdrop without being addressed directly at this point. Ask, if you’re curious.)
The increase in my writing activity is, itself, a shift in the way I think, act, talk… and get feedback. See, the fact that I talk and write a lot, in a variety of circumstances, also means that I get a lot of people to play along. There’s still a risk of groupthink, in specific contexts, but one couldn’t say I keep getting things from the same perspective. In fact, the very Facebook conversation which sparked this blogpost is an example, as the people responding there come from relatively distant backgrounds (though there are similarities) and were not specifically queried about this. Their reactions have a very specific value, to me. Sure, it comes in the form of writing. But it’s giving me even more of something I used to find in writing: insight. The stuff you can’t get through Google.

So, back to books.

I dislike physical books. I wish I didn’t have to use them to read what I want to read. I do have a much easier time with short reading sessions on a computer screen that what would turn into rather long periods of time holding a book in my hands.

Physical books just don’t do it for me, anymore. The printing press is, like, soooo 1454!

Yes, books had “a good run.” No, nothing replaces them. That’s not the way it works. Movies didn’t replace theater, television didn’t replace radio, automobiles didn’t replace horses, photographs didn’t replace paintings, books didn’t replace orality. In fact, the technology itself doesn’t do much by itself. But social contexts recontextualize tools. If we take technology to be the set of both tools and the knowledge surrounding it, technology mostly goes through social processes, since tool repertoires and corresponding knowledge mostly shift in social contexts, not in their mere existence. Gutenberg’s Bible was a “game-changer” for social, as well as technical reasons.

And I do insist on orality. Journalists and other “communication is transmission of information” followers of Shannon&Weaver tend to portray writing as the annihilation of orality. How long after the invention of writing did Homer transfer an oral tradition to the writing media? Didn’t Albert Lord show the vitality of the epic well into the 20th Century? Isn’t a lot of our knowledge constructed through oral means? Is Internet writing that far, conceptually, from orality? Is literacy a simple on/off switch?

Not only did I maintain an interest in orality through the most book-focused moments of my life but I probably care more about orality now than I ever did. So I simply cannot accept the idea that books have simply replaced the human voice. It doesn’t add up.

My guess is that books won’t simply disappear either. There should still be a use for “coffee table books” and books as gifts or collectables. Records haven’t disappeared completely and CDs still have a few more days in dedicated stores. But, in general, we’re moving away from the “support medium” for “content” and more toward actual knowledge management in socially significant contexts.

In these contexts, books often make little sense. Reading books is passive while these contexts are about (hyper-)/(inter-)active.

Case in point (and the reason I felt compelled to post that Facebook/Twitter quip)…
I hear about a “just released” French book during a Swiss podcast. Of course, it’s taken a while to write and publish. So, by the time I heard about it, there was no way to participate in the construction of knowledge which led to it. It was already “set in stone” as an “opus.”

Looked for it at diverse bookstores. One bookstore could eventually order it. It’d take weeks and be quite costly (for something I’m mostly curious about, not depending on for something really important).

I eventually find it in the catalogue at BANQ. I reserve it. It wasn’t on the shelves, yet, so I had to wait until it was. It took from November to February. I eventually get a message that I have a couple of days to pick up my reservation but I wasn’t able to go. So it went back on the “just released” shelves. I had the full call number but books in that section aren’t in their call number sequence. I spent several minutes looking back and forth between eight shelves to eventually find out that there were four more shelves in the “humanities and social sciences” section. The book I was looking was on one of those shelves.

So, I was able to borrow it.

Phew!

In the metro, I browse through it. Given my academic reflex, I look for the back matter first. No bibliography, no index, a ToC with rather obscure titles (at random: «Taylor toujours à l’œuvre»/”Taylor still at work,” which I’m assuming to be a reference to continuing taylorism). The book is written by two separate dudes but there’s no clear indication of who wrote what. There’s a preface (by somebody else) but no “acknowledgments” section, so it’s hard to see who’s in their network. Footnotes include full URLs to rather broad sites as well as “discussion with <an author’s name>.” The back cover starts off with references to French popular culture (including something about “RER D,” which would be difficult to search). Information about both authors fits in less than 40 words (including a list of publication titles).

The book itself is fairly large print, ways almost a pound (422g, to be exact) for 327 pages (including front and back matter). Each page seems to be about 50 characters per line, about 30 lines per page. So, about half a million characters or 3500 tweets (including spaces). At 5+1 characters per word, about 80,000 words (I have a 7500-words blogpost, written in an afternoon). At about 250 words per minute, about five hours of reading. This book is listed at 19€ (about 27CAD).
There’s no direct way to do any “postprocessing” with the text: no speech synthesis for visually impaired, concordance analysis, no machine translation, even a simple search for occurences of “Sarkozy” is impossible. Not to mention sharing quotes with students or annotating in an easy-to-retrieve fashion (à la Diigo).

Like any book, it’s impossible to read in the dark and I actually have a hard time to find a spot where I can read with appropriate lighting.

Flipping through the book, I get the impression that there’s some valuable things to spark discussions, but there’s also a whole lot of redundancy with frequent discussions on the topic (the Future of Journalism, or #FoJ, as a matter of fact). My guesstimate is that, out of 5 hours of reading, I’d get at most 20 pieces of insight that I’d have exactly no way to find elsewhere. Comparable books to which I listened as audiobooks, recently, had much less. In other words, I’d have at most 20 tweets worth of things to say from the book. Almost a 200:1 compression.
Direct discussion with the authors could produce much more insight. The radio interviews with these authors already contained a few insight hints, which predisposed me to look for more. But, so many months later, without the streams of thought which animated me at the time, I end up with something much less valuable than what I wanted to get, back in November.

Bottomline: Books aren’t necessarily “broken” as a tool. They just don’t fit my life, anymore.


Judging Coffee and Beer: Answer to DoubleShot Coffee Company

DoubleShot Coffee Company: More Espresso Arguments.

I’m not in the coffee biz but I do involve myself in some coffee-related things, including barista championships (sensory judge at regional and national) and numerous discussions with coffee artisans. In other words, I’m nobody important.

In a way, I “come from” the worlds of beer and coffee homebrewing. In coffee circles, I like to introduce myself as a homeroaster and blogger.

(I’m mostly an ethnographer, meaning that I do what we call “participant-observation” as both an insider and an outsider.)

There seem to be several disconnects in today’s coffee world, despite a lot of communication across the Globe. Between the huge coffee corporations and the “specialty coffee” crowd. Between coffee growers and coffee lovers. Between professional and home baristas. Even, sometimes, between baristas from different parts of the world.
None of it is very surprising. But it’s sometimes a bit sad to hear people talk past one another.

I realize nothing I say may really help. And it may all be misinterpreted. That’s all part of the way things go and I accept that.

In the world of barista champions and the so-called “Third Wave,” emotions seem particularly high. Part of it might have to do with the fact that so many people interact on a rather regular basis. Makes for a very interesting craft, in some ways. But also for rather tense moments.

About judging…
My experience isn’t that extensive. I’ve judged at the Canadian Eastern Regional BC twice and at the Canadian BC once.
Still, I did notice a few things.

One is that there can be a lot of camaraderie/collegiality among BC participants. This can have a lot of beneficial effects on the quality of coffee served in different places as well as on the quality of the café experience itself, long after the championships. A certain cohesiveness which may come from friendly competition can do a lot for the diversity of coffee scenes.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that it’s really easy to be fair, in judging using WBC regulations. It’s subjective in a very literal way since there’s tasting involved (tastebuds belong to the “subjects” of the sensory and head judges). But it simply has very little if anything to do with personal opinions, relationships, or “liking the person.” It’s remarkably easy to judge the performance, with a focus on what’s in the cup, as opposed to the person her-/himself or her/his values.

Sure, the championship setting is in many ways artificial and arbitrary. A little bit like rules for an organized sport. Or so many other contexts.

A competition like this has fairly little to do with what is likely to happen in “The Real World” (i.e., in a café). I might even say that applying a WBC-compatible in a café is likely to become a problem in many cases. A bit like working the lunch shift at a busy diner using ideas from the Iron Chef or getting into a street fight and using strict judo rules.

A while ago, I was working in French restaurants, as a «garde-manger» (assistant-chef). We often talked about (and I did meet a few) people who were just coming out of culinary institutes. In most cases, they were quite good at producing a good dish in true French cuisine style. But the consensus was that “they didn’t know how to work.”
People fresh out of culinary school didn’t really know how to handle a chaotic kitchen, order only the supplies required, pay attention to people’s tastes, adapt to differences in prices, etc. They could put up a good show and their dishes might have been exquisite. But they could also be overwhelmed with having to serve 60 customers in a regular shift or, indeed, not know what to do during a slow night. Restaurant owners weren’t that fond of hiring them, right away. They had to be “broken out” («rodés»).

Barista championships remind me of culinary institutes, in this way. Both can be useful in terms of skills, but experience is more diverse than that.

So, yes, WBC rules are probably artificial and arbitrary. But it’s easy to be remarkably consistent in applying these rules. And that should count for something. Just not for everythin.

Sure, you may get some differences between one judge and the other. But those differences aren’t that difficult to understand and I didn’t see that they tended to have to do with “preferences,” personal issues, or anything of the sort. From what I noticed while judging, you simply don’t pay attention to the same things as when you savour coffee. And that’s fine. Cupping coffee isn’t the same thing as drinking it, either.

In my (admittedly very limited) judging experience, emphasis was put on providing useful feedback. The points matter a lot, of course, but the main thing is that the points make sense in view of the comments. In a way, it’s to ensure calibration (“you say ‘excellent’ but put a ‘3,’ which one is more accurate?”) but it’s also about the goals of the judging process. The textual comments are a way to help the barista pay attention to certain things. “Constructive criticism” is one way to put it. But it’s more than that. It’s a way to get something started.

Several of the competitors I’ve seen do come to ask judges for clarifications and many of them seemed open to discussion. A few mostly wanted justification and may have felt slighted. But I mostly noticed a rather thoughtful process of debriefing.

Having said that, there are competitors who are surprised by differences between two judges’ scores. “But both shots came from the same portafilter!” “Well, yes, but if you look at the video, you’ll notice that coffee didn’t flow the same way in both cups.” There are also those who simply doubt judges, no matter what. Wonder if they respect people who drink their espresso…

Coming from the beer world, I also notice differences with beer. In the beer world, there isn’t really an equivalent to the WBC in the sense that professional beer brewers don’t typically have competitions. But amateur homebrewers do. And it’s much stricter than the WBC in terms of certification. It requires a lot of rote memorization, difficult exams (I helped proctor two), judging points, etc.

I’ve been a vocal critic of the Beer Judge Certification Program. There seems to be an idea, there, that you can make the process completely neutral and that the knowledge necessary to judge beers is solid and well-established. One problem is that this certification program focuses too much on a series of (over a hundred) “styles” which are more of a context-specific interpretation of beer diversity than a straightforward classification of possible beers.
Also, the one thing they want to avoid the most (basing their evaluation on taste preferences) still creeps in. It’s probably no coincidence that, at certain events, beers which were winning “Best of Show” tended to be big, assertive beers instead of very subtle ones. Beer judges don’t want to be human, but they may still end up acting like ones.

At the same time, while there’s a good deal of debate over beer competition results and such, there doesn’t seem to be exactly the same kind of tension as in barista championships. Homebrewers take their results to heart and they may yell at each other over their scores. But, somehow, I see much less of a fracture, “there” than “here.” Perhaps because the stakes are very low (it’s a hobby, not a livelihood). Perhaps because beer is so different from coffee. Or maybe because there isn’t a sense of “Us vs. Them”: brewers judging a competition often enter beer in that same competition (but in a separate category from the ones they judge).
Actually, the main difference may be that beer judges can literally only judge what’s in the bottle. They don’t observe the brewers practicing their craft (this happens weeks prior), they simply judge the product. In a specific condition. In many ways, it’s very unfair. But it can help brewers understand where something went wrong.

Now, I’m not saying the WBC should become like the BJCP. For one thing, it just wouldn’t work. And there’s already a lot of investment in the current WBC format. And I’m really not saying the BJCP is better than the WBC as an inspiration, since I actually prefer the WBC-style championships. But I sense that there’s something going on in the coffee world which has more to do with interpersonal relationships and “attitudes” than with what’s in the cup.

All this time, those of us who don’t make a living through coffee but still live it with passion may be left out. And we do our own things. We may listen to coffee podcasts, witness personal conflicts between café owners, hear rants about the state of the “industry,” and visit a variety of cafés.
Yet, slowly but surely, we’re making our own way through coffee. Exploring its diversity, experimenting with different brewing methods, interacting with diverse people involved, even taking trips “to origin”…

Coffee is what unites us.


Landing On His Feet: Nicolas Chourot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, well… Désolé Nicolas!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Homeroasting and Coffee Geekness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Especially since it complements my other purchases.

So, going to the i-Roast.

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

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

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

And the i-Roast 2 itself fits, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I’m still dreaming about such things.

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

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


Development and Quality: Reply to Agile Diary

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

My tweet:

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

Vikrama’s post:

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

My reply:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, I digress…

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

Disclaimer: I am not a coder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


War of the Bugs: Playing with Life in the Brewery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyhoo…

Going back to brewers’ folk taxonomy of yeast strains…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to “war.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, there’s carefree brewing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I’m a happy brewer.


How I Got Into Beer

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

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

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

So…

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

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

Anyhoo…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to homebrewing.

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

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

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

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

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

I started dreaming.

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

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

So I was giving craft beer some thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was too much of a social butterfly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A homebrewery is an adult’s chemistry set.


Actively Reading: “Teach Naked” sans PowerPoint

Some Diigo comments on a Chronicle piece on moving lectures out of the classroom. (Or, if you ask the piece’s author and some commenters, on PowerPoint as a source of boredom.)

I’d like to transform some of my own comments in a standalone blog entry, especially given the discussions Pamthropologist and I have been having through comments on her blog and mine. (And I just noticed Pamthropologist had written her own blogpost about this piece…) As I’m preparing for the Fall semester, I tend to think a lot about learning and teaching but I also get a bit less time.

Semi-disclaimer: John Bentley, instructional developer and programme coordinator at Concordia’s CTLS pointed me to this piece. John used to work for the Open University and the BBC. Together, John and I are currently developing a series of workshops on the use of online tools in learning and teaching. We’ve been discussing numerous dimensions of the connection between learning, teaching, and online tools. Our current focus is on creating communities of learners. One thing that I find especially neat about this collaboration is that our perspectives and spheres of expertise are quite different. Makes for interesting and thoughtful discussions.

‘Teach Naked’ Effort Strips Computers From Classrooms – Technology – The Chronicle of Higher Education

  • Not to be too snarky but… I can’t help but feel this is typical journalism. Take a complex issue, get a diverse array of comments on it, boil it down to an overly simplistic point about some polarizing question (PPT: is it evil?). Tadaa! You got an article and you’ve discouraged critical thinking.Sorry. I’m bad. I really shouldn’t go there.But I guess I’m disappointed in myself. When I first watched the video interview, I was reacting fairly strongly against Bowen. After reading (very actively!) the whole piece, I now realize that Jeff Young is the one who set the whole thing up.The problem with this is that I should know better. Right?Well, ok, I wasn’t that adamantly opposed to Bowen. I didn’t shout at my computer screen or anything. But watching the video interview again, after reading the piece, I notice that I interpret as much more open a discussion than the setup made it sound like. In other words, I went from thinking that Bowen was imposing a radical view on members of his faculty to hearing Bowen proposing ideas about ways to cope with social changes surrounding university education.The statement about most on-campus lectures being bad is rather bold, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard and it’s a reasonable comment to make in such a context. The stronger statement against PPT is actually weakened by Bowen himself in two ways: he explicitly talks about using PPT online and he frames his comment in comparison with podcasts. It then sounds like his problem isn’t with PPT itself. It’s with the use of PPT in the classroom by comparison to both podcasts and PPTs online. He may be wrong about the relative merits of podcasts, online “presentations,” and classroom lectures using PPT. But his opinion is much less radical than what I originally thought.Still, there’s room for much broader discussion of what classroom lectures and PPT presentations imply in teaching. Young’s piece and several Diigo comments on it focus on the value of PPT either in the abstract or through appropriate use. But there’s a lot more ground to cover, including such apparently simple issues as the effort needed to create compelling “presentation content” or students’ (and future employers’) expectations about PPT presentations.
  • Mr. Bowen wants to discourage professors from using PowerPoint, because they often lean on the slide-display program as a crutch rather using it as a creative tool.
    • damn you got there first! comment by dean groom
    • I think the more important point that’s being made by the article – is something that many of us in edtech world realised very quickly – that being able to teach well is a prerequisite to being able to effectively and creatively engage technology to help others learn…Powerpoint is probably the most obvious target because oif its ubiquity – but I suspect that there will also be a backlash when the masses start adopting other technologies… they’ll be misused just as effectively as PPT is.When we can assume that all university lecturers/tutors are effective teachers then the argument will be moot… until then we’ll continue to see death by powerpoint and powerpointlessness…I’m a drama teacher and love the idea of active rooms filled with proactive engaged learners… and if we have proactive engaged learners we can more effectively deploy technology in the mix…The world of teaching and learning is far from perfect and expectations seem to be geared towards a paradigm that says : “professors should tell me every last thing I need to know in order to get good grades and if students sat still and shut up long enough they might just learn something useful.”I even had one “lecturer” recently tell me “I’m a subject specialist, why do I need to know about pedagogy?” – sadly he was serious. comment by Kim FLINTOFF
    • On the subject specialist uninterested in pedagogy…It’s not an uncommon perspective, in university teaching. In fact, it might be more common among French-speakers, as most of those I’ve heard say something like this were French-speakers.I reacted quite negatively when I first heard some statement about university teachers not needing pedagogy. Don’t they care about learning?But… Isn’t there a point to be made about “non-pedagogy?”Not trying to be contrarian, here. Not playing devil’s advocate. Nor am I going on the kind of “anti-anti” PoMo mode which seems not to fit too well in English-speaking communities. I’m just thinking about teacher-less learning. And a relativist’s attitude to not judge before I know more. After all, can we safely assume that courses given by someone with such a reluctant attitude to learning pedagogy are inherently bad?There are even some people out there who take constructivism and constructionism to such an extreme that they’d say teachers aren’t needed. To an extent, the OLPC project has been going in that direction. “Students will teach themselves. We don’t need to train teachers or to engage with them in building this project.”There’s also a lot of discussion about learning outside of formal institutions. Including “on-the-job training” but also all sorts of learning strategies which don’t rely on the teacher/student (mentee, apprentice, pupil…) hierarchy. For instance, actual learning occurs in a large set of online activities. Enthusiastic people learn about things that passion them by reading about the subject, participating in online discussions, presenting their work for feedback, etc. Oftentimes, there is a hierarchy in terms of prestige, but it’s mostly negotiated through actions and not set in advance. More like “achieved status” than “ascribed status” (to use a convenient distinction from SOC101 courses). As this kind of training not infrequently leads to interesting careers, we’d be remiss to ignore the trend.Speaking of trends… It’s quite clear that many universities tend toward a more consumer-based approach. Students register and pay tuition to get “credentials” (good grades and impressive degrees). The notion that they might be there to do the actual learning is going by the wayside. In some professional contexts, people are quite explicit about how little they learnt in classrooms. It makes for difficult teaching contexts (especially at prestigious universities in the US), but it’s also something with which people learn to cope.My personal attitude is that “learning happens despite teachers.” I still think teachers make a difference, that we should learn about learners and learning, that pedagogy matters a whole lot. In fact, I’m passionate about pedagogy and I do what I can to improve my teaching.Yet the bottomline is: do people learn? If they do, does it matter what pedagogical training the teacher has? This isn’t a rhetorical question. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • A study published in the April issue of British Educational Research Journal
  • PowerPoint was one of the dullest methods they saw.
    • Can somebody post links to especially good PowerPoint files? comment by Bill Chapman
    • I don’t think this is really about PPT, but more about blind use of technology. It’s not the software to blame but the user.Also if you’re looking for great PPT examples, check out slideshare.net comment by Dean Shareski
    • Looking forward to reading what their criteria are for boredom.And the exact justification they give for lectures needing not to be boring.Or if they discuss the broad implications of lecturing, as opposed to the many other teaching methods that we use.Now, to be honest, I do use PPT in class. In fact, my PPT slides are the very example of what many people would consider boring: text outlines transformed into bullet points. Usually black on white, without images.But, overall, students seem to find me engaging. In student evaluations, I do get the occasional comment about the course being boring, but that’s also about the book and the nature of what we discuss.I upload these PPT files to Slideshare before going to class. In seminars, I use the PPT file to outline some topics, themes, and questions brought up by students and I upload the updated file after class.The PPT files on Slideshare are embedded into Moodle and serve as “course notes,” in conjunction with the audio recordings from the class meetings. These slides may include material which wasn’t covered in class.During “lecture,” I often spend extend periods of time discussing things with the class as a whole, leaving a slide up as a reminder of the general topic. Going from a bullet point to an extended discussion has the benefit of providing context for the discussion. When I started teaching, several students were saying that I’m “disorganized.” I still get a few comments like that but they’re much less frequent. And I still go on tangents, based on interactions with the group.Once in a while, I refrain from using PPT altogether. Which can lead to interesting challenges, in part because of student expectations and the fact that the screen becomes an indicator that “teaching is going on.”Perhaps a more important point: I try to lecture as little as possible. My upper-level courses are rapidly transformed into seminars. Even in large classes, the last class meetings of the semester involve just a few minutes of lecturing.This may all sound like a justification for my teaching method. But it’s also a reaction to the frequent discussions about PPT as evil. I do hate PPT, but I still use it.If only Google Wave could be released soon, we could use it to replace PPT. Wikis and microblogging tools are good and well, but they’re not as efficient in terms of real-time collaboration on complex material. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions
  • In other words, tech-free classrooms were the most engaging.
    • Does it follow so directly? It’s quite easy to integrate technology with “seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions.” comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • better than many older classroom technologies, like slate chalkboards or overhead transparencies
    • Which seems to support a form of technological determinism or, at least, a notion of a somewhat consistent improvement in the use of tools, if not in the tools themselves. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • But technology has hardly revolutionized the classroom experience for most college students, despite millions of dollars in investment and early predictions that going digital would force professors to rethink their lectures and would herald a pedagogical renaissance.
    • If so, then it’s only because profs aren’t bringing social technologies into their classrooms. Does the author of this article understand what’s current in ed tech? comment by Shelly Blake-Plock
    • the problem here is that in higher education, student satisfaction drives a service mentality – and students WANT summised PPTs and the want PODCASTS. Spoooon feeeeeed me – for I am paying. comment by dean groom
    • A rather broad statement which might be difficult to support with evidence.If we look at “classroom experience” in different contexts, we do notice large differences. Not necessarily in a positive sense. Technology is an integral part of all sorts of changes happening in, around, and away from the classroom.It would be quite different if that sentence said: “But institutional programs based on the adoption of specific tools in the classroom have hardly revolutionized…” It’s still early to assess the effectiveness of these programs, especially if we think about lifelong learning and about ongoing social changes related to technology use. But the statement would make more sense if it were more directly tied to specific programs instead of being a blanket critique of “technology” (left undefined). comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • dream of shaking up college instruction
    • One of the most interesting parts of the interview with Bowen has to do with the notion that this isn’t, in fact, about following a dream. It’s about remaining relevant in a changing world. There’s a lot about Bowen’s perspective which sounds quite strange, to me. But the notion that universities should “wake up and smell the coffee” is something I wish were the object of more discussion in academic circles. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • Here’s the kicker, though: The biggest resistance to Mr. Bowen’s ideas has come from students, some of whom have groused about taking a more active role during those 50-minute class periods.
    • Great points, here. Let’s wish more students were involved in this conversation. It’s not just “about” them.One thing we should probably not forget about student populations is that they’re diverse. Chances are, some students in Meadows are delighted by the discussion focus. Others may be puzzled. It’s likely an adaptation for most of them. And it doesn’t sound like they were ever consulted about those changes. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • lecture model is pretty comfortable
    • And, though many of us are quick to criticize it, it’s difficult to avoid in the current systems of formal education in which we work. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • cool gadgets
    • The easiest way to dismiss the social role of technology is to call tools “gadgets.” But are these tools really just gadgets? In fact, some tools which are put to good use really aren’t that cool or even new. Are we discussing them enough? Are we aware of how they fit in the grand scheme of things?An obvious example would be cellphones. Some administrators and teachers perceive them as a nuisance. Rather few people talk about educational opportunities with cellphones, even though they already are used by people in different parts of the World to empower themselves and to learn. Negroponte has explicltly dimissed the educational potential of cellphones but the World isn’t waiting for approval from designers. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • seasoned performer,
    • There’s a larger point to be about performance in teaching. Including through a reference to Dick Bauman’s “Verbal Art as Performance” or other dimensions of Performance Theory.There’s also a more “mundane” point about a kind of conflict in universities between academic material and performance. In French-speaking universities, at least, it’s not uncommon to hear teachers talk about the necessity to be a “performer” as something of a distraction in teaching. Are teachers in front of the class to entertain students or is the classroom an environment in which to think and learn about difficult concepts? The consumer approach to universities, pushed in part by administrators who run universities like businesses, tends to emphasize the “entertainment paradigm,” hence the whole “boredom” issue.Having said all of this, Bowen’s own attitude goes beyond this simplistic “entertainment paradigm.” In fact, it sounds like he’s specifically not advocating for lectures to become a series of TEDtalks. Judging from the interview, it sounds like he might say that TEDtalk-style presentation should be put online and classroom-time should be devoted to analyzing those presentations.I do consider myself a performer, as I’ve been playing saxophone in a rather broad range of circumstances, from outdoor stages at festivals to concert halls. And my experience as a performer does influence the way I teach large classes. At the same time, it probably makes more salient the distinction between teaching and performing. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • The goateed administrator sported a suit jacket over a dark T-shirt
    • Though I’d be the first one to say that context is key, I fail to see what Bowen’s clothes contribute to the discussion. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • philosophical argument about the best way to engage students, he grounded it
  • information delivery common in today’s classroom lectures should be recorded and delivered to students as podcasts or online videos before class sessions
    • Fully agreed. Especially if we throw other things in the mix such as journal articles and collaboratively-created learning material. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • short online multiple-choice tests.
    • I don’t think he’s using the mc tests with an essessment focus rather an engagement focus – noit necessarily the most sophisticated but done playfully and creatively it can be a good first step to getting reluctatnt students to engage in first instance… comment by Kim FLINTOFF
    • I would also “defend” the use of MCTs in this context. Especially if the stakes are relatively low, the questions are well-crafted, and students do end up engaging.Like PPT, MCTs have some advantages, including because of student expectations.But, of course, it’s rather funny to hear Bowen talk about shaking things up and find out that he uses such tools. Still, the fact that these tests are online (and, one would think, taken outside of class time) goes well with Bowen’s main point about class time vs. tech-enabled work outside of class. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • Introduce issues of debate within the discipline and get the students to weigh in based on the knowledge they have from those lecture podcasts, Mr. Bowen says.
    • This wouldn’t be too difficult to do in social sciences and there are scenarios in which it would work wonderfully for lab sciences (if we think of “debate” as something similar to “discussion” sections in scientific articles).At the same time, some people do react negatively to such approaches based not on discipline but on “responsibilities of the university.” Some people even talk about responsibilities toward students’ parents! comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • But if the student believes they can contribute, they’re a whole lot more motivated to enter the discourse, and to enter the discipline.
    • Sounds a bit like some of the “higher” positions in William Perry’s scheme. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • don’t be boring
    • Is boredom induced exclusively by the teacher? Can a student bored during a class meeting still be motivated and engaged in the material at another point? Should we apply the same principle to the readings we assign? Is there a way to efficiently assess the “boredom factor” of an academic article? How can we convince academic publishers that fighting boredom isn’t necessarily done through the addition of pretty pictures? comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • you need a Ph.D. to figure it out
    • While I agree that these panels are difficult to use and could afford a redesign, the joke about needing a PhD sounds a bit strange in context. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • plug in their laptops
    • There’s something of a more general move toward getting people to use their own computers in the workplace. In fact, classroom computers are often so restricted as to be quite cumbersome to use in teaching. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • allow students to work in groups more easily
    • Not a bad idea. A good number of classrooms are structured in a way that makes it very hard to get students to do group work. Of course, it’s possible to do group work in any setting, but it’s remarkable how some of these seemingly trivial matters as the type of desk used can be enough to discourage some teachers from using certain teaching strategies. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • The classroom computers were old and needed an upgrade when Mr. Bowen arrived, so ditching them instead saved money.
    • Getting into the core of the issue. The reason it’s so important to think about “new ways” to do things isn’t necessarily that “old ways” weren’t conducive to learning. It’s because there are increased pressures on the system and some seem to perceive that cost-cutting and competition from online learning, making the issue so pressing. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • eliminate one staff position for a technician
    • Sounds sad, especially since support staff is already undervalued. But, at the same time, it does sound like relatively rational cost-cutting. One would just wish that they replaced that position with, say, teaching support. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • gave every professor a laptop
    • Again, this is a rather common practise outside of universities. Knowing how several colleagues think, this may also function as a way to “keep them happy.” comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • support so they could create their own podcasts and videos.
    • This is where the tech support position which was cut could be useful. Recording and podcasting aren’t difficult to set up or do. But it’s an area where support can mean more than answering questions about which button to press. In fact, podcasting projects are an ideal context for collaboration between tech, teach, and research. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • lugging their laptops to class,
    • It can be an issue, especially if there wasn’t a choice in the type of laptop which could be used. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • She’s made podcasts for her course on “Critical Scholarship in Communication” that feature interviews she recorded with experts in the field.
    • One cool thing about these podcasting projects is that people can build upon them, one semester after the other. Interviews with practitioners do help provide a multiplicity of voices. And, yes, getting students to produce their own content is often a good way to go, especially if the topic is somehow related to the activity. Getting students in applied communication to create material does sound appropriate. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • they come in actually much more informed
    • Sounds effective. Especially since Bowen’s approach seems to be oriented toward pre-class preparation. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • if they had been assigned a reading.
    • There’s a lot to be said about this. One reason this method may be more efficient than reading assignments could have to do with the particularities of written language, especially the very formal style of those texts we often assign as readings. Not that students shouldn’t read, of course! But there’s a case to be made for some readings being replaced by oral sources, especially those which have to do with people’s experience in a field. Reading primary source material, integrating some reference texts, and using oral material can all be part of an appropriate set of learning strategies. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • created podcast lectures
    • An advantage of such “lecturecasts,” “profcasts,” and “slidecasts” is that they’re relatively easy to build and can be tightly structured. It’s not the end-all of learning material, but it’s a better substitute for classroom lectures than one might think.Still, there’s room for improvement in the technology itself. For instance, it’d be nice to have Revver-style comments in the timeline. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • shows movie clips from his laptop
    • This one is slightly surprising because one would expect that these clips could easily be shown, online, ahead of class. It might have to do with the chilling effect of copyright regulation or Heffernan’s strategy of getting “fresh” feedback. There would have been good questions to ask Heffernan in preparation for this piece. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • “Strangely enough, the people who are most resistant to this model are the students, who are used to being spoon-fed material that is going to be quote unquote on the test,” says Mr. Heffernan. “Students have been socialized to view the educational process as essentially passive. The only way we’re going to stop that is by radically refiguring the classroom in precisely the way José wants to do it.”
    • This interpretation sounds a tiny bit lopsided. After all, aren’t there students who were already quite active and engaged in the “old system” who have expressed some resistance to the “new system?” Sounds likely to me. But maybe my students are different.One fascinating thing is the level of agreement, among teachers, about the necessity to have students who aren’t passive. I certainly share this opinion but there are teachers in this World who actually do prefer students who are somewhat passive and… “obedient.” comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • The same sequence of events
    • That part is quite significant: Bowen was already a reformer and already had gone through the process. In this case, he sounds more like one of those CEOs who are hired to save a company from a difficult situation. He originally sounded more like someone who wanted to impose specific views about teaching. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • ‘I paid for a college education and you’re not going to lecture?'”
    • A fairly common reaction, in certain contexts. A combination of the infamous “sense of entitlement,” the “customer-based approach to universities,” and student expectations about the way university teaching is supposed to go.One version I’ve had in student evaluations is that the student felt like s/he was hearing too much from other students instead of from me. It did pain me, because of the disconnect between what I was trying to do and that student’s notion of what university courses are supposed to bring her/him. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • PowerPoint lecture
    • As a commenter to my blog was saying about lectures in general, some of us (myself included) have been building a straw man. We may have negative attitudes toward certain teaching strategies, including some lecturing techniques. But that shouldn’t prevent us from discussing a wide array of teaching and learning strategies.In this case, it’s remarkable that despite the radical nature of Bowen’s reform, we learn that there are teachers who record PPT-based presentations. It then sounds like the issue isn’t so much about using PPT as it is about what is done in the classroom as opposed to what is done during the rest of the week.Boring or not, PPT lectures, even some which aren’t directly meant to engage students, can still find their place in the “teaching toolbox.” A dogmatic anti-PPT stance (such as the one displayed by this journalist) is unlikely to foster conversations about tools and learning. Based on the fact that teachers are in fact doing PPT lectures to be used outside the classroom, one ends up seeing Bowen’s perspective as much more open than that of the Chronicle’s editorial staff. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • Sandi Mann, the British researcher who led the recent study on student attitudes toward teaching, argues that boredom has serious implications in an educational setting.
    • Unsurprising perspective. Wonder if it had any impact on Mann’s research results. Makes the research sound more oriented than one might hope. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • according to some studies
  • low-cost online alternatives to the traditional campus experience
    • This could have been the core issue discussed in an article about Bowen. Especially if we are to have a thoughtful conversation about the state of higher education in a changing context. Justification for high tuition fees, the latent functions of “college life,” the likely outcome of “competing with free,” the value of the complete learning experience as opposed to the value of information transmission… comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • give away videos
    • This is the “competing with free” part, to which record companies have been oblivious for so long but which makes OCW appear like quite a forward-looking proposition. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • colleges must make sure their in-person teaching really is superior to those alternatives
    • It’s both a free-market argument, which goes so well with the customer-based approach to learning, and a plea to consider learning in a broader way than the mere transmission of information from authoritative source to passive mass. An old saw, for sure, but one which surprisingly hasn’t been heard by everyone. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • add value
    • This might be appropriate language to convince trustees. At some institutions, this might be more important than getting students’ or teachers’ approval. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • not being online
    • Although, they do have an online presence. The arguments used have more to do with blended learning than with exclusively face-to-face methods. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • might need to stay a low-tech zone to survive.
    • Rubbish there is no reason to dumb down learning; and he obviously is not teaching 2500 students at one time. PPT is not the problem here, and this really is a collection of facile arguements that are not ironically substantiated. Lowering his overhead does not increase student learning – wheres the evidence? comment by dean groom
    • Come to think of it, it sounds like the argument was made more forcefully by Young than by Bowen himself. Bowen is certainly quite vocal but the “need… to survive” sounds a tad bit stronger than Bowen’s project.What’s funny is that the video made Bowen sound almost opinionated. The article makes Young sound like he has his own axe to grind comment by Alexandre Enkerli

Social Networks and Microblogging

Microblogging (Laconica, Twitter, etc.) is still a hot topic. For instance, during the past few episodes of This Week in Tech, comments were made about the preponderance of Twitter as a discussion theme: microblogging is so prominent on that show that some people complain that there’s too much talk about Twitter. Given the centrality of Leo Laporte’s podcast in geek culture (among Anglos, at least), such comments are significant.

The context for the latest comments about TWiT coverage of Twitter had to do with Twitter’s financials: during this financial crisis, Twitter is given funding without even asking for it. While it may seem surprising at first, given the fact that Twitter hasn’t publicized a business plan and doesn’t appear to be profitable at this time, 

Along with social networking, microblogging is even discussed in mainstream media. For instance, Médialogues (a media critique on Swiss national radio) recently had a segment about both Facebook and Twitter. Just yesterday, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart made fun of compulsive twittering and mainstream media coverage of Twitter (original, Canadian access).

Clearly, microblogging is getting some mindshare.

What the future holds for microblogging is clearly uncertain. Anything can happen. My guess is that microblogging will remain important for a while (at least a few years) but that it will transform itself rather radically. Chances are that other platforms will have microblogging features (something Facebook can do with status updates and something Automattic has been trying to do with some WordPress themes). In these troubled times, Montreal startup Identi.ca received some funding to continue developing its open microblogging platform.  Jaiku, bought by Google last year, is going open source, which may be good news for microblogging in general. Twitter itself might maintain its “marketshare” or other players may take over. There’s already a large number of third-party tools and services making use of Twitter, from Mahalo Answers to Remember the Milk, Twistory to TweetDeck.

Together, these all point to the current importance of microblogging and the potential for further development in that sphere. None of this means that microblogging is “The Next Big Thing.” But it’s reasonable to expect that microblogging will continue to grow in use.

(Those who are trying to grok microblogging, Common Craft’s Twitter in Plain English video is among the best-known descriptions of Twitter and it seems like an efficient way to “get the idea.”)

One thing which is rarely mentioned about microblogging is the prominent social structure supporting it. Like “Social Networking Systems” (LinkedIn, Facebook, Ning, MySpace…), microblogging makes it possible for people to “connect” to one another (as contacts/acquaintances/friends). Like blogs, microblogging platforms make it possible to link to somebody else’s material and get notifications for some of these links (a bit like pings and trackbacks). Like blogrolls, microblogging systems allow for lists of “favourite authors.” Unlike Social Networking Systems but similar to blogrolls, microblogging allow for asymmetrical relations, unreciprocated links: if I like somebody’s microblogging updates, I can subscribe to those (by “following” that person) and publicly show my appreciation of that person’s work, regardless of whether or not this microblogger likes my own updates.

There’s something strangely powerful there because it taps the power of social networks while avoiding tricky issues of reciprocity, “confidentiality,” and “intimacy.”

From the end user’s perspective, microblogging contacts may be easier to establish than contacts through Facebook or Orkut. From a social science perspective, microblogging links seem to approximate some of the fluidity found in social networks, without adding much complexity in the description of the relationships. Subscribing to someone’s updates gives me the role of “follower” with regards to that person. Conversely, those I follow receive the role of “following” (“followee” would seem logical, given the common “-er”/”-ee” pattern). The following and follower roles are complementary but each is sufficient by itself as a useful social link.

Typically, a microblogging system like Twitter or Identi.ca qualifies two-way connections as “friendship” while one-way connections could be labelled as “fandom” (if Andrew follows Betty’s updates but Betty doesn’t follow Andrew’s, Andrew is perceived as one of Betty’s “fans”). Profiles on microblogging systems are relatively simple and public, allowing for low-involvement online “presence.” As long as updates are kept public, anybody can connect to anybody else without even needing an introduction. In fact, because microblogging systems send notifications to users when they get new followers (through email and/or SMS), subscribing to someone’s update is often akin to introducing yourself to that person. 

Reciprocating is the object of relatively intense social pressure. A microblogger whose follower:following ratio is far from 1:1 may be regarded as either a snob (follower:following much higher than 1:1) or as something of a microblogging failure (follower:following much lower than 1:1). As in any social context, perceived snobbery may be associated with sophistication but it also carries opprobrium. Perry Belcher  made a video about what he calls “Twitter Snobs” and some French bloggers have elaborated on that concept. (Some are now claiming their right to be Twitter Snobs.) Low follower:following ratios can result from breach of etiquette (for instance, ostentatious self-promotion carried beyond the accepted limit) or even non-human status (many microblogging accounts are associated to “bots” producing automated content).

The result of the pressure for reciprocation is that contacts are reciprocated regardless of personal relations.  Some users even set up ways to automatically follow everyone who follows them. Despite being tricky, these methods escape the personal connection issue. Contrary to Social Networking Systems (and despite the term “friend” used for reciprocated contacts), following someone on a microblogging service implies little in terms of friendship.

One reason I personally find this fascinating is that specifying personal connections has been an important part of the development of social networks online. For instance, long-defunct SixDegrees.com (one of the earliest Social Networking Systems to appear online) required of users that they specified the precise nature of their relationship to users with whom they were connected. Details escape me but I distinctly remember that acquaintances, colleagues, and friends were distinguished. If I remember correctly, only one such personal connection was allowed for any pair of users and this connection had to be confirmed before the two users were linked through the system. Facebook’s method to account for personal connections is somewhat more sophisticated despite the fact that all contacts are labelled as “friends” regardless of the nature of the connection. The uniform use of the term “friend” has been decried by many public commentators of Facebook (including in the United States where “friend” is often applied to any person with whom one is simply on friendly terms).

In this context, the flexibility with which microblogging contacts are made merits consideration: by allowing unidirectional contacts, microblogging platforms may have solved a tricky social network problem. And while the strength of the connection between two microbloggers is left unacknowledged, there are several methods to assess it (for instance through replies and republished updates).

Social contacts are the very basis of social media. In this case, microblogging represents a step towards both simplified and complexified social contacts.

Which leads me to the theme which prompted me to start this blogpost: event-based microblogging.

I posted the following blog entry (in French) about event-based microblogging, back in November.

Microblogue d’événement

I haven’t received any direct feedback on it and the topic seems to have little echoes in the social media sphere.

During the last PodMtl meeting on February 18, I tried to throw my event-based microblogging idea in the ring. This generated a rather lengthy between a friend and myself. (Because I don’t want to put words in this friend’s mouth, who happens to be relatively high-profile, I won’t mention this friend’s name.) This friend voiced several objections to my main idea and I got to think about this basic notion a bit further. At the risk of sounding exceedingly opinionated, I must say that my friend’s objections actually comforted me in the notion that my “event microblog” idea makes a lot of sense.

The basic idea is quite simple: microblogging instances tied to specific events. There are technical issues in terms of hosting and such but I’m mostly thinking about associating microblogs and events.

What I had in mind during the PodMtl discussion has to do with grouping features, which are often requested by Twitter users (including by Perry Belcher who called out Twitter Snobs). And while I do insist on events as a basis for those instances (like groups), some of the same logic applies to specific interests. However, given the time-sensitivity of microblogging, I still think that events are more significant in this context than interests, however defined.

In the PodMtl discussion, I frequently referred to BarCamp-like events (in part because my friend and interlocutor had participated in a number of such events). The same concept applies to any event, including one which is just unfolding (say, assassination of Guinea-Bissau’s president or bombings in Mumbai).

Microblogging users are expected to think about “hashtags,” those textual labels preceded with the ‘#’ symbol which are meant to categorize microblogging updates. But hashtags are problematic on several levels.

  • They require preliminary agreement among multiple microbloggers, a tricky proposition in any social media. “Let’s use #Bissau09. Everybody agrees with that?” It can get ugly and, even if it doesn’t, the process is awkward (especially for new users).
  • Even if agreement has been reached, there might be discrepancies in the way hashtags are typed. “Was it #TwestivalMtl or #TwestivalMontreal, I forgot.”
  • In terms of language economy, it’s unsurprising that the same hashtag would be used for different things. Is “#pcmtl” about Podcamp Montreal, about personal computers in Montreal, about PCM Transcoding Library…?
  • Hashtags are frequently misunderstood by many microbloggers. Just this week, a tweep of mine (a “peep” on Twitter) asked about them after having been on Twitter for months.
  • While there are multiple ways to track hashtags (including through SMS, in some regions), there is no way to further specify the tracked updates (for instance, by user).
  • The distinction between a hashtag and a keyword is too subtle to be really useful. Twitter Search, for instance, lumps the two together.
  • Hashtags take time to type. Even if microbloggers aren’t necessarily typing frantically, the time taken to type all those hashtags seems counterproductive and may even distract microbloggers.
  • Repetitively typing the same string is a very specific kind of task which seems to go against the microblogging ethos, if not the cognitive processes associated with microblogging.
  • The number of character in a hashtag decreases the amount of text in every update. When all you have is 140 characters at a time, the thirteen characters in “#TwestivalMtl” constitute almost 10% of your update.
  • If the same hashtag is used by a large number of people, the visual effect can be that this hashtag is actually dominating the microblogging stream. Since there currently isn’t a way to ignore updates containing a certain hashtag, this effect may even discourage people from using a microblogging service.

There are multiple solutions to these issues, of course. Some of them are surely discussed among developers of microblogging systems. And my notion of event-specific microblogs isn’t geared toward solving these issues. But I do think separate instances make more sense than hashtags, especially in terms of specific events.

My friend’s objections to my event microblogging idea had something to do with visibility. It seems that this friend wants all updates to be visible, regardless of the context. While I don’t disagree with this, I would claim that it would still be useful to “opt out” of certain discussions when people we follow are involved. If I know that Sean is participating in a PHP conference and that most of his updates will be about PHP for a period of time, I would enjoy the possibility to hide PHP-related updates for a specific period of time. The reason I talk about this specific case is simple: a friend of mine has manifested some frustration about the large number of updates made by participants in Podcamp Montreal (myself included). Partly in reaction to this, he stopped following me on Twitter and only resumed following me after Podcamp Montreal had ended. In this case, my friend could have hidden Podcamp Montreal updates and still have received other updates from the same microbloggers.

To a certain extent, event-specific instances are a bit similar to “rooms” in MMORPG and other forms of real-time many-to-many text-based communication such as the nostalgia-inducing Internet Relay Chat. Despite Dave Winer’s strong claim to the contrary (and attempt at defining microblogging away from IRC), a microblogging instance could, in fact, act as a de facto chatroom. When such a structure is needed. Taking advantage of the work done in microblogging over the past year (which seems to have advanced more rapidly than work on chatrooms has, during the past fifteen years). Instead of setting up an IRC channel, a Web-based chatroom, or even a session on MSN Messenger, users could use their microblogging platform of choice and either decide to follow all updates related to a given event or simply not “opt-out” of following those updates (depending on their preferences). Updates related to multiple events are visible simultaneously (which isn’t really the case with IRC or chatrooms) and there could be ways to make event-specific updates more prominent. In fact, there would be easy ways to keep real-time statistics of those updates and get a bird’s eye view of those conversations.

And there’s a point about event-specific microblogging which is likely to both displease “alpha geeks” and convince corporate users: updates about some events could be “protected” in the sense that they would not appear in the public stream in realtime. The simplest case for this could be a company-wide meeting during which backchannel is allowed and even expected “within the walls” of the event. The “nothing should leave this room” attitude seems contradictory to social media in general, but many cases can be made for “confidential microblogging.” Microblogged conversations can easily be archived and these archives could be made public at a later date. Event-specific microblogging allows for some control of the “permeability” of the boundaries surrounding the event. “But why would people use microblogging instead of simply talking to another?,” you ask. Several quick answers: participants aren’t in the same room, vocal communication is mostly single-channel, large groups of people are unlikely to communicate efficiently through oral means only, several things are more efficiently done through writing, written updates are easier to track and archive…

There are many other things I’d like to say about event-based microblogging but this post is already long. There’s one thing I want to explain, which connects back to the social network dimension of microblogging.

Events can be simplistically conceived as social contexts which bring people together. (Yes, duh!) Participants in a given event constitute a “community of experience” regardless of the personal connections between them. They may be strangers, ennemies, relatives, acquaintances, friends, etc. But they all share something. “Participation,” in this case, can be relatively passive and the difference between key participants (say, volunteers and lecturers in a conference) and attendees is relatively moot, at a certain level of analysis. The key, here, is the set of connections between people at the event.

These connections are a very powerful component of social networks. We typically meet people through “events,” albeit informal ones. Some events are explicitly meant to connect people who have something in common. In some circles, “networking” refers to something like this. The temporal dimension of social connections is an important one. By analogy to philosophy of language, the “first meeting” (and the set of “first impressions”) constitute the “baptism” of the personal (or social) connection. In social media especially, the nature of social connections tends to be monovalent enough that this “baptism event” gains special significance.

The online construction of social networks relies on a finite number of dimensions, including personal characteristics described in a profile, indirect connections (FOAF), shared interests, textual content, geographical location, and participation in certain activities. Depending on a variety of personal factors, people may be quite inclusive or rather exclusive, based on those dimensions. “I follow back everyone who lives in Austin” or “Only people I have met in person can belong to my inner circle.” The sophistication with which online personal connections are negotiated, along such dimensions, is a thing of beauty. In view of this sophistication, tools used in social media seem relatively crude and underdeveloped.

Going back to the (un)conference concept, the usefulness of having access to a list of all participants in a given event seems quite obvious. In an open event like BarCamp, it could greatly facilitate the event’s logistics. In a closed event with paid access, it could be linked to registration (despite geek resistance, closed events serve a purpose; one could even imagine events where attendance is free but the microblogging backchannel incurs a cost). In some events, everybody would be visible to everybody else. In others, there could be a sort of ACL for diverse types of participants. In some cases, people could be allowed to “lurk” without being seen while in others radically transparency could be enforced. For public events with all participants visible, lists of participants could be archived and used for several purposes (such as assessing which sessions in a conference are more popular or “tracking” event regulars).

One reason I keep thinking about event-specific microblogging is that I occasionally use microblogging like others use business cards. In a geek crowd, I may ask for someone’s Twitter username in order to establish a connection with that person. Typically, I will start following that person on Twitter and find opportunities to communicate with that person later on. Given the possibility for one-way relationships, it establishes a social connection without requiring personal involvement. In fact, that person may easily ignore me without the danger of a face threat.

If there were event-specific instances from microblogging platforms, we could manage connections and profiles in a more sophisticated way. For instance, someone could use a barebones profile for contacts made during an impersonal event and a full-fledged profile for contacts made during a more “intimate” event. After noticing a friend using an event-specific business card with an event-specific email address, I got to think that this event microblogging idea might serve as a way to fill a social need.

 

More than most of my other blogposts, I expect comments on this one. Objections are obviously welcomed, especially if they’re made thoughtfully (like my PodMtl friend made them). Suggestions would be especially useful. Or even questions about diverse points that I haven’t addressed (several of which I can already think about).

So…

 

What do you think of this idea of event-based microblogging? Would you use a microblogging instance linked to an event, say at an unconference? Can you think of fun features an event-based microblogging instance could have? If you think about similar ideas you’ve seen proposed online, care to share some links?

 

Thanks in advance!


Quest for Expertise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

or:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, well…

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

 

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

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


Blogging and Literary Standards

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

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

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

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

Read on, please… Continue reading


La Renaissance du café à Montréal

J’ai récemment publié un très long billet sur la scène du café à Montréal. Sans doûte à cause de sa longueur, ce billet ne semble pas avoir les effets escomptés. J’ai donc décidé de republier ce billet, section par section. Ce billet est la dernière section de ce long billet. Il consiste en une espèce de résumé de la situation actuelle de la scène montréalaise du café, avec un regard porté vers son avenir. Vous pouvez consulter l’introduction qui contient des liens aux autres sections et ainsi avoir un contexte plus large.

À mon humble avis, l’arrivée de la Troisième vague à Montréal nous permet maintenant d’explorer le café dans toute sa splendeur. En quelque sorte, c’était la pièce qui manquait au casse-tête.

Dans mon précédent billet, j’ai omis de comparer le café à l’italienne au café à la québécoise (outre l’importance de l’allongé). C’est en partie parce que les différences sont un peu difficile à expliquer. Mais disons qu’il y a une certaine diversité de saveurs, à travers la dimension «à la québécoise» de la scène montréalaise du café. Malgré certains points communs, les divers cafés de Montréalais n’ont jamais été d’une très grande homogénéité, au niveau du goût. Les ressemblances venaient surtout de l’utilisation des quelques maisons de torréfaction locales plutôt que d’une unité conceptuelle sur la façon de faire le café. D’ailleurs, j’ai souvent perçu qu’il y avait eu une baisse de diversité dans les goûts proposés par différents cafés montréalais au cours des quinze dernières années, et je considère ce processus de quasi-standardisation (qui n’a jamais été menée à terme) comme un aspect néfaste de cette période dans l’histoire du café à Montréal. Les nouveaux développements de la scène montréalaise du café me donne espoir que la diversité de cette scène grandit de nouveau après cette période de «consolidation».

D’ailleurs, c’est non sans fierté que je pense au fait que les grandes chaînes «étrangères» de cafés ont eu de la difficulté à s’implanter à Montréal. Si Montréal n’a eu sa première succursale Starbucks qu’après plusieurs autres villes nord-américaines et si Second Cup a rapidement dû fermer une de ses succursales montréalaises, c’est entre autres parce que la scène montréalaise du café était très vivante, bien avant l’arrivée des chaînes. D’ailleurs, plusieurs chaînes se sont développé localement avant de se disperser à l’extérieur de Montréal. Le résultat est qu’il y a probablement, à l’heure actuelle, autant sinon plus de succursales de chaînes de cafés à Montréal que dans n’importe autre grande ville, mais qu’une proportion significative de ces cafés est originaire de Montréal. Si l’existence de chaînes locales de cafés n’a aucune corrélation avec la qualité moyenne du café qu’on dans une région donnée (j’ai même tendance à croire qu’il y a une corrélation inverse entre le nombre de chaînes et la qualité moyenne du café), la «conception montréalaise» du café me semble révêlée par les difficultés rencontrées par les chaînes extrogènes.

En fait, une caractéristique de la scène du café à Montréal est que la diversité est liée à la diversité de la population. Non seulement la diversité linguistique, culturelle, ethnique et sociale. Mais la diversité en terme de goûts et de perspectives. La diversité humaine à Montréal évoque l’image de la «salade mixte»: un mélange harmonieux mais avec des éléments qui demeurent distincts. D’aucuns diront que c’est le propre de toute grande ville, d’être intégrée de la sorte. D’autres diront que Montréal est moins bien intégrée que telle ou telle autre grande ville. Mais le portrait que j’essaie de brosser n’est ni plus beau, ni plus original que celui d’une autre ville. Il est simplement typique.

Outre les cafés «à la québécoise», «à l’italienne» et «troisième vague» que j’ai décrits, Montréal dispose de plusieurs cafés qui sont liés à diverses communautés. Oui, je pense à des cafés liés à des communautés culturelles, comme un café guatémaltèque ou un café libanais. Mais aussi à des cafés liés à des groupes sociaux particuliers ou à des communautés religieuses. Au point de vue du goût, le café servi à ces divers endroits n’est peut-être pas si distinctif. Mais l’expérience du café prend un sens spécifique à chacun de ces endroits.

Et si j’ai parlé presqu’exclusivement de commerces liés au café, je pense beaucoup à la dimension disons «domestique» du café.

Selon moi, la population de la région montréalaise a le potentiel d’un réel engouement pour le café de qualité. Même s’ils n’ont pas toujours une connaissance très approfondie du café et même s’il consomme du café de moins bonne qualité, plusieurs Montréalais semblent très intéressés par le café. Certains d’entre eux croient connaître le café au point de ne pas vouloir en découvrir d’autres aspects. Mais les discussions sur le goût du café sont monnaie courante parmi des gens de divers milieux, ne serait-ce que dans le choix de certains cafés.

Évidemment, ces discussions ont lieu ailleurs et le café m’a souvent aidé à m’intégrer à des réseaux sociaux de villes où j’ai habité. Mais ce que je crois être assez particulier à Montréal, c’est qu’il ne semble pas y avoir une «idéologie dominante» du café. Certains amateurs de café (et certains professionnels du café) sont très dogmatiques, voire doctrinaires. Mais je ne perçois aucune  idée sur le café qui serait réellement acquise par tous. Il y a des Tim Hortons et des Starbucks à Montréal mais, contrairement à d’autres coins du continent, il ne semble pas y avoir un café qui fait consensus.

Par contre, il y a une sorte de petite oligarchie. Quelques maisons de torréfaction et de distribution du café semblent avoir une bonne part du marché. Je pense surtout à Union, Brossard et Van Houtte (qui a aussi une chaîne de café et qui était pris à une certaine époque comme exemple de succès financier). À ce que je sache, ces trois entreprises sont locales. À l’échelle globale, l’oligarchie du monde du café est constituée par Nestlé, Sara Lee, Kraft et Proctor & Gamble. J’imagine facilement que ces multinationales ont autant de succès à Montréal qu’ailleurs dans le monde mais je trouve intéressant de penser au poids relatif de quelques chaînes locales.

Parlant de chaînes locales, je crois que certaines entreprises locales peuvent avoir un rôle déterminant dans la «Renaissance du café à Montréal». Je pense surtout à Café Terra de Carlo Granito, à Café Mystique et Toi, Moi & Café de Sevan Istanboulian, à Café Rico de Sévanne Kordahi et à la coop La Maison verte à Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. Ces choix peuvent sembler par trop personnels, voire arbitraires. Mais chaque élément me semble représentatif de la scène montréalaise du café. Carlo Granito, par exemple, a participé récemment à l’émission Samedi et rien d’autre de Radio-Canada, en compagnie de Philippe Mollé (audio de 14:30 à 32:30). Sevan Istanboulian est juge certifié du World Barista Championship et distribue ses cafés à des endroits stratégiques. Sévanne Kordahi a su concentrer ses activités dans des domaines spécifiques et ses cafés sont fort appréciés par des groupes d’étudiants (entre autres grâce à un rabais étudiant). Puis j’ai appris dernièrement que La Maison verte servait du Café Femenino qui met de l’avant une des plus importantes dimensions éthiques du monde du café.

Pour revenir au «commun des mortels», l’amateur de café. Au-delà de la spécificité locale, je crois qu’une scène du café se bâtit par une dynamique entre individus, une série de «petites choses qui finissent par faire une différence». Et c’est cette dynamique qui me rend confiant.

La communauté des enthousiastes du café à Montréal est somme toute assez petite mais bien vivante. Et je me place dans les rangs de cette communauté.

Certains d’entre nous avons participé à divers événements ensemble, comme des dégustations et des séances de préparation de café. Les discussions à propos du café se multiplient, entre nous. D’ailleurs, nous nous croisons assez régulièrement, dans l’un ou l’autre des hauts lieux du café à Montréal. D’ailleurs, d’autres dimensions du monde culinaire sont représentés parmi nous, depuis la bière artisanale au végétalianisme en passant par le chocolat et le thé. Ces liens peuvent sembler évident mais c’est surtout parce que chacun d’entre nous fait partie de différents réseaux que la communauté me semble riche. En discutant ensemble, nous en venons à parler de plusieurs autres arts culinaires au-delà du café, ce qui renforce les liens entre le café et le reste du monde culinaire. En parlant de café avec nos autres amis, nous créons un effet de vague, puisque nous participons à des milieux distincts. C’est d’ailleurs une représentation assez efficace de ce que je continue d’appeler «l’effet du papillon social»: le battement de ses ailes se répercute dans divers environnements. Si la friction n’est pas trop grande, l’onde de choc provenant de notre communauté risque de se faire sentir dans l’ensemble de la scène du café à Montréal.

Pour boucler la boucle (avant d’aller me coucher), je dois souligner le fait que, depuis peu, le lieu de rencontre privilégié de notre petit groupe d’enthousiastes est le Café Myriade.


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?

The Issue Is Respect

As a creative generalist, I don’t tend to emphasize expert status too much, but I do see advantages in complementarity between people who act in different spheres of social life. As we say in French, «à chacun son métier et les vaches seront bien gardées» (“to each their own profession and cows will be well-kept”).

The diversity of skills, expertise, and interest is especially useful when people of different “walks of life” can collaborate with one another. Tolerance, collegiality, dialogue. When people share ideas, the potential is much greater if their ideas are in fact different. Very simple principle, which runs through anthropology as the study of human diversity (through language, time, biology, and culture).

The problem, though, is that people from different “fields” tend not to respect one another’s work. For instance, a life scientist and a social scientist often have a hard time understanding one another because they simply don’t respect their interlocutor’s discipline. They may respect each other as human beings but they share a distrust as to the very usefulness of the other person’s field.

Case in point: entomologist Paul R. Ehrlich, who spoke at the Seminar About Long Term Thinking (SALT) a few weeks ago.

The Long Now Blog » Blog Archive » Paul Ehrlich, “The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment”

Ehrlich seems to have a high degree of expertise in population studies and, in that SALT talk, was able to make fairly interesting (though rather commonplace) statements about human beings. For instance, he explicitly addressed the tendency, in mainstream media, to perceive genetic determinism where it has no place. Similarly, his discussion about the origins and significance of human language was thoughtful enough that it could lead other life scientists to at least take a look at language.

What’s even more interesting is that Ehrlich realizes that social sciences can be extremely useful in solving the environmental issues which concern him the most. As we learn during the question period after this talk, Ehrlich is currently talking with some economists. And, contrary to business professors, economists participate very directly in the broad field of social sciences.

All of this shows quite a bit of promise, IMVHAWISHIMVVVHO. But the problem has to do with respect, it seems.

Now, it might well be that Ehrlich esteems and respects his economist colleagues. Their methods may be sufficiently compatible with his that he actually “hears what they’re saying.” But he doesn’t seem to “extend this courtesy” to my own highly esteemed colleagues in ethnographic disciplines. Ehrlich simply doesn’t grok the very studies which he states could be the most useful for him.

There’s a very specific example during the talk but my point is broader. When that specific issue was revealed, I had already been noticing an interdisciplinary problem. And part of that problem was my own.

Ehrlich’s talk was fairly entertaining, although rather unsurprising in the typical “doom and gloom” exposé to which science and tech shows have accustomed us. Of course, it was fairly superficial on even the points about which Ehrlich probably has the most expertise. But that’s expected of this kind of popularizer talk. But I started reacting quite negatively to several of his points when he started to make the kinds of statements which make any warm-blooded ethnographer cringe. No, not the fact that his concept of “culture” is so unsophisticated that it could prevent a student of his from getting a passing grade in an introductory course in cultural anthropology. But all sorts of comments which clearly showed that his perspective on human diversity is severely restricted. Though he challenges some ideas about genetic determinism, Ehrlich still holds to a form of reductionism which social scientists would associate with scholars who died before Ehrlich was born.

So, my level of respect for Ehrlich started to fade, with each of those half-baked pronouncments about cultural diversity and change.

Sad, I know. Especially since I respect every human being equally. But it doesn’t mean that I respect all statements equally. As is certainly the case for many other people, my respect for a person’s pronouncements may diminish greatly if those words demonstrate a lack of understanding of something in which I have a relatively high degree of expertise. In other words, a heart surgeon could potentially listen to a journalist talk about “cultural evolution” without blinking an eye but would likely lose “intellectual patience” if, in the same piece, the journalist starts to talk about heart diseases. And this impatience may retroactively carry over to the discussion about “cultural evolution.” As we tend to say in the ethnography of communication, context is the thing.

And this is where I have to catch myself. It’s not because Ehrlich made statements about culture which made him appear clueless that what he said about the connections between population and environment is also clueless. I didn’t, in fact, start perceiving his points about ecology as misled for the very simple reason that we have been saying the same things, in ethnographic disciplines. But that’s dangerous: selectively accepting statements because they reinforce what you already know. Not what academic work is supposed to be about.

In fact, there was something endearing about Ehrlich. He may not understand the study of culture and he doesn’t seem to have any training in the study of society, but at least he was trying to understand. There was even a point in his talk when he something which would be so obvious to any social scientist that I could have gained a new kind of personal respect for Ehrlich’s openness, if it hadn’t been for his inappropriate statements about culture.

The saddest part is about dialogue. If a social scientist is to work with Ehrlich and she reacts the same way I did, dialogue probably won’t be established. And if Ehrlich’s attitude toward epistemological approaches different from his own are represented by the statements he made about ethnography, chances are that he will only respect those of my social science colleagues who share his own reductionist perspective.

It should be obvious that there’s an academic issue, here, in terms of inter-disciplinarity. But there’s also a personal issue. In my own life, I don’t want to restrict myself to conversations with people who think the same way I do.


The Need for Social Science in Social Web/Marketing/Media (Draft)

[Been sitting on this one for a little while. Better RERO it, I guess.]

Sticking My Neck Out (Executive Summary)

I think that participants in many technology-enthusiastic movements which carry the term “social” would do well to learn some social science. Furthermore, my guess is that ethnographic disciplines are very well-suited to the task of teaching participants in these movements something about social groups.

Disclaimer

Despite the potentially provocative title and my explicitly stating a position, I mostly wish to think out loud about different things which have been on my mind for a while.

I’m not an “expert” in this field. I’m just a social scientist and an ethnographer who has been observing a lot of things online. I do know that there are many experts who have written many great books about similar issues. What I’m saying here might not seem new. But I’m using my blog as a way to at least write down some of the things I have in mind and, hopefully, discuss these issues thoughtfully with people who care.

Also, this will not be a guide on “what to do to be social-savvy.” Books, seminars, and workshops on this specific topic abound. But my attitude is that every situation needs to be treated in its own context, that cookie-cutter solutions often fail. So I would advise people interested in this set of issues to train themselves in at least a little bit of social science, even if much of the content of the training material seems irrelevant. Discuss things with a social scientist, hire a social scientist in your business, take a course in social science, and don’t focus on advice but on the broad picture. Really.

Clarification

Though they are all different, enthusiastic participants in “social web,” “social marketing,” “social media,” and other “social things online” do have some commonalities. At the risk of angering some of them, I’m lumping them all together as “social * enthusiasts.” One thing I like about the term “enthusiast” is that it can apply to both professional and amateurs, to geeks and dabblers, to full-timers and part-timers. My target isn’t a specific group of people. I just observed different things in different contexts.

Links

Shameless Self-Promotion

A few links from my own blog, for context (and for easier retrieval):

Shameless Cross-Promotion

A few links from other blogs, to hopefully expand context (and for easier retrieval):

Some raw notes

  • Insight
  • Cluefulness
  • Openness
  • Freedom
  • Transparency
  • Unintended uses
  • Constructivism
  • Empowerment
  • Disruptive technology
  • Innovation
  • Creative thinking
  • Critical thinking
  • Technology adoption
  • Early adopters
  • Late adopters
  • Forced adoption
  • OLPC XO
  • OLPC XOXO
  • Attitudes to change
  • Conservatism
  • Luddites
  • Activism
  • Impatience
  • Windmills and shelters
  • Niche thinking
  • Geek culture
  • Groupthink
  • Idea horizon
  • Intersubjectivity
  • Influence
  • Sphere of influence
  • Influence network
  • Social butterfly effect
  • Cog in a wheel
  • Social networks
  • Acephalous groups
  • Ego-based groups
  • Non-hierarchical groups
  • Mutual influences
  • Network effects
  • Risk-taking
  • Low-stakes
  • Trial-and-error
  • Transparency
  • Ethnography
  • Epidemiology of ideas
  • Neural networks
  • Cognition and communication
  • Wilson and Sperber
  • Relevance
  • Global
  • Glocal
  • Regional
  • City-State
  • Fluidity
  • Consensus culture
  • Organic relationships
  • Establishing rapport
  • Buzzwords
  • Viral
  • Social
  • Meme
  • Memetic marketplace
  • Meta
  • Target audience

Let’s Give This a Try

The Internet is, simply, a network. Sure, technically it’s a meta-network, a network of networks. But that is pretty much irrelevant, in social terms, as most networks may be analyzed at different levels as containing smaller networks or being parts of larger networks. The fact remains that the ‘Net is pretty easy to understand, sociologically. It’s nothing new, it’s just a textbook example of something social scientists have been looking at for a good long time.

Though the Internet mostly connects computers (in many shapes or forms, many of them being “devices” more than the typical “personal computer”), the impact of the Internet is through human actions, behaviours, thoughts, and feelings. Sure, we can talk ad nauseam about the technical aspects of the Internet, but these topics have been covered a lot in the last fifteen years of intense Internet growth and a lot of people seem to be ready to look at other dimensions.

The category of “people who are online” has expanded greatly, in different steps. Here, Martin Lessard’s description of the Internet’s Six Cultures (Les 6 cultures d’Internet) is really worth a read. Martin’s post is in French but we also had a blog discussion in English, about it. Not only are there more people online but those “people who are online” have become much more diverse in several respects. At the same time, there are clear patterns on who “online people” are and there are clear differences in uses of the Internet.

Groups of human beings are the very basic object of social science. Diversity in human groups is the very basis for ethnography. Ethnography is simply the description of (“writing about”) human groups conceived as diverse (“peoples”). As simple as ethnography can be, it leads to a very specific approach to society which is very compatible with all sorts of things relevant to “social * enthusiasts” on- and offline.

While there are many things online which may be described as “media,” comparing the Internet to “The Mass Media” is often the best way to miss “what the Internet is all about.” Sure, the Internet isn’t about anything (about from connecting computers which, in turn, connect human beings). But to get actual insight into the ‘Net, one probably needs to free herself/himself of notions relating to “The Mass Media.” Put bluntly, McLuhan was probably a very interesting person and some of his ideas remain intriguing but fallacies abound in his work and the best thing to do with his ideas is to go beyond them.

One of my favourite examples of the overuse of “media”-based concepts is the issue of influence. In blogging, podcasting, or selling, the notion often is that, on the Internet as in offline life, “some key individuals or outlets are influential and these are the people by whom or channels through which ideas are disseminated.” Hence all the Technorati rankings and other “viewer statistics.” Old techniques and ideas from the times of radio and television expansion are used because it’s easier to think through advertising models than through radically new models. This is, in fact, when I tend to bring back my explanation of the “social butterfly effect“: quite frequently, “influence” online isn’t through specific individuals or outlets but even when it is, those people are influential through virtue of connecting to diverse groups, not by the number of people they know. There are ways to analyze those connections but “measuring impact” is eventually missing the point.

Yes, there is an obvious “qual. vs. quant.” angle, here. A major distinction between non-ethnographic and ethnographic disciplines in social sciences is that non-ethnographic disciplines tend to be overly constrained by “quantitative analysis.” Ultimately, any analysis is “qualitative” but “quantitative methods” are a very small and often limiting subset of the possible research and analysis methods available. Hence the constriction and what some ethnographers may describe as “myopia” on the part of non-ethnographers.

Gone Viral

The term “viral” is used rather frequently by “social * enthusiasts” online. I happen to think that it’s a fairly fitting term, even though it’s used more by extension than by literal meaning. To me, it relates rather directly to Dan Sperber’s “epidemiological” treatment of culture (see Explaining Culture) which may itself be perceived as resembling Dawkins’s well-known “selfish gene” ideas made popular by different online observers, but with something which I perceive to be (to use simple semiotic/semiological concepts) more “motivated” than the more “arbitrary” connections between genetics and ideas. While Sperber could hardly be described as an ethnographer, his anthropological connections still make some of his work compatible with ethnographic perspectives.

Analysis of the spread of ideas does correspond fairly closely with the spread of viruses, especially given the nature of contacts which make transmission possible. One needs not do much to spread a virus or an idea. This virus or idea may find “fertile soil” in a given social context, depending on a number of factors. Despite the disadvantages of extending analogies and core metaphors too far, the type of ecosystem/epidemiology analysis of social systems embedded in uses of the term “viral” do seem to help some specific people make sense of different things which happen online. In “viral marketing,” the type of informal, invisible, unexpected spread of recognition through word of mouth does relate somewhat to the spread of a virus. Moreover, the metaphor of “viral marketing” is useful in thinking about the lack of control the professional marketer may have on how her/his product is perceived. In this context, the term “viral” seems useful.

The Social

While “viral” seems appropriate, the even more simple “social” often seems inappropriately used. It’s not a ranty attitude which makes me comment negatively on the use of the term “social.” In fact, I don’t really care about the use of the term itself. But I do notice that use of the term often obfuscates what is the obvious social character of the Internet.

To a social scientist, anything which involves groups is by definition “social.” Of course, some groups and individuals are more gregarious than others, some people are taken to be very sociable, and some contexts are more conducive to heightened social interactions. But social interactions happen in any context.
As an example I used (in French) in reply to this blog post, something as common as standing in line at a grocery store is representative of social behaviour and can be analyzed in social terms. Any Web page which is accessed by anyone is “social” in the sense that it establishes some link, however tenuous and asymmetric, between at least two individuals (someone who created the page and the person who accessed that page). Sure, it sounds like the minimal definition of communication (sender, medium/message, receiver). But what most people who talk about communication seem to forget (unlike Jakobson), is that all communication is social.

Sure, putting a comment form on a Web page facilitates a basic social interaction, making the page “more social” in the sense of “making that page easier to use explicit social interaction.” And, of course, adding some features which facilitate the act of sharing data with one’s personal contacts is a step above the contact form in terms of making certain type of social interaction straightforward and easy. But, contrary to what Google Friend Connect implies, adding those features doesn’t suddenly make the site social. The site itself isn’t really social and, assuming some people visited it, there was already a social dimension to it. I’m not nitpicking on word use. I’m saying that using “social” in this way may blind some people to social dimensions of the Internet. And the consequences can be pretty harsh, in some cases, for overlooking how social the ‘Net is.

Something similar may be said about the “Social Web,” one of the many definitions of “Web 2.0” which is used in some contexts (mostly, the cynic would say, “to make some tool appear ‘new and improved'”). The Web as a whole was “social” by definition. Granted, it lacked the ease of social interaction afforded such venerable Internet classics as Usenet and email. But it was already making some modes of social interaction easier to perceive. No, this isn’t about “it’s all been done.” It’s about being oblivious to the social potential of tools which already existed. True, the period in Internet history known as “Web 2.0” (and the onset of the Internet’s sixth culture) may be associated with new social phenomena. But there is little evidence that the association is causal, that new online tools and services created a new reality which suddenly made it possible for people to become social online. This is one reason I like Martin Lessard’s post so much. Instead of postulating the existence of a brand new phenomenon, he talks about the conditions for some changes in both Internet use and the form the Web has taken.

Again, this isn’t about terminology per se. Substitute “friendly” for “social” and similar issues might come up (friendship and friendliness being disconnected from the social processes which underline them).

Adoptive Parents

Many “social * enthusiasts” are interested in “adoption.” They want their “things” to be adopted. This is especially visible among marketers but even in social media there’s an issue of “getting people on board.” And some people, especially those without social science training, seem to be looking for a recipe.

Problem is, there probably is no such thing as a recipe for technology adoption.

Sure, some marketing practises from the offline world may work online. Sometimes, adapting a strategy from the material world to the Internet is very simple and the Internet version may be more effective than the offline version. But it doesn’t mean that there is such a thing as a recipe. It’s a matter of either having some people who “have a knack for this sort of things” (say, based on sensitivity to what goes on online) or based on pure luck. Or it’s a matter of measuring success in different ways. But it isn’t based on a recipe. Especially not in the Internet sphere which is changing so rapidly (despite some remarkably stable features).

Again, I’m partial to contextual approaches (“fully-customized solutions,” if you really must). Not just because I think there are people who can do this work very efficiently. But because I observe that “recipes” do little more than sell “best-selling books” and other items.

So, what can we, as social scientists, say about “adoption?” That technology is adopted based on the perceived fit between the tools and people’s needs/wants/goals/preferences. Not the simple “the tool will be adopted if there’s a need.” But a perception that there might be a fit between an amorphous set of social actors (people) and some well-defined tools (“technologies”). Recognizing this fit is extremely difficult and forcing it is extremely expensive (not to mention completely unsustainable). But social scientists do help in finding ways to adapt tools to different social situations.

Especially ethnographers. Because instead of surveys and focus groups, we challenge assumptions about what “must” fit. Our heads and books are full of examples which sound, in retrospect, as common sense but which had stumped major corporations with huge budgets. (Ask me about McDonald’s in Brazil or browse a cultural anthropology textbook, for more information.)

Recently, while reading about issues surrounding the OLPC’s original XO computer, I was glad to read the following:

John Heskett once said that the critical difference between invention and innovation was its mass adoption by users. (Niti Bhan The emperor has designer clothes)

Not that this is a new idea, for social scientists. But I was glad that the social dimension of technology adoption was recognized.

In marketing and design spheres especially, people often think of innovation as individualized. While some individuals are particularly adept at leading inventions to mass adoption (Steve Jobs being a textbook example), “adoption comes from the people.” Yes, groups of people may be manipulated to adopt something “despite themselves.” But that kind of forced adoption is still dependent on a broad acceptance, by “the people,” of even the basic forms of marketing. This is very similar to the simplified version of the concept of “hegemony,” so common in both social sciences and humanities. In a hegemony (as opposed to a totalitarian regime), no coercion is necessary because the logic of the system has been internalized by people who are affected by it. Simple, but effective.

In online culture, adept marketers are highly valued. But I’m quite convinced that pre-online marketers already knew that they had to “learn society first.” One thing with almost anything happening online is that “the society” is boundless. Country boundaries usually make very little sense and the social rules of every local group will leak into even the simplest occasion. Some people seem to assume that the end result is a cultural homogenization, thereby not necessitating any adaptation besides the move from “brick and mortar” to online. Others (or the same people, actually) want to protect their “business models” by restricting tools or services based on country boundaries. In my mind, both attitudes are ineffective and misleading.

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

I think the Cluetrain Manifesto can somehow be summarized through concepts of freedom, openness, and transparency. These are all very obvious (in French, the book title is something close to “the evident truths manifesto”). They’re also all very social.

Social scientists often become activists based on these concepts. And among social scientists, many of us are enthusiastic about the social changes which are happening in parallel with Internet growth. Not because of technology. But because of empowerment. People are using the Internet in their own ways, the one key feature of the Internet being its lack of centralization. While the lack of centralized control may be perceived as a “bad thing” by some (social scientists or not), there’s little argument that the ‘Net as a whole is out of the control of specific corporations or governments (despite the large degree of consolidation which has happened offline and online).

Especially in the United States, “freedom” is conceived as a basic right. But it’s also a basic concept in social analysis. As some put it: “somebody’s rights end where another’s begin.” But social scientists have a whole apparatus to deal with all the nuances and subtleties which are bound to come from any situation where people’s rights (freedom) may clash or even simply be interpreted differently. Again, not that social scientists have easy, ready-made answers on these issues. But we’re used to dealing with them. We don’t interpret freedom as a given.

Transparency is fairly simple and relates directly to how people manage information itself (instead of knowledge or insight). Radical transparency is giving as much information as possible to those who may need it. Everybody has a “right to learn” a lot of things about a given institution (instead of “right to know”), when that institution has a social impact. Canada’s Access to Information Act is quite representative of the move to transparency and use of this act has accompanied changes in the ways government officials need to behave to adapt to a relatively new reality.

Openness is an interesting topic, especially in the context of the so-called “Open Source” movement. Radical openness implies participation by outsiders, at least in the form of verbal feedback. The cluefulness of “opening yourself to your users” is made obvious in the context of successes by institutions which have at least portrayed themselves as open. What’s in my mind unfortunate is that many institutions now attempt to position themselves on the openness end of the “closed/proprietary to open/responsive” scale without much work done to really open themselves up.

Communitas

Mottoes, slogans, and maxims like “build it and they will come,” “there’s a sucker born every minute,” “let them have cake,” and “give them what they want” all fail to grasp the basic reality of social life: “they” and “we” are linked. We’re all different and we’re all connected. We all take parts in groups. These groups are all associated with one another. We can’t simply behave the same way with everyone. Identity has two parts: sense of belonging (to an “in-group”) and sense of distinction (from an “out-group”). “Us/Them.”

Within the “in-group,” if there isn’t any obvious hierarchy, the sense of belonging can take the form that Victor Turner called “communitas” and which happens in situations giving real meaning to the notion of “community.” “Community of experience,” “community of practise.” Eckert and Wittgenstein brought to online networks. In a community, contacts aren’t always harmonious. But people feel they fully belong. A network isn’t the same thing as a community.

The World Is My Oyster

Despite the so-called “Digital Divide” (or, more precisely, the maintenance online of global inequalities), the ‘Net is truly “Global.” So is the phone, now that cellphones are accomplishing the “leapfrog effect.” But this one Internet we have (i.e., not Internet2 or other such specialized meta-network) is reaching everywhere through a single set of compatible connections. The need for cultural awareness is increased, not alleviated by online activities.

Release Early, Release Often

Among friends, we call it RERO.

The RERO principle is a multiple-pass system. Instead of waiting for the right moment to release a “perfect product” (say, a blogpost!), the “work in progress” is provided widely, garnering feedback which will be integrated in future “product versions.” The RERO approach can be unnerving to “product developers,” but it has proved its value in online-savvy contexts.

I use “product” in a broad sense because the principle applies to diverse contexts. Furthermore, the RERO principle helps shift the focus from “product,” back into “process.”

The RERO principle may imply some “emotional” or “psychological” dimensions, such as humility and the acceptance of failure. At some level, differences between RERO and “trial-and-error” methods of development appear insignificant. Those who create something should not expect the first try to be successful and should recognize mistakes to improve on the creative process and product. This is similar to the difference between “rehearsal” (low-stakes experimentation with a process) and “performance” (with responsibility, by the performer, for evaluation by an audience).

Though applications of the early/often concept to social domains are mostly satirical, there is a social dimension to the RERO principle. Releasing a “product” implies a group, a social context.

The partial and frequent “release” of work to “the public” relates directly to openness and transparency. Frequent releases create a “relationship” with human beings. Sure, many of these are “Early Adopters” who are already overrepresented. But the rapport established between an institution and people (users/clients/customers/patrons…) can be transfered more broadly.

Releasing early seems to shift the limit between rehearsal and performance. Instead of being able to do mistakes on your own, your mistakes are shown publicly and your success is directly evaluated. Yet a somewhat reverse effect can occur: evaluation of the end-result becomes a lower-stake rating at different parts of the project because expectations have shifted to the “lower” end. This is probably the logic behind Google’s much discussed propensity to call all its products “beta.”

While the RERO principle does imply a certain openness, the expectation that each release might integrate all the feedback “users” have given is not fundamental to releasing early and frequently. The expectation is set by a specific social relationship between “developers” and “users.” In geek culture, especially when users are knowledgeable enough about technology to make elaborate wishlists, the expectation to respond to user demand can be quite strong, so much so that developers may perceive a sense of entitlement on the part of “users” and grow some resentment out of the situation. “If you don’t like it, make it yourself.” Such a situation is rather common in FLOSS development: since “users” have access to the source code, they may be expected to contribute to the development project. When “users” not only fail to fulfil expectations set by open development but even have the gumption to ask developers to respond to demands, conflicts may easily occur. And conflicts are among the things which social scientists study most frequently.

Putting the “Capital” Back into “Social Capital”

In the past several years, ”monetization” (transforming ideas into currency) has become one of the major foci of anything happening online. Anything which can be a source of profit generates an immediate (and temporary) “buzz.” The value of anything online is measured through typical currency-based economics. The relatively recent movement toward ”social” whatever is not only representative of this tendency, but might be seen as its climax: nowadays, even social ties can be sold directly, instead of being part of a secondary transaction. As some people say “The relationship is the currency” (or “the commodity,” or “the means to an end”). Fair enough, especially if these people understand what social relationships entail. But still strange, in context, to see people “selling their friends,” sometimes in a rather literal sense, when social relationships are conceived as valuable. After all, “selling the friend” transforms that relationship, diminishes its value. Ah, well, maybe everyone involved is just cynical. Still, even their cynicism contributes to the system. But I’m not judging. Really, I’m not. I’m just wondering
Anyhoo, the “What are you selling anyway” question makes as much sense online as it does with telemarketers and other greed-focused strangers (maybe “calls” are always “cold,” online). It’s just that the answer isn’t always so clear when the “business model” revolves around creating, then breaking a set of social expectations.
Me? I don’t sell anything. Really, not even my ideas or my sense of self. I’m just not good at selling. Oh, I do promote myself and I do accumulate social capital. As social butterflies are wont to do. The difference is, in the case of social butterflies such as myself, no money is exchanged and the social relationships are, hopefully, intact. This is not to say that friends never help me or never receive my help in a currency-friendly context. It mostly means that, in our cases, the relationships are conceived as their own rewards.
I’m consciously not taking the moral high ground, here, though some people may easily perceive this position as the morally superior one. I’m not even talking about a position. Just about an attitude to society and to social relationships. If you will, it’s a type of ethnographic observation from an insider’s perspective.

Makes sense?


“To Be Verified”: Trivia and Critical Thinking

A friend posted a link to the following list of factoids on his Facebook profile: Useless facts, Weird Information, humor. It contains such intriguing statements about biology, language, inventions, etc.

Similar lists abound, often containing the same tidbits:

Several neat pieces of trivial information. Not exactly “useless.” But gratuitous and irrelevant. The type of thing you may wish to plug in a conversation. Especially at the proverbial “cocktail party.” This is, after all, an appropriate context for attention economy. But these lists are also useful as preparation for game shows and barroom competitions. The stuff of erudition.

One of my first reflexes, when I see such lists of trivia online, is to look for ways to evaluate their accuracy. This is partly due to my training in folkloristics, as “netlore” is a prolific medium for verbal folklore (folk beliefs, rumors, urban legends, myths, and jokes). My reflex is also, I think, a common reaction among academics. After all, the detective work of critical thinking is pretty much our “bread and butter.” Sure, we can become bothersome with this. “Don’t be a bore, it’s just trivia.” But many of us may react from a fear of such “trivial” thinking preventing more careful consideration.

An obvious place to start verifying these tidbits is Snopes. In fact, they do debunk several of the statements made in those lists. For instance, the one about an alleged Donald Duck “ban” in Finland found in the list my friend shared through Facebook. Unfortunately, however, many factoids are absent from Snopes, despite that site’s extensive database.

These specific trivia lists are quite interesting. They include some statements which are easy to verify. For instance, the product of two numbers. (However, many calculators are insufficiently precise for the specific example used in those factoid lists.) The ease with which one can verify the accuracy of some statements brings an air of legitimacy to the list in which those easily verified statements are included. The apparent truth-value of those statements is such that a complete list can be perceived as being on unshakable foundations. For full effectiveness, the easily verified statements should not be common knowledge. “Did you know? Two plus two equals four.”

Other statements appear to be based on hypothesis. The plausibility of such statements may be relatively difficult to assess for anyone not familiar with research in that specific field. For instance, the statement about typical life expectancy of currently living humans compared to individual longevity. At first sight, it does seem plausible that today’s extreme longevity would only benefit extremely few individuals in the future. Yet my guess is that those who do research on aging may rebut the statement that “Only one person in two billion will live to be 116 or older.” Because such statements require special training, their effect is a weaker version of the legitimizing effect of easily verifiable statements.

Some of the most difficult statements to assess are the ones which contain quantifiers, especially those for uniqueness. There may, in fact, be “only one” fish which can blink with both eyes. And it seems possible that the English language may include only one word ending in “-mt” (or, to avoid pedantic disclaimers, “only one common word”). To verify these claims, one would need to have access to an exhaustive catalog of fish species or English words. While the dream of “the Web as encyclopedia” may hinge on such claims of exhaustivity, there is a type of “black swan effect” related to the common fallacy about lack of evidence being considered sufficient evidence of lack.

I just noticed, while writing this post, a Google Answers page which not only evaluates the accuracy of several statements found in those trivia lists but also mentions ease of verifiability as a matter of interest. Critical thinking is active in many parts of the online world.

An obvious feature of those factoid lists, found online or in dead-tree print, is the lack of context. Even when those lists are concerned with a single topic (say, snails or sleep), they provide inadequate context for the information they contain. I’m using the term “context” rather loosely as it covers both the text’s internal relationships (the “immediate context,” if you will) and the broader references to the world at large. Without going into details about philosophy of language, these approaches clearly inform my perspective.

A typical academic, especially an English-speaking one, might put the context issue this way: “citation needed.” After all, the Wikipedia approach to truth is close to current academic practice (especially in English-speaking North America) with peer-review replacing audits. Even journalists are trained to cite sources, though they rarely help others apply critical thinking to those sources. In some ways, sources are conceived as the most efficient way to assess accuracy.

My own approach isn’t that far from the citation-happy one. Like most other academics, I’ve learned the value of an appropriate citation. Where I “beg to differ” is on the perceived “weight” of a citation as support. Through an awkward quirk of academic writing, some citation practices amount to fallacious appeal to authority. I’m probably overreacting about this but I’ve heard enough academics make statements equating citations with evidence that I tend to be weary of what I perceive to be excessive referencing. In fact, some of my most link-laden posts could be perceived as attempts to poke fun at citation-happy writing styles. One may even notice my extensive use of Wikipedia links. These are sometimes meant as inside jokes (to my own sorry self). Same thing with many of my blogging tags/categories, actually. Yes, blogging can be playful.

The broad concept is that, regardless of a source’s authority, critical thinking should be applied as much as possible. No more, no less.


Well-Rounded Bloggers

While I keep saying journalist have a tough time putting journalism in perspective, it seems that some blogging journalists are able to do it.

Case in point, ZDNet Editor in Chief Larry Dignan:

Anatomy of a ‘Blogging will kill you’ story: Why I didn’t make the cut | Between the Lines | ZDNet.com

I didn’t read the original NYT piece. On purpose. As I’ve tried to establish, I sometimes run away from things “everybody has read.” Typically, in the U.S., this means something which appeared in the NYT. To the extent that, for some people, “if it’s not in the Times, it didn’t happen.” (Such an attitude is especially tricky when you’re talking about, say, parts of Africa which aren’t at war.)

This time, I’m especially glad I read Dignan’s piece instead of the NYT one because I get the gist of the “story” and Dignan provides the kind of insight I enjoy.

Basic message: blogging can be as stressful as any job yet it’s possible to have a well-balanced life as a blogger.

Simple, useful, personal, insightful, and probably more accurate than the original piece.

Oh, sure. It’s nothing new. It’s not a major revelation for most people that it’s important to think about work/life balance.

Still… As it so happens, this specific piece helped me think about my own blogging activities in a somewhat different light. No, it’s not my job (though I do wish I had a writing job). And I don’t typically stress over it. I’m just thinking about where blogging fits in my life. And that’s helpful.

Even if it means yet another blogpost about blogging.