Category Archives: voice

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.


Why I Need an iPad

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

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

Some background.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, there’s reading.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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).


Personal Devices

Still thinking about touch devices, such as the iPod touch and the rumoured “Apple Tablet.”

Thinking out loud. Rambling even more crazily than usual.

Something important about those devices is the need for a real “Personal Digital Assistant.” I put PDAs as a keyword for my previous post because I do use the iPod touch like I was using my PalmOS and even NewtonOS devices. But there’s more to it than that, especially if you think about cloud computing and speech technologies.
I mentioned speech recognition in that previous post. SR tends to be a pipedream of the computing world. Despite all the hopes put into realtime dictation, it still hasn’t taken off in a big way. One reason might be that it’s still somewhat cumbersome to use, in current incarnations. Another reason is that it’s relatively expensive as a standalone product which requires some getting used to. But I get the impression that another set of reasons has to do with the fact that it’s mostly fitting on a personal device. Partly because it needs to be trained. But also because voice itself is a personal thing.

Cloud computing also takes a new meaning with a truly personal device. It’s no surprise that there are so many offerings with some sort of cloud computing feature in the App Store. Not only do Apple’s touch devices have limited file storage space but the notion of accessing your files in the cloud go well with a personal device.
So, what’s the optimal personal device? I’d say that Apple’s touch devices are getting close to it but that there’s room for improvement.

Some perspective…

Originally, the PC was supposed to be a “personal” computer. But the distinction was mostly with mainframes. PCs may be owned by a given person, but they’re not so tied to that person, especially given the fact that they’re often used in a single context (office or home, say). A given desktop PC can be important in someone’s life, but it’s not always present like a personal device should be. What’s funny is that “personal computers” became somewhat more “personal” with the ‘Net and networking in general. Each computer had a name, etc. But those machines remained somewhat impersonal. In many cases, even when there are multiple profiles on the same machine, it’s not so safe to assume who the current user of the machine is at any given point.

On paper, the laptop could have been that “personal device” I’m thinking about. People may share a desktop computer but they usually don’t share their laptop, unless it’s mostly used like a desktop computer. The laptop being relatively easy to carry, it’s common for people to bring one back and forth between different sites: work, home, café, school… Sounds tautological, as this is what laptops are supposed to be. But the point I’m thinking about is that these are still distinct sites where some sort of desk or table is usually available. People may use laptops on their actual laps, but the form factor is still closer to a portable desktop computer than to the kind of personal device I have in mind.

Then, we can go all the way to “wearable computing.” There’s been some hype about wearable computers but it has yet to really be part of our daily lives. Partly for technical reasons but partly because it may not really be what people need.

The original PDAs (especially those on NewtonOS and PalmOS) were getting closer to what people might need, as personal devices. The term “personal digital assistant” seemed to encapsulate what was needed. But, for several reasons, PDAs have been having a hard time. Maybe there wasn’t a killer app for PDAs, outside of “vertical markets.” Maybe the stylus was the problem. Maybe the screen size and bulk of the device weren’t getting to the exact points where people needed them. I was still using a PalmOS device in mid-2008 and it felt like I was among the last PDA users.
One point was that PDAs had been replaced by “smartphones.” After a certain point, most devices running PalmOS were actually phones. RIM’s Blackberry succeeded in a certain niche (let’s use the vague term “professionals”) and is even beginning to expand out of it. And devices using other OSes have had their importance. It may not have been the revolution some readers of Pen Computing might have expected, but the smartphone has been a more successful “personal device” than the original PDAs.

It’s easy to broaden our focus from smartphones and think about cellphones in general. If the 3.3B figure can be trusted, cellphones may already be outnumbering desktop and laptop computers by 3:1. And cellphones really are personal. You bring them everywhere; you don’t need any kind of surface to use them; phone communication actually does seem to be a killer app, even after all this time; there are cellphones in just about any price range; cellphone carriers outside of Canada and the US are offering plans which are relatively reasonable; despite some variation, cellphones are rather similar from one manufacturer to the next… In short, cellphones already were personal devices, even before the smartphone category really emerged.

What did smartphones add? Basically, a few PDA/PIM features and some form of Internet access or, at least, some form of email. “Whoa! Impressive!”

Actually, some PIM features were already available on most cellphones and Internet access from a smartphone is in continuity with SMS and data on regular cellphones.

What did Apple’s touch devices add which was so compelling? Maybe not so much, apart from the multitouch interface, a few games, and integration with desktop/laptop computers. Even then, most of these changes were an evolution over the basic smartphone concept. Still, it seems to have worked as a way to open up personal devices to some new dimensions. People now use the iPhone (or some other multitouch smartphone which came out after the iPhone) as a single device to do all sorts of things. Around the World, multitouch smartphones are still much further from being ubiquitous than are cellphones in general. But we could say that these devices have brought the personal device idea to a new phase. At least, one can say that they’re much more exciting than the other personal computing devices.

But what’s next for personal devices?

Any set of buzzphrases. Cloud computing, speech recognition, social media…

These things can all come together, now. The “cloud” is mostly ready and personal devices make cloud computing more interesting because they’re “always-on,” are almost-wearable, have batteries lasting just about long enough, already serve to keep some important personal data, and are usually single-user.

Speech recognition could go well with those voice-enabled personal devices. For one thing, they already have sound input. And, by this time, people are used to seeing others “talk to themselves” as cellphones are so common. Plus, voice recognition is already understood as a kind of security feature. And, despite their popularity, these devices could use a further killer app, especially in terms of text entry and processing. Some of these devices already have voice control and it’s not so much of a stretch to imagine them having what’s needed for continuous speech recognition.

In terms of getting things onto the device, I’m also thinking about such editing features as a universal rich-text editor (à la TinyMCE), predictive text, macros, better access to calendar/contact data, ubiquitous Web history, multiple pasteboards, data detectors, Automator-like processing, etc. All sorts of things which should come from OS-level features.

“Social media” may seem like too broad a category. In many ways, those devices already take part in social networking, user-generated content, and microblogging, to name a few areas of social media. But what about a unified personal profile based on the device instead of the usual authentication method? Yes, all sorts of security issues. But aren’t people unconcerned about security in the case of social media? Twitter accounts are being hacked left and right yet Twitter doesn’t seem to suffer much. And there could be added security features on a personal device which is meant to really integrate social media. Some current personal devices already work well as a way to keep login credentials to multiple sites. The next step, there, would be to integrate all those social media services into the device itself. We maybe waiting for OpenSocial, OpenID, OAuth, Facebook Connect, Google Connect, and all sorts of APIs to bring us to an easier “social media workflow.” But a personal device could simplify the “social media workflow” even further, with just a few OS-based tweaks.

Unlike my previous, I’m not holding my breath for some specific event which will bring us the ultimate personal device. After all, this is just a new version of my ultimate handheld device blogpost. But, this time, I was focusing on what it means for a device to be “personal.” It’s even more of a drafty draft than my blogposts usually have been ever since I decided to really RERO.

So be it.


Présence féminine et culture geek (Journée Ada Lovelace) #ald09

En 2009, la journée de la femme a été hypothéquée d’une heure, dans certaines contrées qui sont passées à l’heure d’été le 8 mars. Pourtant, plus que jamais, c’est aux femmes que nous devrions accorder plus de place. Cette Journée internationale en l’honneur d’Ada Lovelace et des femmes dans les domaines technologiques est une excellente occasion pour discuter de l’importance de la présence féminine pour la pérennité sociale.

Pour un féministe mâle, le fait de parler de condition féminine peut poser certains défis. Qui suis-je, pour parler des femmes? De quel droit pourrais-je m’approprier de la parole qui devrait, selon moi, être accordée aux femmes? Mes propos ne sont-ils pas teintés de biais? C’est donc d’avantage en tant qu’observateur de ce que j’ai tendance à appeler la «culture geek» (voire la «niche geek» ou la «foule geek») que je parle de cette présence féminine.

Au risque de tomber dans le panneau du stéréotype, j’oserais dire qu’une présence accrue des femmes en milieu geek peut avoir des impacts intéressants en fonction de certains rôles impartis aux femmes dans diverses sociétés liées à la culture geek. En d’autres termes, j’aimerais célébrer le pouvoir féminin, bien plus fondamntal que la «force» masculine.

Je fais en cela référence à des notions sur les femmes et les hommes qui m’ont été révélées au cours de mes recherches sur les confréries de chasseurs, au Mali. En apparence exclusivement mâles, les confréries de chasseurs en Afrique de l’ouest accordent une place prépondérante à la féminité. Comme le dit le proverbe, «nous sommes tous dans les bras de nos mères» (bèè y’i ba bolo). Si le père, notre premier rival (i fa y’i faden folo de ye), peut nous donner la force physique, c’est la mère qui nous donne la puissance, le vrai pouvoir.

Loin de moi l’idée d’assigner aux femmes un pouvoir qui ne viendrait que de leur capacité à donner naissance. Ce n’est pas uniquement en tant que mère que la femme se doit d’être respectée. Bien au contraire, les divers rôles des femmes ont tous à être célébrés. Ce qui donne à la maternité une telle importance, d’un point de vue masculin, c’est son universalité: un homme peut ne pas avoir de sœur, d’épouse ou de fille, il peut même ne pas connaître l’identité précise de son père, il a au minimum eu un contact avec sa mère, de la conception à la naissance.

C’est souvent par référence à la maternité que les hommes conçoivent le respect le plus inconditionnel pour la femme. Et l’image maternelle ne doit pas être négligée, même si elle est souvent stéréotypée. Même si le terme «materner» a des connotations péjoratives, il fait appel à un soi adapté et sans motif spécifique. La culture geek a-t-elle besoin de soins maternels?

Une étude récente s’est penchée sur la dimension hormonale des activités des courtiers de Wall Street, surtout en ce qui a trait à la prise de risques. Selon cette étude (décrite dans une baladodiffusion de vulgarisation scientifique), il y aurait un lien entre certains taux d’hormones et un comportement fondé sur le profit à court terme. Ces hormones sont surtout présentes chez de jeunes hommes, qui constituent la majorité de ce groupe professionnel. Si les résultats de cette étude sont valables, un groupe plus diversifié de courtiers, au niveau du sexe et de l’âge, risque d’être plus prudent qu’un groupe dominé par de jeunes hommes.

Malgré d’énormes différences dans le détail, la culture geek a quelques ressemblances avec la composition de Wall Street, du moins au point de vue hormonal. Si l’appât du gain y est moins saillant que sur le plancher de la Bourse, la culture geek accorde une très large place au culte méritocratique de la compétition et à l’image de l’individu brillant et tout-puissant. La prise de risques n’est pas une caractéristique très visible de la culture geek, mais l’approche «résolution de problèmes» (“troubleshooting”) évoque la décision hâtive plutôt que la réflexion approfondie. Le rôle du dialogue équitable et respectueux, sans en être évacué, n’y est que rarement mis en valeur. La culture geek est «internationale», en ce sens qu’elle trouve sa place dans divers lieux du Globe (généralement définis avec une certaine précision en cebuees névralgiques comme la Silicon Valley). Elle est pourtant loin d’être représentative de la diversité humaine. La proportion bien trop basse de femmes liées à la culture geek est une marque importante de ce manque de diversité. Un groupe moins homogène rendrait plus prégnante la notion de coopération et, avec elle, un plus grand soucis de la dignité humaine. Après tout, le vrai humanisme est autant philogyne que philanthrope.

Un principe similaire est énoncé dans le cadre des soins médicaux. Sans être assignées à des tâches spécifiques, associées à leur sexe, la présence de certaines femmes-médecins semble améliorer certains aspects du travail médical. Il y a peut-être un stéréotype implicite dans tout ça et les femmes du secteur médical ne sont probablement pas traitées d’une bien meilleure façon que les femmes d’autres secteurs d’activité. Pourtant, au-delà du stéréotype, l’association entre féminité et relation d’aide semble se maintenir dans l’esprit des membres de certaines sociétés et peut être utilisée pour rendre la médecine plus «humaine», tant dans la diversité que dans cette notion d’empathie raisonnée, évoquée par l’humanisme.

Je ne peux m’empêcher de penser à cette remarquable expérience, il y a quelques années déjà, de participer à un colloque académique à forte présence féminine. En plus d’une proportion élevée de femmes, ce colloque sur la nourriture et la culture donnait la part belle à l’image de la mère nourricière, à l’influence fondamentale de la sphère donestique sur la vie sociale. Bien que mâle, je m’y suis senti à mon aise et je garde de ces quelques jours l’idée qu’un monde un tant soit peu féminisé pouvait avoir des effets intéressants, d’un point de vue social. Un groupe accordant un réel respect à la condition féminine peut être associé à une ambiance empreinte de «soin», une atmosphère “nurturing”.

Le milieu geek peut être très agréable, à divers niveaux, mais la notion de «soin», l’empathie, voire même l’humanisme n’en sont pas des caractéristiques très évidentes. Un monde geek accordant plus d’importance à la présence des femmes serait peut-être plus humain que ce qu’un portrait global de la culture geek semble présager.

Et n’est-ce pas ce qui s’est passé? Le ‘Net s’est partiellement féminisé au cours des dix dernières années et l’émergence du média social est intimement lié à cette transformation «démographique».

D’aucuns parlent de «démocratisation» d’Internet, usant d’un champ lexical associé au journalisme et à la notion d’État-Nation. Bien qu’il s’agisse de parler d’accès plus uniforme aux moyens technologiques, la source de ce discours se situe dans une vision spécifique de la structure social. Un relent de la Révolution Industrielle, peut-être? Le ‘Net étant construit au-delà des frontières politiques, cette vision du monde semble peu appropriée à la communication mondialisée. D’ailleurs, qu’entend-on vraiment par «démocratisation» d’Internet? La participation active de personnes diversifiées aux processus décisionnels qui créent continuellement le ‘Net? La simple juxtaposition de personnes provenant de milieux socio-économiques distincts? La possibilité pour la majorité de la planète d’utiliser certains outils dans le but d’obtenir ces avantages auxquels elle a droit, par prérogative statistique? Si c’est le cas, il en reviendrait aux femmes, majoritaires sur le Globe, de décider du sort du ‘Net. Pourtant, ce sont surtout des hommes qui dominent le ‘Net. Le contrôle exercé par les hommes semble indirect mais il n’en est pas moins réel.

Cet état des choses a tendance à changer. Bien qu’elles ne soient toujours pas dominantes, les femmes sont de plus en plus présentes, en-ligne. Certaines recherches statistiques semblent d’ailleurs leur assigner la majorité dans certaines sphères d’activité en-ligne. Mais mon approche est holistique et qualitative, plutôt que statistique et déterministe. C’est plutôt au sujet des rôles joués par les femmes que je pense. Si certains de ces rôles semblent sortir en ligne direct du stéréotype d’inégalité sexuelle du milieu du XXè siècle, c’est aussi en reconnaissant l’emprise du passé que nous pouvons comprendre certaines dimensions de notre présent. Les choses ont changé, soit. La conscience de ce changement informe certains de nos actes. Peu d’entre nous ont complètement mis de côté cette notion que notre «passé à tous» était patriarcal et misogyne. Et cette notion conserve sa signifiance dans nos gestes quotidiens puisque nous nous comparons à un modèle précis, lié à la domination et à la lutte des classes.

Au risque, encore une fois, de faire appel à des stéréotypes, j’aimerais parler d’une tendance que je trouve fascinante, dans le comportement de certaines femmes au sein du média social. Les blogueuses, par exemple, ont souvent réussi à bâtir des communautés de lectrices fidèles, des petits groupes d’amies qui partagent leurs vies en public. Au lieu de favoriser le plus grand nombre de visites, plusieurs femmes ont fondé leurs activités sur la blogosphère sur des groupes relativement restreints mais très actifs. D’ailleurs, certains blogues de femmes sont l’objet de longues discussions continues, liant les billets les uns aux autres et, même, dépassant le cadre du blogue.

À ce sujet, je fonde certaines de mes idées sur quelques études du phénomène de blogue, parues il y a déjà plusieurs années (et qu’il me serait difficile de localiser en ce moment) et sur certaines observations au sein de certaines «scènes geeks» comme Yulblog. Lors de certains événements mettant en contacts de nombreuses blogueuses, certaines d’entre elles semblaient préférer demeurer en groupe restreint pour une part importante de la durée de l’événement que de multiplier les nouveaux contacts. Il ne s’agit pas ici d’une restriction, certaines femmes sont mieux à même de provoquer l’«effet du papillon social» que la plupart des hommes. Mais il y a une force tranquille dans ces petits regroupements de femmes, qui fondent leur participation à la blogosphère sur des contacts directs et forts plutôt que sur la «pêche au filet». C’est souvent par de très petits groupes très soudés que les changements sociaux se produisent et, des “quilting bees” aux blogues de groupes de femmes, il y a une puissance ignorée.

Il serait probablement abusif de dire que c’est la présence féminine qui a provoqué l’éclosion du média social au cours des dix dernières années. Mais la présence des femmes est liée au fait que le ‘Net ait pu dépasser la «niche geek». Le domaine de ce que certains appellent le «Web 2.0» (ou la sixième culture d’Internet) n’est peut-être pas plus démocratique que le ‘Net du début des années 1990. Mais il est clairement moins exclusif et plus accueillant.

Comme ma tendre moitié l’a lu sur la devanture d’une taverne: «Bienvenue aux dames!»

Les billets publiés en l’honneur de la Journée Ada Lovelace devaient, semble-t-il, se pencher sur des femmes spécifiques, œuvrant dans des domaines technologiques. J’ai préféré «réfléchir à plume haute» au sujet de quelques éléments qui me trottaient dans la tête. Il serait toutefois de bon ton pour moi de mentionner des noms et de ne pas consigner ce billet à une observation purement macroscopique et impersonnelle. Étant peu porté sur l’individualisme, je préfère citer plusieurs femmes, plutôt que de me concentrer sur une d’entre elles. D’autant plus que la femme à laquelle je pense avec le plus d’intensité dit désirer garder une certaine discrétion et, même si elle blogue depuis bien plus longtemps que moi et qu’elle sait très bien se débrouiller avec les outils en question, elle prétend ne pas être associée à la technologie.

J’ai donc décidé de procéder à une simple énumération (alphabétique, j’aime pas les rangs) de quelques femmes dont j’apprécie le travail et qui ont une présence Internet facilement identifiable. Certaines d’entre elles sont très proches de moi. D’autres planent au-dessus de milieux auxquels je suis lié. D’autres encore sont des présences discrètes ou fortes dans un quelconque domaine que j’associe à la culture geek et/ou au média social. Évidemment, j’en oublie des tonnes. Mais c’est un début. Continuons le combat! 😉


Influence and Butterflies

Seems like “influence” is a key theme in social media, these days. An example among several others:

Influenceur, autorité, passeur de culture ou l’un de ces singes exubérants | Mario tout de go.

In that post, Mario Asselin brings together a number of notions which are at the centre of current discussions about social media. The core notion seems to be that “influence” replaces “authority” as a quality or skill some people have, more than others. Some people are “influencers” and, as such, they have a specific power over others. Such a notion seems to be widely held in social media and numerous services exist which are based on the notion that “influence” can be measured.
I don’t disagree. There’s something important, online, which can be called “influence” and which can be measured. To a large extent, it’s related to a large number of other concepts such as fame and readership, popularity and network centrality. There are significant differences between all of those concepts but they’re still related. They still depict “social power” which isn’t coercive but is the basis of an obvious stratification.
In some contexts, this is what people mean by “social capital.” I originally thought people meant something closer to Bourdieu but a fellow social scientist made me realise that people are probably using Putnam’s concept instead. I recently learnt that George W. Bush himself used “political capital” in a sense which is fairly similar to what most people seem to mean by “social capital.” Even in that context, “capital” is more specific than “influence.” But the core notion is the same.
To put it bluntly:
Some people are more “important” than others.
Social marketers are especially interested in such a notion. Marketing as a whole is about influence. Social marketing, because it allows for social groups to be relatively amorphous, opposes influence to authority. But influence maintains a connection with “top-down” approaches to marketing.
My own point would be that there’s another kind of influence which is difficult to pinpoint but which is highly significant in social networks: the social butterfly effect.
Yep, I’m still at it after more than three years. It’s even more relevant now than it was then. And I’m now able to describe it more clearly and define it more precisely.
The social butterfly effect is a social network analogue to the Edward Lorenz’s well-known “butterfly effect. ” As any analogy, this connection is partial but telling. Like Lorenz’s phrase, “social butterfly effect” is more meaningful than precise. One thing which makes the phrase more important for me is the connection with the notion of a “social butterfly,” which is both a characteristic I have been said to have and a concept I deem important in social science.
I define social butterflies as people who connect to diverse network clusters. Community enthusiast Christine Prefontaine defined social butterflies within (clustered) networks, but I think it’s useful to separate out network clusters. A social butterfly’s network is rather sparse as, on the whole, a small number of people in it have direct connections with one another. But given the topography of most social groups, there likely are clusters within that network. The social butterfly connects these clusters. When the social butterfly is the only node which can connect these clusters directly, her/his “influence” can be as strong as that of a central node in one of these clusters since s/he may be able to bring some new element from one cluster to another.
I like the notion of “repercussion” because it has an auditory sense and it resonates with all sorts of notions I think important without being too buzzwordy. For instance, as expressions like “ripple effect” and “domino effect” are frequently used, they sound like clichés. Obviously, so does “butterfly effect” but I like puns too much to abandon it. From a social perspective, the behaviour of a social butterfly has important “repercussions” in diverse social groups.
Since I define myself as a social butterfly, this all sounds self-serving. And I do pride myself in being a “connector.” Not only in generational terms (I dislike some generational metaphors). But in social terms. I’m rarely, if ever, central to any group. But I’m also especially good at serving as a contact between people from different groups.
Yay, me! 🙂
My thinking about the social butterfly effect isn’t an attempt to put myself on some kind of pedestal. Social butterflies typically don’t have much “power” or “prestige.” Our status is fluid/precarious. I enjoy being a social butterfly but I don’t think we’re better or even more important than anybody else. But I do think that social marketers and other people concerned with “influence” should take us into account.
I say all of this as a social scientist. Some parts of my description are personalized but I’m thinking about a broad stance “from society’s perspective.” In diverse contexts, including this blog, I have been using “sociocentric” in at least three distinct senses: class-based ethnocentrism, a special form of “altrocentrism,” and this “society-centred perspective.” These meanings are distinct enough that they imply homonyms. Social network analysis is typically “egocentric” (“ego-centred”) in that each individual is the centre of her/his own network. This “egocentricity” is both a characteristic of social networks in opposition to other social groups and a methodological issue. It specifically doesn’t imply egotism but it does imply a move away from pre-established social categories. In this sense, social network analysis isn’t “society-centred” and it’s one reason I put so much emphasis on social networks.
In the context of discussions of influence, however, there is a “society-centredness” which needs to be taken into account. The type of “influence” social marketers and others are so interested in relies on defined “spaces.” In some ways, if “so-and-so is influential,” s/he has influence within a specific space, sphere, or context, the boundaries of which may be difficult to define. For marketers, this can bring about the notion of a “market,” including in its regional and demographic senses. This seems to be the main reason for the importance of clusters but it also sounds like a way to recuperate older marketing concepts which seem outdated online.
A related point is the “vertical” dimension of this notion of “influence.” Whether or not it can be measured accurately, it implies some sort of scale. Some people are at the top of the scale, they’re influencers. Those at the bottom are the masses, since we take for granted that pyramids are the main models for social structure. To those of us who favour egalitarianism, there’s something unpalatable about this.
And I would say that online contacts tend toward some form of egalitarianism. To go back to one of my favourite buzzphrases, the notion of attention relates to reciprocity:

It’s an attention economy: you need to pay attention to get attention.

This is one thing journalism tends to “forget.” Relationships between journalists and “people” are asymmetrical. Before writing this post, I read Brian Storm’s commencement speech for the Mizzou J-School. While it does contain some interesting tidbits about the future of journalism, it positions journalists (in this case, recent graduates from an allegedly prestigious school of journalism) away from the masses. To oversimplify, journalists are constructed as those who capture people’s attention by the quality of their work, not by any two-way relationship. Though they rarely discuss this, journalists, especially those in mainstream media, typically perceive themselves as influencers.

Attention often has a temporal dimension which relates to journalism’s obsession with time. Journalists work in time-sensitive contexts, news are timely, audiences spend time with journalistic contents, and journalists fight for this audience time as a scarce resource, especially in connection to radio and television. Much of this likely has to do with the fact that journalism is intimately tied to advertising.

As I write this post, I hear on a radio talk show a short discussion about media coverage of Africa. The topic wakes up the africanist in me. The time devoted to Africa in almost any media outside of Africa is not only very limited but spent on very specific issues having to do with Africa. In mainstream media, Africa only “matters” when major problems occur. Even though most parts of Africa are peaceful and there many fabulously interesting things occuring throughout the continent, Africa is the “forgotten” continent.

A connection I perceive is that, regardless of any other factor, Africans are taken to not be “influential.” What makes this notion especially strange to an africanist is that influence tends to be a very important matter throughout the continent. Most Africans I know or have heard about have displayed a very nuanced and acute sense of “influence” to the extent that “power” often seems less relevant when working in Africa than different elements of influence. I know full well that, to outsiders to African studies, these claims may sound far-fetched. But there’s a lot to be said about the importance of social networks in Africa and this could help refine a number of notions that I have tagged in this post.


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


Handhelds for the Rest of Us?

Ok, it probably shouldn’t become part of my habits but this is another repost of a blog comment motivated by the OLPC XO.

This time, it’s a reply to Niti Bhan’s enthusiastic blogpost about the eeePC: Perspective 2.0: The little eeePC that could has become the real “iPod” of personal computing

This time, I’m heavily editing my comments. So it’s less of a repost than a new blogpost. In some ways, it’s partly a follow-up to my “Ultimate Handheld Device” post (which ended up focusing on spatial positioning).

Given the OLPC context, the angle here is, hopefully, a culturally aware version of “a handheld device for the rest of us.”

Here goes…

I think there’s room in the World for a device category more similar to handhelds than to subnotebooks. Let’s call it “handhelds for the rest of us” (HftRoU). Something between a cellphone, a portable gaming console, a portable media player, and a personal digital assistant. Handheld devices exist which cover most of these features/applications, but I’m mostly using this categorization to think about the future of handhelds in a globalised World.

The “new” device category could serve as the inspiration for a follow-up to the OLPC project. One thing about which I keep thinking, in relation to the “OLPC” project, is that the ‘L’ part was too restrictive. Sure, laptops can be great tools for students, especially if these students are used to (or need to be trained in) working with and typing long-form text. But I don’t think that laptops represent the most “disruptive technology” around. If we think about their global penetration and widespread impact, cellphones are much closer to the leapfrog effect about which we all have been writing.

So, why not just talk about a cellphone or smartphone? Well, I’m trying to think both more broadly and more specifically. Cellphones are already helping people empower themselves. The next step might to add selected features which bring them closer to the OLPC dream. Also, since cellphones are widely distributed already, I think it’s important to think about devices which may complement cellphones. I have some ideas about non-handheld tools which could make cellphones even more relevant in people’s lives. But they will have to wait for another blogpost.

So, to put it simply, “handhelds for the rest of us” (HftRoU) are somewhere between the OLPC XO-1 and Apple’s original iPhone, in terms of features. In terms of prices, I dream that it could be closer to that of basic cellphones which are in the hands of so many people across the globe. I don’t know what that price may be but I heard things which sounded like a third of the price the OLPC originally had in mind (so, a sixth of the current price). Sure, it may take a while before such a low cost can be reached. But I actually don’t think we’re in a hurry.

I guess I’m just thinking of the electronics (and global) version of the Ford T. With more solidarity in mind. And cultural awareness.

Google’s Open Handset Alliance (OHA) may produce something more appropriate to “global contexts” than Apple’s iPhone. In comparison with Apple’s iPhone, devices developed by the OHA could be better adapted to the cultural, climatic, and economic conditions of those people who don’t have easy access to the kind of computers “we” take for granted. At the very least, the OHA has good representation on at least three continents and, like the old OLPC project, the OHA is officially dedicated to openness.

I actually care fairly little about which teams will develop devices in this category. In fact, I hope that new manufacturers will spring up in some local communities and that major manufacturers will pay attention.

I don’t care about who does it, I’m mostly interested in what the devices will make possible. Learning, broadly speaking. Communicating, in different ways. Empowering themselves, generally.

One thing I have in mind, and which deviates from the OLPC mission, is that there should be appropriate handheld devices for all age-ranges. I do understand the focus on 6-12 year-olds the old OLPC had. But I don’t think it’s very productive to only sell devices to that age-range. Especially not in those parts of the world (i.e., almost anywhere) where generation gaps don’t imply that children are isolated from adults. In fact, as an anthropologist, I react rather strongly to the thought that children should be the exclusive target of a project meant to empower people. But I digress, as always.

I don’t tend to be a feature-freak but I have been thinking about the main features the prototypical device in this category should have. It’s not a rigid set of guidelines. It’s just a way to think out loud about technology’s integration in human life.

The OS and GUI, which seem like major advantages of the eeePC, could certainly be of the mobile/handheld type instead of the desktop/laptop type. The usual suspects: Symbian, NewtonOS, Android, Zune, PalmOS, Cocoa Touch, embedded Linux, Playstation Portable, WindowsCE, and Nintendo DS. At a certain level of abstraction, there are so many commonalities between all of these that it doesn’t seem very efficient to invent a completely new GUI/OS “paradigm,” like OLPC’s Sugar was apparently trying to do.

The HftRoU require some form of networking or wireless connectivity feature. WiFi (802.11*), GSM, UMTS, WiMAX, Bluetooth… Doesn’t need to be extremely fast, but it should be flexible and it absolutely cannot be cost-prohibitive. IP might make much more sense than, say, SMS/MMS, but a lot can be done with any kind of data transmission between devices. XO-style mesh networking could be a very interesting option. As VoIP has proven, voice can efficiently be transmitted as data so “voice networks” aren’t necessary.

My sense is that a multitouch interface with an accelerometer would be extremely effective. Yes, I’m thinking of Apple’s Touch devices and MacBooks. As well as about the Microsoft Surface, and Jeff Han’s Perceptive Pixel. One thing all of these have shown is how “intuitive” it can be to interact with a machine using gestures. Haptic feedback could also be useful but I’m not convinced it’s “there yet.”

I’m really not sure a keyboard is very important. In fact, I think that keyboard-focused laptops and tablets are the wrong basis for thinking about “handhelds for the rest of us.” Bear in mind that I’m not thinking about devices for would-be office workers or even programmers. I’m thinking about the broadest user base you can imagine. “The Rest of Us” in the sense of, those not already using computers very directly. And that user base isn’t that invested in (or committed to) touch-typing. Even people who are very literate don’t tend to be extremely efficient typists. If we think about global literacy rates, typing might be one thing which needs to be leapfrogged. After all, a cellphone keypad can be quite effective in some hands and there are several other ways to input text, especially if typing isn’t too ingrained in you. Furthermore, keyboards aren’t that convenient in multilingual contexts (i.e., in most parts of the world). I say: avoid the keyboard altogether, make it available as an option, or use a virtual one. People will complain. But it’s a necessary step.

If the device is to be used for voice communication, some audio support is absolutely required. Even if voice communication isn’t part of it (and I’m not completely convinced it’s the one required feature), audio is very useful, IMHO (I’m an aural guy). In some parts of the world, speakers are much favoured over headphones or headsets. But I personally wish that at least some HftRoU could have external audio inputs/outputs. Maybe through USB or an iPod-style connector.

A voice interface would be fabulous, but there still seem to be technical issues with both speech recognition and speech synthesis. I used to work in that field and I keep dreaming, like Bill Gates and others do, that speech will finally take the world by storm. But maybe the time still hasn’t come.

It’s hard to tell what size the screen should be. There probably needs to be a range of devices with varying screen sizes. Apple’s Touch devices prove that you don’t need a very large screen to have an immersive experience. Maybe some HftRoU screens should in fact be larger than that of an iPhone or iPod touch. Especially if people are to read or write long-form text on them. Maybe the eeePC had it right. Especially if the devices’ form factor is more like a big handheld than like a small subnotebook (i.e., slimmer than an eeePC). One reason form factor matters, in my mind, is that it could make the devices “disappear.” That, and the difference between having a device on you (in your pocket) and carrying a bag with a device in it. Form factor was a big issue with my Newton MessagePad 130. As the OLPC XO showed, cost and power consumption are also important issues regarding screen size. I’d vote for a range of screens between 3.5 inch (iPhone) and 8.9 inch (eeePC 900) with a rather high resolution. A multitouch version of the XO’s screen could be a major contribution.

In terms of both audio and screen features, some consideration should be given to adaptive technologies. Most of us take for granted that “almost anyone” can hear and see. We usually don’t perceive major issues in the fact that “personal computing” typically focuses on visual and auditory stimuli. But if these devices truly are “for the rest of us,” they could help empower visually- or hearing-impaired individuals, who are often marginalized. This is especially relevant in the logic of humanitarianism.

HftRoU needs a much autonomy from a power source as possible. Both in terms of the number of hours devices can be operated without needing to be connected to a power source and in terms of flexibility in power sources. Power management is a major technological issue, with portable, handheld, and mobile devices. Engineers are hard at work, trying to find as many solutions to this issue as they can. This was, obviously, a major area of research for the OLPC. But I’m not even sure the solutions they have found are the only relevant ones for what I imagine HftRoU to be.

GPS could have interesting uses, but doesn’t seem very cost-effective. Other “wireless positioning systems” (à la Skyhook) might reprsent a more rational option. Still, I think positioning systems are one of the next big things. Not only for navigation or for location-based targeting. But for a set of “unintended uses” which are the hallmark of truly disruptive technology. I still remember an article (probably in the venerable Wired magazine) about the use of GPS/GIS for research into climate change. Such “unintended uses” are, in my mind, much closer to the constructionist ideal than the OLPC XO’s unified design can ever get.

Though a camera seems to be a given in any portable or mobile device (even the OLPC XO has one), I’m not yet that clear on how important it really is. Sure, people like taking pictures or filming things. Yes, pictures taken through cellphones have had a lasting impact on social and cultural events. But I still get the feeling that the main reason cameras are included on so many devices is for impulse buying, not as a feature to be used so frequently by all users. Also, standalone cameras probably have a rather high level of penetration already and it might be best not to duplicate this type of feature. But, of course, a camera could easily be a differentiating factor between two devices in the same category. I don’t think that cameras should be absent from HftRoU. I just think it’s possible to have “killer apps” without cameras. Again, I’m biased.

Apart from networking/connectivity uses, Bluetooth seems like a luxury. Sure, it can be neat. But I don’t feel it adds that much functionality to HftRoU. Yet again, I could be proven wrong. Especially if networking and other inter-device communication are combined. At some abstract level, there isn’t that much difference between exchanging data across a network and controlling a device with another device.

Yes, I do realize I pretty much described an iPod touch (or an iPhone without camera, Bluetooth, or cellphone fees). I’ve been lusting over an iPod touch since September and it does colour my approach. I sincerely think the iPod touch could serve as an inspiration for a new device type. But, again, I care very little about which company makes that device. I don’t even care about how open the operating system is.

As long as our minds are open.


Touch Thoughts: Apple’s Handheld Strategy

I’m still on the RDF.
Apple‘s March 6, 2008 event was about enterprise and development support for its iPhone and iPod touch lines of handheld devices. Lots to think about.

(For convenience’s sake, I’ll lump together the iPod touch and the iPhone under the name “Touch,” which seems consistent with Apple’s “Cocoa Touch.”)

Been reading a fair bit about this event. Interesting reactions across the board.

My own thoughts on the whole thing.
I appreciate the fact that Phil Schiller began the “enterprise” section of the event with comments about a university. Though universities need not be run like profit-hungry corporations, linking Apple’s long-standing educational focus with its newly invigorated enterprise focus makes sense. And I had a brief drift-off moment as I was thinking about Touch products in educational contexts.

I’m surprised at how enthusiastic I get about the enterprise features. Suddenly, I can see Microsoft’s Exchange make sense.

I get the clear impression that even more things will come into place at the end of June than has been said by Apple. Possibly new Touch models or lines. Probably the famous 3G iPhone. Apple-released apps. Renewed emphasis on server technology (XServe, Mac OS X Server, XSan…). New home WiFi products (AirPort, Time Capsule, Apple TV…). New partnerships. Cool VC-funded startups. New features on the less aptly named “iTunes” store.

Though it was obvious already, the accelerometer is an important feature. It seems especially well-adapted to games and casual gamers like myself are likely to enjoy games this feature makes possible. It can also lead to very interesting applications. In fact, the “Etch and Sketch” demo was rather convincing as a display of some core Touch features. These are exactly the features which help sell products.
Actually, I enjoyed the “wow factor” of the event’s demos. I’m convinced that it will energize developers and administrators, whether or not they plan on using Touch products. Some components of Apple’s Touch strategy are exciting enough that the more problematic aspects of this strategy may matter a bit less. Those of us dreaming about Android, OpenMoko, or even a revived NewtonOS can still find things to get inspired by in Apple’s roadmap.

What’s to come, apart from what was announced? No idea. But I do daydream about all of this.
I’m especially interested in the idea of Apple Touch as “mainstream, WiFi, mobile platform.” There’s a lot of potential for Apple-designed, WiFi-enabled handhelds. Whether or not they include a cellphone.
At this point, Apple only makes five models of Touch products: three iPod touches and two iPhones. Flash memory is the main differentiating factor within a line. It makes it relatively easy to decide which device to get but some product diversity could be interesting. While some people expect/hope that Apple will release radically new form factors for Touch devices (e.g., a tablet subnotebook), it’s quite likely that other features will help distinguish Apple’s Touch hardware.
Among features I’d like to get through software, add-ons, or included in a Touch product? Number of things, some alluded to in the “categories” for this post. Some of these I had already posted.

  • Quality audio recording (to make it the ideal fieldwork audio tool).
  • eBook support (to compete with Amazon’s Kindle).
  • Voice support (including continuous dictation, voice interface…).
  • Enhanced support for podcasting (interacting with podcasts, sending audio/video responses…)
  • Video conferencing (been thinking about this for a while).
  • GPS (location will be big).
  • Mesh networking (a neat feature of OLPC’s XO).
  • Mobile WiMAX (unlikely, but it could be neat).
  • Battery pack (especially for long trips in remote regions).
  • Add-on flash memory (unlikely, but it could be useful, especially for backup).
  • Offline storage of online content (likely, but worth noting).
  • Inexpensive model (especially for “emerging markets”).
  • Access to 3G data networks without cellular “voice plan” (unlikely, but worth a shot).
  • Alternative input methods (MessagEase, Graffiti, adaptive keyboard, speech recognition…).
  • Use as Mac OS X “host” (kind of like a user partition).
  • Bluetooth/WiFi data transfer (no need for cables and docks).
  • MacBook Touch (unlikely, especially with MacBook Air, but it could be fun).
  • Automatic cell to VoIP-over-WiFi switching (saving cell minutes).

Of course, there are many obvious ones which will likely be implemented in software. I’m already impressed by the Omni Group’s pledge to develop a Touch version of their flagship GTD app.


Free As In Beer: The Case for No-Cost Software

To summarize the situation:

  1. Most of the software for which I paid a fee, I don’t really use.
  2. Most of the software I really use, I haven’t paid a dime for.
  3. I really like no-cost software.
  4. You might want to call me “cheap” but, if you’re developing “consumer software,” you may need to pay attention to the way people like me think about software.

No, I’m not talking about piracy. Piracy is wrong on a very practical level (not to mention legal and moral issues). Piracy and anti-piracy protection are in a dynamic that I don’t particularly enjoy. In some ways, forms of piracy are “ruining it for everyone.” So this isn’t about pirated software.

I’m not talking about “Free/Libre/Open Source Software” (FLOSS) either. I tend to relate to some of the views held by advocates of “Free as in Speech” or “Open” developments but I’ve had issues with FLOSS projects, in the past. I will gladly support FLOSS in my own ways but, to be honest, I ended up losing interest in some of the most promising projects out there. Not saying they’re not worth it. After all, I do rely on many of those projects But in talking about “no-cost software,” I’m not talking about Free, Libre, or Open Source development. At least, not directly.

Basically, I was thinking about the complex equation which, for any computer user, determines the cash value of a software application. Most of the time, this equation is somehow skewed. And I end up frustrated when I pay for software and almost giddy when I find good no-cost software.

An old but representative example of my cost-software frustration: QuickTime Pro. I paid for it a number of years ago, in preparation for a fieldwork trip. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do, especially given the fact that I was going to manipulate media files. When QuickTime was updated, my license stopped working. I was basically never able to use the QuickTime Pro features. And while it’s not a huge amount of money, the frustration of having paid for something I really didn’t need left me surprisingly bitter. It was a bad decision at that time so I’m now less likely to buy software unless I really need it and I really know how I will use it.

There’s an interesting exception to my frustration with cost-software: OmniOutliner (OO). I paid for it and have used it extensively for years. When I was “forced” to switch to Windows XP, OO was possibly the piece of software I missed the most from Mac OS X. And as soon as I was able to come back to the Mac, it’s one of the first applications I installed. But, and this is probably an important indicator, I don’t really use it anymore. Not because it lacks features I found elsewhere. But because I’ve had to adapt my workflow to OO-less conditions. I still wish there were an excellent cross-platform outliner for my needs. And, no, Microsoft OneNote isn’t it.

Now, I may not be a typical user. If the term weren’t so self-aggrandizing, I’d probably call myself a “Power User.” And, as I keep saying, I am not a coder. Therefore, I’m neither the prototypical “end user” nor the stereotypical “code monkey.” I’m just someone spending inordinate amounts of time in front of computers.

One dimension of my computer behavior which probably does put me in a special niche is that I tend to like trying out new things. Even more specifically, I tend to get overly enthusiastic about computer technology to then become disillusioned by said technology. Call me a “dreamer,” if you will. Call me “naïve.” Actually, “you can call me anything you want.” Just don’t call me to sell me things. 😉

Speaking of pressure sales. In a way, if I had truckloads of money, I might be a good target for software sales. But I’d be the most demanding user ever. I’d require things to work exactly like I expect them to work. I’d be exactly what I never am in real life: a dictator.

So I’m better off as a user of no-cost software.

I still end up making feature requests, on occasion. Especially with Open Source and other open development projects. Some developers might think I’m just complaining as I’m not contributing to the code base or offering solutions to a specific usage problem. Eh.

Going back to no-cost software. The advantage isn’t really that we, users, spend less money on the software distribution itself. It’s that we don’t really need to select the perfect software solution. We can just make do with what we have. Which is a huge “value-add proposition” in terms of computer technology, as counter-intuitive as this may sound to some people.

To break down a few no-cost options.

  • Software that came with your computer. With an Eee PC, iPhone, XO, or Mac, it’s actually an important part of the complete computing experience. Sure, there are always ways to expand the software offering. But the included software may become a big part of the deal. After all, the possibilities are already endless. Especially if you have ubiquitous Internet access.
  • Software which comes through a volume license agreement. This often works for Microsoft software, at least at large educational institutions. Even if you don’t like it so much, you end up using Microsoft Office because you have it on your computer for free and it does most of the things you want to do.
  • Software coming with a plan or paid service. Including software given by ISPs. These tend not to be “worth it.” Yet the principle (or “business model,” depending on which end of the deal you’re on) isn’t so silly. You already pay for a plan of some kind, you might as well get everything you need from that plan. Nobody (not even AT&T) has done it yet in such a way that it would be to everyone’s advantage. But it’s worth a thought.
  • “Webware” and other online applications. Call it “cloud computing” if you will (it was a buzzphrase, a few days ago). And it changes a lot of things. Not only does it simplify things like backup and migration, but it often makes for a seamless computer experience. When it works really well, the browser effectively disappears and you just work in a comfortable environment where everything you need (content, tools) is “just there.” This category is growing rather rapidly at this point but many tech enthusiasts were predicting its success a number of years ago. Typical forecasting, I guess.
  • Light/demo versions. These are actually less common than they once were, especially in terms of feature differentiation. Sure, you may still play the first few levels of a game in demo version and some “express” or “lite” versions of software are still distributed for free as teaser versions of more complete software. But, like the shareware model, demo and light software may seem to have become much less prominent a part of the typical computer user’s life than just a few years ago.
  • Software coming from online services. I’m mostly thinking about Skype but it’s a software category which would include any program with a desktop component (a “download”) and an online component, typically involving some kind of individual account (free or paid). Part subscription model, part “Webware companion.” Most of Google’s software would qualify (Sketchup, Google Earth…). If the associated “retail software” were free, I wouldn’t hesitate to put WoW in this category.
  • Actual “freeware.” Much freeware could be included in other categories but there’s still an idea of a “freebie,” in software terms. Sometimes, said freeware is distributed in view of getting people’s attention. Sometimes the freeware is just the result of a developer “scratching her/his own itch.” Sometimes it comes from lapsed shareware or even lapsed commercial software. Sometimes it’s “donationware” disguised as freeware. But, if only because there’s a “freeware” category in most software catalogs, this type of no-cost software needs to be mentioned.
  • “Free/Libre/Open Source Software.” Sure, I said earlier this was not what I was really talking about. But that was then and this is now. 😉 Besides, some of the most useful pieces of software I use do come from Free Software or Open Source. Mozilla Firefox is probably the best example. But there are many other worthy programs out there, including BibDesk, TeXShop, and FreeCiv. Though, to be honest, Firefox and Flock are probably the ones I use the most.
  • Pirated software (aka “warez”). While software piracy can technically let some users avoid the cost of purchasing a piece of software, the concept is directly tied with commercial software licenses. (It’s probably not piracy if the software distribution is meant to be open.) Sure, pirates “subvert” the licensing system for commercial software. But the software category isn’t “no-cost.” To me, there’s even a kind of “transaction cost” involved in the piracy. So even if the legal and ethical issues weren’t enough to exclude pirated software from my list of no-cost software options, the very practicalities of piracy put pirated software in the costly column, not in the “no-cost” one.

With all but the last category, I end up with most (but not all) of the software solutions I need. In fact, there are ways in which I’m better served now with no-cost software than I have ever been with paid software. I should probably make a list of these, at some point, but I don’t feel like it.

I mostly felt like assessing my needs, as a computer user. And though there always are many things I wish I could do but currently can’t, I must admit that I don’t really see the need to pay for much software.

Still… What I feel I need, here, is the “ultimate device.” It could be handheld. But I’m mostly thinking about a way to get ideas into a computer-friendly format. A broad set of issues about a very basic thing.

The spark for this blog entry was a reflection about dictation software. Not only have I been interested in speech technology for quite a while but I still bet that speech (recognition/dictation and “text-to-speech”) can become the killer app. I just think that speech hasn’t “come true.” It’s there, some people use it, the societal acceptance for it is likely (given cellphone penetration most anywhere). But its moment hasn’t yet come.

No-cost “text-to-speech” (TTS) software solutions do exist but are rather impractical. In the mid-1990s, I spent fifteen months doing speech analysis for a TTS research project in Switzerland. One of the best periods in my life. Yet, my enthusiasm for current TTS systems has been dampened. I wish I could be passionate about TTS and other speech technology again. Maybe the reason I’m notis that we don’t have a “voice desktop,” yet. But, for this voice desktop (voicetop?) to happen, we need high quality, continuous speech recognition. IOW, we need a “personal dictation device.” So, my latest 2008 prediction: we will get a voice device (smartphone?) which adapts to our voices and does very efficient and very accurate transcription of our speech. (A correlated prediction: people will complain about speech technology for a while before getting used to the continuous stream of public soliloquy.)

Dictation software is typically quite costly and complicated. Most users don’t see a need for dictation software so they don’t see a need for speech technology in computing. Though I keep thinking that speech could improve my computing life, I’ve never purchased a speech processing package. Like OCR (which is also dominated by Nuance, these days) it seems to be the kind of thing which could be useful to everyone but ends up being limited to “vertical markets.” (As it so happens, I did end up being an OCR program at some point and kept hoping my life would improve as the result of being able to transform hardcopies into searchable files. But I almost never used OCR (so my frustration with cost-software continues).)

Ah, well…


Voice and Empathy

Full disclosure. I do surveys. On the phone. For a marketing research firm.

No, no! Not a telemarketing firm! A research firm which uses survey results to improve the quality of the service offered by a client. Huge difference.

No, you most likely have not hung up on me. Very few people have done so and the readership of this blog is not such that it would be even remotely likely that you, dear reader, could be one of those few respondents who did hang up on me.

Why do I do it? Well, yes, it’s a job. A summer job, to be precise. But I could be doing (and have been doing) any number of other jobs. Yet, as an ethnographer, I felt compelled to give surveys a try. And I’m glad I did.

I actually did phone surveys as a summer job in 2005. Did it for the very reason that, while teaching ethnographic topics, I had been comparing ethnography with surveys even though I had never done surveys myself. Doing surveys on the phone seemed like a great way to learn more about those methods while getting an income at the same time. It worked like a charm.

Seems like I’m not the only one to think along those lines as I know at least two other anthropologists who are working at phone survey centres.

How do I like it? It’s really not so bad. The call centre where I work has a relatively nice atmosphere. More specifically, the supervisor and monitor provide exactly the type of supervision we need. Lots of positive feedback. Negative feedback is always given in a thoughtful manner. Both are very understanding and trusting with people who are serious at what they do. And there’s actually a notion of teamwork instead of competition.

I also learn a lot about myself. Not completely new things. Validation of what I thought of myself.

One is voice. My voice happens to be a valuable tool. Oh, I did notice this before. When I was in high school, some people kept telling me that I should become a news anchor or radio announcer because of my voice. The fact that I still had more of a European accent probably counted but it also had to do with actual voice quality. People thought I had a radio voice.

As shallow as it sounds, I do like my speaking voice. Not that it’s “the best voice ever” or that people stop me to tell me about my voice. But I do like the way I sound, overall. My voice used to be more pleasing than it is now. My GERD has had some detrimental effects on my voice. Especially my singing voice. But my voice is still pleasing enough that I receive positive feedback about it, on occasion.

The thing about my voice isn’t that it’s so good. But it’s a versatile voice and I do use it as a tool. It seems that I can adapt it to different situations, which is very useful.

Given my interests in acoustic anthropology, it should be no surprise that I think about voice fairly frequently. After all, I’m an audio guy. Like Steven Feld in Music Grooves, I wonder about the voice work of those women working for erotic phone lines. It would, in fact, be fascinating to do an ethnographic study of those workers, with a focus on voice work.

As anyone can guess, voice can also be quite important in teaching. I’m as much of an auditory learner as one can be. So, while teaching, I tend to use my voice for effect instead of other tools. It seems to work rather well with some people but I need to enhance my other teaching methods.

The other main thing doing phone surveys has taught me about myself is how empathetic I can get. Again, I knew this beforehand. I’m the kind of person who has a hard time watching a comedy about someone getting in all sorts of bad situations (“cringe” movies and such). I literally feel for them. When I watched The Sixth Sense, I felt the bullet enter my body.

Oh, sure. We’re all like that. But I get the feeling that my empathy levels are a bit extreme, at times.

Hannah Arendt would probably have said some negative things about this “personality trait” of mine. But I’ve learned to accept it.

What does this have to do with doing surveys on the phone? Quite a bit, actually. There are projects on which I can be very productive, mostly because of empathy. People hear that I care. Because I do care. A few other projects, I’m almost unable to do because of empathy. I need to get the feeling that those surveys can actually help improve the service people get. And I loathe being annoying to people.

On almost every survey I do at my current workplace, I can be very empathetic and it works very well. But I just worked on a project which was clearly annoying to respondents and it made me shrivel. The effect was quite intense. I had to take a long walk on my way back from work because I had realised something important about myself.

Hence this blog entry.


iPhone Wishlist

Yeah, everybody’s been talking about the iPhone. It’s last week’s story but it can still generate a fair bit of coverage. People are already thinking about the next models.

Apple has most of the technology to build what would be my dream handheld device but the iPhone isn’t it. Yet.

My wishful thinking for what could in fact be the coolest handheld ever. Of course, the device should have the most often discussed features which the iPhone currently misses (Flash, MMS, chat…). But I’m going much further, here.

  • Good quality audio recording (as with the recording add-ons for the iPod 5G).
  • Disk space (say, 80GB).
  • VoIP support (Skype or other, but as compatible as possible).
  • Video camera which can face the user (for videoconference).
  • Full voice interface: speech recognition and text-to-speech for dialing, commands, and text.
  • Handwriting recognition.
  • Stylus support.
  • Data transfer over Bluetooth.
  • TextEdit.
  • Adaptive technology for word recognition.
  • Not tied to cellular provider contract.
  • UMA Cell-to-WiFi (unlicensed mobile access).
  • GPS.
  • iLife support.
  • Sync with Mac OS X and Windows.
  • Truly international cellular coverage.
  • Outliner.
  • iWork support.
  • Disk mode.
  • Multilingual support.
  • Use as home account on Mac OS X “host.”
  • FrontRow
  • USB and Bluetooth printing.
  • Battery packs with standard batteries.

The key point here isn’t that the iPhone should be a mix between an iPod and a MacBook. I’m mostly thinking about the fact that the “Personal” part of the “PC” and “PDA” concepts has not come to fruition yet. Sure, your PC account has your preferences and some personal data. Your PDA contains your contacts and to-do lists. But you still end up with personal data in different places. Hence the need for Web apps. As we all know, web apps are quite useful but there’s still room for standalone applications, especially on a handheld. It wouldn’t take much for the iPhone to be the ideal tool to serve as a “universal home” where a user can edit and output files. To a musician or podcaster, it could become the ideal portable studio.

But where the logical step needs to be taken is in “personalization.” Apparently, the iPhone’s predictive keyboard doesn’t even learn from the user’s input. Since the iPhone is meant to be used by a single individual, it seems quite strange that it does not, minimally, adapt to typed input. Yet with a device already containing a headset it seems to me that speech technologies could be ideal. Full-text continuous speech recognition already exists and what it requires is exactly what the iPhone could provide: adaptation to a user’s voice and speech patterns. Though it may be awkward for people to use a voice interface in public, cellphones have created a whole group of people who seem to be talking to themselves. 😉

Though very different from speech recognition, text-to-speech could integrate really well with a voice-driven device. Sharing the same “dictionaries” across all applications on the same device, the TTS and SR features could be trained very specifically to a given user. While screens have been important on computers for quite a while, voice-activated computers have been prominent in science-fiction for probably as long. The most common tasks done on computers (writing messages, making appointments, entering data, querying databases…) could all be done quite effectively through a voice interface. And the iPhone could easily serve as a voice interface for other computers.

Yes, I’m nightdreaming. It’s a good way to get some rest.


What Radio Open Source Should Do

I probably think too much. In this case, about a podcast and radio show which has been with me for as long as I started listening to podcasts: Radio Open Source on Public Radio International. The show is hosted by Christopher Lydon and is produced in Cambridge, MA, in collaboration with WGBH Boston. The ROS staff is a full team working on not only the show and the podcast version but on a full-fledged blog (using a WordPress install, hosted by Contegix) with something of a listener community.

I recently decided not to listen to ROS anymore. Nothing personal, it just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. But I spent enough time listening to the show and thinking about it, I even have suggestions about what they should do.

At the risk of sounding opinionated, I’m posting these comments and suggestions. In my mind, honesty is always the best policy. Of course, nothing personal about the excellent work of the ROS team.

Executive summary of my suggestion: a weekly spinoff produced by the same team, as an actual podcast, possibly as a summary of highlights. Other shows do something similar on different radio stations and it fits the podcasting model. Because time-shifting is of the essence with podcasts, a rebroadcast version (instead of a live show) would make a lot of sense. Obviously, it would imply more work for the team as a whole but I sincerely think it would be worth it.

ROS has been one of the first podcasts to which I subscribed and it might be the one that I have maintained in my podcatcher for the longest time. The reason is that several episodes have inspired me in different ways. My perception is that the teamwork “behind the scenes” makes for a large part of the success of the show.

Now, I don’t know anything about the inner workings of the ROS team. But I do get the impression that some important changes are imminent. The two people who left in the last few months, the grant they received, their successful fundraiser, as well as some perceivable changes in the way the show is handled tell me that ROS may be looking for new directions. I’m just an ethnographer and not a media specialist but here are some of my (honest) critical observations.

First, some things which I find quite good about the show (or some reasons I was listening to the show).

  • In-depth discussions. As Siva Vaidhyanathan mentioned it on multiple occasions, ROS is one of few shows in the U.S . during which people can really spend an hour debating a single issue. While intriguing, Siva’s comparison with Canadian shows does seem appropriate according to my own experience with CBC and Radio-Canada. Things I’ve heard in Western Europe and West Africa would also fit this pattern. A show like ROS is somewhat more like The New Yorker than like The New York Times. (Not that these are innocent choices, of course.)
  • Research. A lot of care has been put in preparing for each show and, well, “it shows.” The “behind the scenes” team is obviously doing a great job. I include in this the capacity for the show to entice fascinating guests to come on the show. It takes diplomacy, care, and insight.
  • Podcasting. ROS was one of the first “public radio” shows to be available as a podcast and it’s possibly one of the radio shows for which the podcasting process is the most appropriate. Ease of subscribing, relatively few problems downloading shows, etc.
  • Show notes. Because the show uses a blog format for all of its episodes, it makes for excellent show notes, very convenient and easy to find. Easy to blog. Good trackback.
  • The “Community.” Though it can be troublesome at times, the fact that the show has a number of fans who act as regular commentators on the blog entries has been an intriguing feature of the show. On occasion, there is a sense that listeners can have some impact on the way the show is structured. Few shows on public radio do this and it’s a feature that makes the show, erm, let’s say “podworthy.” (Apologies to those who hate the “pod-” prefix. At least, you got my drift, right?)

On the other hand, there are things with ROS that have kept putting me off, especially as a podcast. A few of those “pet peeves.”

  • “Now the News.” While it’s perfectly natural for a radio show to have to break for news or ads, the disruption is quite annoying on a podcast. The pacing of the show as a whole becomes completely dominated by the breaks. What’s more, the podcast version makes very obvious the fact that discussions started before the break rarely if ever get any resolution after the break. A rebroadcast would allow for seamless editing. In fact, some television shows offer exclusive online content as a way to avoid this problem. Or, more accurately, some television shows use this concept as a way to entice watchers to visit their websites. Neat strategy, powerful concept.
  • Length. While the length of the show (a radio “hour”) allows for in-depth discussions, the usual pacing of the show often implies a rather high level of repetition. One gets the impression that the early part of the show contains most of the “good tidbits” one needs to understand what will be discussed later. I often listen to the first part of the show (before the first break) and end up skipping the rest of the show. This could be alleviated with a “best of ROS” podcast. In fact, it’s much less of an issue when the listener knows what to expect.
  • Host. Nothing personal. Chris Lydon is certainly a fabulous person and I would feel bad to say anything personal about him even though, to make a point, I have used a provocative title in the past which specifically criticised him. (My point was more about the show as a whole.) In fact, Lydon can be very good as a radio host, as I described in the past. Thing is, Lydon’s interviewing style seems to me more appropriate for a typical radio show than for a podcast. Obviously, he is quite knowledgeable of a wide array of subjects enabling him to relate to his guests. Also, he surely has a “good name” in U.S. journalistic milieus. But, to be perfectly honest, I sometimes feel that his respect for guests and other participants (blog commentators and callers when ROS still had them) is quite selective. In my observation, Lydon also tends to do what Larry King described on the Colbert Report as an “I-show” (host talking about her/his own experience, often preventing a guest to follow a thought). It can be endearing on some radio shows but it seems inappropriate for a podcast. What makes this interviewing style even more awkward is the fact that the show is frequently billed as a “conversation.” In conversation analysis, Lydon’s interviews would merit a lot of discussion.
  • Leading questions. While many questions asked on the show do help guests get into interesting issues, many questions sound like “leading” questions. Maybe not to the “how long have you been beating your wife?” extreme, but it does seem that the show is trying to get something specific out of each guest. Appropriate for journalism but awkward for what is billed as a “conversation.” In fact, many “questions” asked on the show are phrased as affirmative utterances instead of actual questions
  • Old School Journalism. It may sound like harsh criticism but what I hear from ROS often makes me think that they still believe that some sources are more worthy than others by mere virtue of being “a trusted source.” I’ve been quite critical of what I think of as “groupthink.” Often characterised by the fact that everybody listens, reads, or watches the same sources of information. In Quebec, it’s often Radio-Canada’s television shows. In the U.S., it typically implies that everyone reads the New York Times and thinks of it as their main “source of information.” IMHO, the ROS-NYT connection is a strong one. To me, critical thinking implies a mistrust of specific sources and an ability to process information regardless of the source. I do understand that the NYT is, to several people, the “paper of record” but the very notion of “paper of record” seems outdated in this so-called “Information Age.” In fact, as an outsider, I often find the NYT even more amenable to critical challenge than some other sources. This impression I got even before the scandals which have been plaguing the NYT. In other words, the NYT is the best example of Old School Journalism. Podcasting is going away from Old School Journalism so a podcast version of ROS should go away from NYT groupthink. Lydon’s NYT background is relevant here but what I describe goes much beyond that print newspaper.
  • The “Wolfpack.” The community around ROS is fascinating. If I had more time, I might want to spend more time “in” it. Every commentator on the show’s entries has interesting things to say and the comments are sometimes more insightful than the show itself. Yet, as contradictory as it may sound, the ROS “fanbase” makes the show less approachable to new listeners. This one is a common feature of open networks with something of a history but it’s heightened by the way the community is handled in the show. It sometimes seems as though some “frequent contributors” are appreciated more than others. The very fact that some people are mentioned as “frequent contributors to the show” makes the “community” sound more like a clique than like an open forum. While Brendan often brought in some questions from the real-time blog commentators, these questions rarely led to real two-way conversations. The overall effect is more like a typical radio talk show than like a community-oriented podcast.
  • Show suggestions. Perhaps because suggestions submitted to the show are quite numerous, very few of these suggestions have been discussed extensively. The “pitch a show idea of your own” concept is helpful but the end-result is that commentators will need to prepare a pitch which might be picked up by a member of the ROS team to be pitched during the team’s meeting. The process is thus convoluted, non-transparent, non-democratic, and cumbersome. To be perfectly honest, it sounds as if it were “lipservice” to the audience instead of being a way to have listeners be part of the show. As a semi-disclaimer, I did pitch several ideas. The one of my ideas which was picked up was completely transformed from my original idea. Nothing wrong with that but it doesn’t make the process feel transparent or open. While a digg-like system for voting on suggestions might be a bit too extreme for a show on public radio, I find myself dreaming for the ROS team working on shows pitched by listeners.
  • Time-sensitiveness. Because the show is broadcast and podcast four days a week, the production cycle is particularly tight. In this context, commentators need to post on an entry in a timely fashion to “get the chance to be heard.” Perfectly normal, but not that podfriendly. It seems that the most dedicated listeners are those who listen to the show live while posting comments on the episode’s blog entry. This alienates the actual podcasting audience. Time-shifting is at the very basis of podcasting and many shows had to adapt to this reality (say, for a contest or to get feedback). The time-sensitive nature of ROS strengthens the idea that it’s a radio show which happens to be podcast, contrary to their claims. A weekly podcast would alleviate this problem.
  • Gender bias. Though I didn’t really count, it seems to me that a much larger proportion of men than women are interviewed as guests on the show. It even seems that women are only interviewed when the show focuses specifically on gender. Women are then interviewed as women instead of being guests who happen to be females. This is especially flagrant when compared to podcasts and radio shows outside of the U.S. mainstream media. Maybe I’m too gender-conscious but a gender-balanced show often produces a dynamic which is, I would dare say, “friendlier.”
  • U.S. focus. While it makes sense that a show produced in Cambridge, MA should focus on the U.S., I naively thought that the ‘I’ in PRI implied a global reach. Many ROS episodes have discussed “international affairs” yet the focus is on “what does it mean for U.S.” This approach is quite far from what I have heard in West Africa, Western Europe, and Canada.

Phew!

Yes, that’s a lot.

Overall, I still enjoyed many things of the show while I was listening to it. I was often compelled to post a blog entry about something I heard on the show which, in itself, is a useful thing about a podcast. But the current format of the show is clearly not what I expect a podcast to be.

Now what? Well, my dream would be a podcast on disparate subjects with the team and clout of ROS but with podcasting in mind, from beginning to end. I imagine the schedule to be more of a weekly wrap-up than a live daily show. As a podcast listener, I tend to prefer weekly shows. In some cases, podcasts serve as a way to incite listeners to listen to the whole show. Makes a lot of sense.

That podcast could include a summary of what was said in the live comments. It could also have guest hosts. And exclusive content. And it could become an excellent place to get insight about a number of things. And I’d listen to it. Carefully.

Some “pie in the sky” wishes.

  • Full transcripts. Yes, it takes time and effort, but it brings audio to the blogosphere more than anything else could. Different transcribing services are available for podcasts and members of the team could make this more efficient.
  • Categorised feeds. The sadly missed DailySonic podcast had excellent customisation feature. If a mainstream radio station could do it, ROS would be a good candidate for categorised feeds.
  • Voting mechanism. Since Slashdot and Digg, voting has probably been the most common form of online participation by people who care about media. Voting on features would make the “pitching” process more than simply finding the right “hook” to make the show relevant. Results are always intriguing in those cases.
  • Community guests. People do want to get involved and the ROS community is fascinating. Bringing some members on the podcast could do a lot to give a voice to actual people. The only attempt I remember on ROS was with a kind of answering machine system. Nothing was played on the show. (What I left was arguably not that fascinating but I was surprised nothing came out of it.)
  • Guest hosts. Not to go too Bakhtin on y’all, but multiple voices in the same discussion makes for interesting stories. Being a guest host could prove how difficult it is be a host.
  • Field assignments. With a wide community of listeners, it could be interesting to have audio from people in other parts of the world, apart from phone interviews. Even an occasional one-minute segment would go a long way to give people exposure to realities outside the United States.
  • Social bookmarking. Someone recently posted an advice for a book club. With social bookmarking features, book recommendations could be part of a wider scheme.
  • Enhanced audio. While the MP3 version is really necessary, podcasts using enhanced features such as chapters and embedded images can be extremely useful, especially for owners of recent iPod/iPhone.
  • Links. ROS is not the only radio show and links are what makes podcasts alive, especially when one is linked to another. In a way, podcasts become an alternate universe through those links.

Ok, I’m getting too far astray from my original ideas about ROS. It must mean that I should leave it at that.

I do sincerely hope that ROS will take an interesting turn. I’ll be watching from my blog aggregator and I might join the ROS community again.

In the meantime, I’ll focus on other podcasts.


Professors and Online Ethnography

Fellow anthropologist Michael Wesch (of The Machine Is Us/ing Us fame) posted about a video that the The Chronicle of Higher Education has released about his own digital ethnography projects.

For those who don’t know, The Chronicle is a well-known U.S. publication aimed primarily at university and college professors. It contains news and job announcements irrespective of disciplinary boundaries. A bit like the CAUT/ACPPU Bulletin here in Canada.

The video itself is journalistic in tone and does pay lipservice to the challenges of online research. I like the fact that we get to hear one of Wesch’s students, known as ThePoasm on YouTube. But, overall, the video does little to give voice to the people involved, apart from Wesch himself. The lack of student focus is unsurprising as The Chronicle is mostly concerned with faculty members. But there could have been more talk about the academic, disciplinary, institutional, and pedagogical implications of Wesch’s projects.

Maybe I’m just jealous of Wesch for being able to undertake those projects in the first place. Anyone wants to podcast/vidcast with me? 😉


Googely Voice

Neat new service.

GOOG-411 offers free directory assistance – Lifehacker

Not available in Montreal, but quite useful. Apparently better than Free-411.

The speech recognition and speech synthesis are quite good. In fact, when I was working in speech, such a service was pretty much the main example we used for the need for speech research. With the prominence of cellphones in many different parts of the world, I still think that speech is a field in which technological advancements can have very interesting effects.


Why Podcasting Doesn’t Work (Reason #23)

Was listening to the latest episode of Scientific American’s ScienceTalk podcast (for Januray 3, 2007). As is often the case with some of my favourite podcasts, I wanted to blog about specific issues mentioned in this episode.

Here’s the complete “show notes” for this episode (22:31 running time).

In this episode, journalist Chip Walter, author of Thumbs, Toes and Tears, takes us on a tour of the physical traits that are unique to humans, with special attention to crying, the subject of his article in the current issue of Scientific American MIND. The University of Cambridge’s Gordon Smith discusses the alarming lack of any randomized, controlled trials to determine the efficacy of parachutes. Plus we’ll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include http://www.sciammind.com; http://www.chipwalter.com; http://www.bmj.com.

AFAICT, there’s a direct link to the relevant MP3 file (which may be downloaded with a default name of “podcast.mp3” through a browser’s “save link as” feature),  an embedded media player to listen to the episode, some links to subscribe to podcast through RSS, My Yahoo, or iTunes, and a menu to browse for episodes by month. Kind of neat.

But what’s wrong with this picture?

In my mind, a few things. And these are pretty common for podcasts.

First, there are no clickable links in the show notes. Sure, anybody can copy/paste the URLs in a browser but there’s something just slightly frustrating about having to do that instead of just clicking on a link directly. In fact, these links are quite generic and would still require that people look for information themselves, instead of pinpointing exactly which scientific articles were featured in the podcast. What’s worse, the Chip Walter article discussed in the podcast isn’t currently found on the main page for the current issue of Scientific American’s Mind. To add insult to injury, the URL for that article is the mnemo-friendly:

http://www.sciammind.com/article.cfm?&articleID=33F8609A-E7F2-99DF-3F12706DF3E30E29

Catchy! 😉

These are common issues with show notes and are easily solved. I should just write SciAm to comment on this. But there are deeper issues.

One reason blogging caught on so well is that it’s very easy to link and quote from one blog to another. In fact, most blogging platforms have bookmarklets and other tools to make it easy to create a blog entry by selecting text and/or images from any web page, clicking on the bookmarklet, adding a few comments, and pressing the “Publish” button. In a matter of seconds, you can have your blog entry ready. If the URL to the original text is static, readers of your blog are able to click on a link accompanying the quote to put it in context. In effect, those blog entries are merely tagging web content. But the implications are deeper. You’re associating something of yourself with that content. You’re applying some basic rules of attribution by providing enough information to identify the source of an idea. You’re making it easy for readers to follow streams of thought. If the original is a trackback-/ping-enabled blog system, you’re telling the original author that you’re refering to her piece. You’re creating new content that can, in itself, serve as the basis for something new. You might even create a pseudo-community of like-minded people. All with a few clicks and types.

Compare with the typical (audio) podcast episode. You listen to it while commuting or while doing some other low-attention activity. You suddenly want to talk about what you heard. Go out and reach someone. You do have a few options. You can go and look at the show notes if they exist and use the same bookmarklet procedure to create a blog entry. Or you can simply tell someone “hey, check out the latest ScienceTalk, from SciAm, it’s got some neat things about common sense and human choking.” If the podcast has a forum, you can go in the forum and post something to listeners of that podcast. If the show notes are in blog form, you may post comments for those who read the show notes. And you could do all sorts of things with the audio recording that you have, including bookmark it (depending on the device you use to listen to audio files). But all of these are quite limited.

You can’t copy/paste an excerpt from the episode. You can’t link to a specific segment of that episode. You can’t realistically expect most of your blog readers to access the whole podcast just to get the original tidbit. Blog readers may not easily process the original information further. In short, podcasts aren’t easily bloggable.

Podcast episodes are often big enough that it’s not convenient to keep them on your computer or media device.  Though it is possible to bookmark audio and video files, there’s no standard method to keep and categorize these bookmarks. Many podcasts make it very hard to find a specific episode. Some podcasts in fact make all but the most recent episodes unavailable for download. Few devices make it convenient to just skim over a podcast. Though speed listening seems to be very effective (like speed reading) at making informative content stick in someone’s head, few solutions exist for speed listening to podcasts. A podcast’s RSS entry may contain a useful summary but there’s no way to scale up or down the amount of information we get about different podcast segments like we can do with text-based RSS feeds in, say, Safari 2.0 and up. Audio files can’t easily be indexed, searched, or automatically summarized. Most data mining procedures don’t work with audio files. Few formats allow for direct linking from the audio file to other online content and those formats that do allow for such linking aren’t ubiquitous. Responding to a podcast with a podcast (or audio/video comment) is doable but is more time-consuming than written reactions to written content. Editing audio/video content is more involving than, say, proofreading a forum comment before sending it. Relatively few people respond in writing to blogs and forums and it’s quite likely that the proportion of people who would feel comfortable responding to podcasts with audio/video recordings is much smaller than blog/forum commenters.

And, of course, video podcasts (a big trend in podcasting) aren’t better than audio podcasts on any of these fronts.

Speech recognition technology and podcast-transcription services like podzinger may make some of these issues moot but they’re all far from perfect, often quite costly, and are certainly not in widespread use. A few podcasts (well, at least one) with very dedicated listeners have listeners effectively transcribe the complete verbal content of every podcast episode and this content can work as blog-ammo. But chances that such a practice may become common are slim to none.

Altogether,  podcasting is more about passive watching/listening than about active engagement in widespread dialogue. Similar to our good old friend (and compatriot) McLuhan described as “hot,” instead of “cool” media. (Always found the distinction counter-intuitive myself, but it fits, to a degree…)

Having said all of this, I recently embarked in my first real podcasting endeavor, having my lectures be distributed in podcast form, within the Moodle course management system. Lecturecasts have been on my mind for a while. So this is an opportunity for me to see, as a limited experiment, whether it can appropriately be integrated in my teaching.

As it turns out, I don’t have much to do to make the lecturecasts possible. Concordia University has a service to set it all up for me. They give me a wireless lapel microphone, record that signal, put the MP3 file on one of their servers, and add that file in Moodle as a tagged podcast episode (Moodle handles the RSS and other technical issues). Neat!

Moodle itself makes most of the process quite easy. And because the podcasts are integrated within the broader course management structure, it might be possible to alleviate some of the previously-mentioned issues.  In this case, the podcast is a complementary/supplementary component of the complete course. It might help students revise the content, spark discussions, invite reflections about the necessity of note-taking, enable neat montages, etc. Or it might have negative impacts on classroom attendance, send the message that note-taking isn’t important, put too much of the spotlight on my performance (or lack thereof) as a speaker, etc.

Still, I like the fact that I can try this out in the limited context of my own classes.


iRiver H120 (Digital Audio Jukebox)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feel free to comment or send questions through email.


Moira Smiley: RUA

Moira Smiley, a former member of the a cappella group Vida is releasing a new CD of Irish, Appalachian, and original vocal work.
Her other recordings are also available, including her work with Vida (which disbanded several years ago, like many Bloomington bands do).