Tag Archives: nerds

Bookish Reference

Thinking about reference books, these days.

Are models inspired by reference books (encyclopedias, dictionaries, phonebooks, atlases…) still relevant in the context of almost-ubiquitous Internet access?

I don’t have an answer but questions such as these send me on streams of thought. I like thought streaming.

One stream of thought relates to a discussion I’ve had with fellow Yulblogger Martin Lessard about “trust in sources.” IIRC, Lessard was talking more specifically about individuals but I tend to react the same way about “source credibility” whether the source is a single human being, an institution, or a piece of writing. Typically, my reaction is a knee-jerk one: “No information is to be trusted, regardless of the source. Critical thinking and the scientific method both imply that we should apply the same rigorous analysis to any piece of information, regardless of the alleged source.” But this reasoned stance of mine is confronted with the reality of people (including myself and other vocal proponents of critical thinking) acting, at least occasionally, as if we did “trust” sources differentially.

I still think that this trusty attitude toward some sources needs to be challenged in contexts which give a lot of significance to information validity. Conversely, maybe there’s value in trust because information doesn’t always have to be that valid and because it’s often more expedient to trust some sources than to “apply the same rigorous analysis to information coming from any source.”

I also think that there are different forms of trust. From a strong version which relates to faith, all the way to a weak version, tantamount to suspension of disbelief. It’s not just a question of degree as there are different origins for source-trust, from positive prior experiences with a given source to the hierarchical dimensions of social status.

A basic point, here, might be that “trust in source” is contextual, nuanced, changing, constructed… relative.

Second stream of thought: popular reference books. I’m still afraid of groupthink, but there’s something deep about some well-known references.

Just learnt, through the most recent issue of Peter Suber’s SPARC Open Access newsletter, some news about French reference book editor Larousse (now part of Hachette, which is owned by Lagardère) making a move toward Open Access. Through their Larousse.fr site, Larousse is not only making some of its content available for open access but it’s adding some user-contributed content to its site. As an Open Access enthusiast, I do find the OA angle interesting. But the user-content angle leads me in another direction having to do with reference books.

What may not be well-known outside of Francophone contexts is that Larousse is pretty much a “household name” in many French-speaking homes. Larousse dictionaries have been commonly used in schools and they have been selling quite well through much of the editor’s history. Not to mention that some specialized reference books published by Larousse, are quite unique.

To make this more personal: I pretty much grew up on Larousse dictionaries. In my mind, Larousse dictionaries were typically less “stuffy” and more encyclopedic in approach than other well-known French dictionaries. Not only did Larousse’s flagship Petit Larousse illustré contain numerous images, but some aspect of its supplementary content, including Latin expressions and proverbs, were very useful and convenient. At the same time, Larousse’s fairly extensive line of reference books could retain some of the prestige afforded its stuffier and less encyclopedic counterparts in the French reference book market. Perhaps because I never enjoyed stuffiness, I pretty much associated my view of erudition with Larousse dictionaries. Through a significant portion of my childhood, I spent countless hours reading disparate pieces of Larousse dictionaries. Just for fun.

So, for me, freely accessing and potentially contributing to Larousse feels strange. Can’t help but think of our battered household copies of Petit Larousse illustré. It’s a bit as if a comics enthusiast were not only given access to a set of Marvel or DC comics but could also go on the drawing board. I’ve never been “into” comics but I could recognize my childhood self as a dictionary nerd.

There’s a clear connection in my mind between my Larousse-enhanced childhood memories and my attitude toward using Wikipedia. Sure, Petit Larousse was edited in a “closed” environment, by a committee. But there was a sense of discovery with Petit Larousse that I later found with CD-ROM and online encyclopedias. I used a few of these, over the years, and I eventually stuck with Wikipedia for much of this encyclopedic fun. Like probably many others, I’ve spent some pleasant hours browsing through Wikipedia, creating in my head a more complex picture of the world.

Which is not to say that I perceive Larousse as creating a new Wikipedia. Describing the Larousse.fr move toward open access and user-contributed content, the Independent mostly compares Larousse with Wikipedia. In fact, a Larousse representative seems to have made some specific statements about trying to compete with Wikipedia. Yet, the new Larousse.fr site is significantly different from Wikipedia.

As Suber says, Larousse’s attempt is closer to Google’s knols than to Wikipedia. In contrast with the Wikipedia model but as in Google’s knol model, content contributed by users on the Larousse site preserves an explicit sense of authorship. According to the demo video for Larousse.fr, some specific features have been implemented on the site to help users gather around specific topics. Something similar has happened informally with some Wikipedians, but the Larousse site makes these features rather obvious and, as some would say, “user-friendly.” After all, while many people do contribute to Wikipedia, some groups of editors function more like tight-knit communities or aficionados than like amorphous groups of casual users. One interesting detail about the Larousse model is that user-contributed and Larousse contents run in parallel to one another. There are bridges in terms of related articles, but the distinction seems clear. Despite my tendency to wait for prestige structures to “just collapse, already,” I happen to think this model is sensible in the context of well-known reference books. Larousse is “reliable, dependable, trusty.” Like comfort food. Or like any number of items sold in commercials with an old-time feel.

So, “Wikipedia the model” is quite different from the Larousse model but both Wikipedia and Petit Larousse can be used in similar ways.

Another stream of thought, here, revolves around the venerable institution known as Encyclopædia Britannica. Britannica recently made it possible for bloggers (and other people publishing textual content online) to apply for an account giving them access to the complete online content of the encyclopedia. With this access comes the possibility to make specific articles available to our readers via simple linking, in a move reminiscent of the Financial Times model.

Since I received my “blogger accreditation to Britannica content,” I did browse some article on Britannica.com. I receive Britannica’s “On This Day” newsletter of historical events in my inbox daily and it did lead me to some intriguing entries. I did “happen” on some interesting content and I even used Britannica links on my main blog as well as in some forum posts for a course I teach online.

But, I must say, Britannica.com is just “not doing it for me.”

For one thing, the site is cluttered and cumbersome. Content is displayed in small chunks, extra content is almost dominant, links to related items are often confusing and, more sadly, many articles just don’t have enough content to make visits satisfying or worthwhile. Not to mention that it is quite difficult to link to a specific part of the content as the site doesn’t use page anchors in a standard way.

To be honest, I was enthusiastic when I first read about Britannica.com’s blogger access. Perhaps because of the (small) thrill of getting “privileged” access to protected content, I thought I might find the site useful. But time and again, I had to resort to Wikipedia. Wikipedia, like an old Larousse dictionary, is dependable. Besides, I trust my sense of judgement to not be too affect by inaccurate or invalid information.

One aspect of my deception with Britannica relates to the fact that, when I write things online, I use links as a way to give readers more information, to help them exercise critical thinking, to get them thinking about some concepts and issues, and/or to play with some potential ambiguity. In all of those cases, I want to link to a resource which is straightforward, easy to access, easy to share, clear, and “open toward the rest of the world.”

Britannica is not it. Despite all its “credibility” and perceived prestige, Britannica.com isn’t providing me with the kind of service I’m looking for. I don’t need a reference book in the traditional sense. I need something to give to other people.

After waxing nostalgic about Larousse and ranting about Britannica, I realize how funny some of this may seem, from the outside. In fact, given the structure of the Larousse.fr site, I already think that I won’t find it much more useful than Britannica for my needs and I’ll surely resort to Wikipedia, yet again.

But, at least, it’s all given me the opportunity to stream some thoughts about reference books. Yes, I’m enough of a knowledge geek to enjoy it.


Social Beer

As a reply to Liz Losh’s generous blogpost on my passion for beer and coffee culture(s).

virtualpolitik: Strange Brew

My tone is clearly much less formal than Losh’s. Hope it still fits and doesn’t bring down the quality standards expected from her blog.

Quoth Losh’s post:

Doesn’t consigning brewing of coffee and beer in private homes eliminate third spaces for social interactions with a cross-section of people and opportunities for discussions and debates? Isn’t it like putting yourself in a cul-de-sac with a garage door facing the street in that you aren’t participating with neighborhood businesses? Enkerli strongly disagreed, since beer-making involves large quantities, parties, and collective beer making sessions. He thought that it was a powerfully social activity and one that was often situated in specific neighborhoods.

Probably overstated my disagreement about eliminating third spaces. Was mostly trying to describe what I had observed from the beer and coffee world(s). Basically, wanted to emphasise that making coffee or beer at home is just one of several activities done by members of those networks. And those activities often push people to go and consume beer or coffee outside the home.

Actually, discussing this is helpful to me because it reinforces the point that what I’m observing has more to do with “craft beer culture” (or “culinary coffee culture”) than with homebrewing (or making coffee at home).

Haven’t tried to find out whether or not homebrewing and home coffee making might prevent meaningful interactions between coffee/beer geeks and “the rest of the (local) community.” Really, that’s not my type of work. My impression is that those DIY activities might have those “decreased participation” effects in some contexts but such effects haven’t been apparent to me on any occasion during the last few years of observing and participating in beer and coffee geekery.

To be clearer, and specifically focusing on (beer) homebrewers. Making beer at home has become a fairly common activity in North America since the 1980s (when the legal status of homebrewing in the United States was finally cleared up). But my focus isn’t beer making as an activity. It’s a social network which revolves around “handcrafted” beer. This is one network I have been connecting with for several years, now. And, IMHO, it’s the core of the so-called “craft beer revolution.”

Many people brew beer at home for purely financial reasons. While these are technically “home brewers,” they are not taking part in the social and cultural dynamics that I aim to eventually describe academically. In fact, while those “thrifty brewers” are known to the “beergeek” crowd, they are considered as complete outsiders to the “craft beer revolution.” Typically, those who brew for financial reasons use cans of hopped malt extract and dextrose powder to make beer. On the homebrewing side of the craft beer movement, all-grain brewing (making beer from scratch, with the malted barley, hops, yeast, and water) is the normative method.

I guess we could use terms like “casual,” “dedicated,” “careless,” “serious,” “extract,” and “advanced” to make distinctions between those types of “homebrewers.” But we’re talking about such different worlds here that emphasising these distinctions seems irrelevant. So, when I talk about “homebrewers,” I almost always mean “serious, dedicated, advanced brewers who care more about beer quality than about costs.”

(It’s quite interesting that, in OZ, the term “homebrewer” refers to people who make beer at home to save money while “craftbrewer” refers specifically to people who brew beer for “serious” reasons.)

The homebrewers I tend to talk about aren’t casual brewers, they often spend rather large amounts of money on beer and brewing equipment, they frequently send their beers to large competitions, and typically belong to brewing associations (“brewclubs”). In the United States, many of them are card-carrying members of the American Homebrewers Association. AHA membership gives them access to a rather “serious” technical magazine on brewing techniques (Zymurgy) and discounts at local brewpubs all over the United States (and some parts of Canada).

The typical brewclub has monthly meetings as well as a number of beer-related events. In large urban areas, brewclubs can have a very elaborate structure, with annual fees, bulk purchasing accounts, etc.

The keen observer with an eye toward folklore might notice that these sound like the “quilting bees” which were served as a way for North American women to unite and eventually form “grassroots movements.” Given Losh’s political bent, I feel compelled to note this similarity, even though I care fairly little about political involvement on the part of homebrewers.

Interesting that Losh should say that I teach “folklore and ethnomusicology” at Concordia. While I do teach a course in the anthropology of music which is, in fact, labeled “ethnomusicology,” the courses I’ve been teaching at different institutions in the past five years were all in anthropology. However, I did serve as an associate instructor for a large course in folkloristics at Indiana University for three semesters during part of my Ph.D. coursework at that institution. And I do consider “folklore” to be among my fields of specialisation.  Of course, Losh probably got her notion about my teaching from the fact that I’m finishing a Ph.D. at Indiana University’s Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. 😉

Anyhoo…

Some brewclubs also serve as “beer appreciation” groups, similar to wine-tasting (and emphasizing the fact that beer is chemically more complex than wine). While beer-tasting can be a solitary activity, sampling beer with fellow homebrewers (and beergeeks) is common practise for serious beer-lovers. Perhaps more importantly, homebrewers frequently use a set of guidelines while tasting beer. These guidelines, from the Beer Judge Certification Program, often serve as a shared knowledge base for “beer literacy.” The BJCP’s main purpose is to train judges for homebrewing competitions. When I eventually do publish some academic work on craft beer culture, I’ll need to have a rather large section on the BJCP, competitions, and so on. Among homebrewers, I’m known as a vocal opponent to the BJCP guidelines. I do recognise, however, that they serve important functions in the context. (I simply happen to think that there is more to beer than evaluating it through set standards and I see the effects of the BJCP guidelines as broadening the gap between actual beer appreciation and the general public.)

One thing which was already clear to me when I gave a talk on craft beer culture at an surprisingly pleasant food and culture conference,  is that craft beer culture is geek culture. As geek ethnographer Jenny Cool was present during the conversation which triggered Losh’s reaction (Cool and Losh are friends), I actually wanted to steer the conversation toward the issue of geek sociability, using homebrewers as an example.

Homebrewing is social because geeking out is social

(To simplify things a whole lot, someone could say that “geeks” are something of the “somewhat sociable” equivalent of “nerds.” To caricature, the type of sociability involved is that of the stereotypical “basement hacker.” Some of “them” might in fact be antisocial human beings. But “they” become less unfriendly with like-minded people. Especially when “they” feel there is “smartness parity” in terms of intellectual prowess. Going on a limb, someone could say that what has been happening in the last thirty years, thanks to computer-mediated communication, is a steady increase in the opportunities for “basement hacker-type nerds” to interact with one another. These interactions might occasionally lead to meaningful social relationships. In the context of increased social capital given to computer-savvy people, geekness becomes almost cool and geeks are “more social” (according to a broader social group) than the “nerds” who had been stigmatised for so long.)

Homebrewing as an activity was facilitated by changes in its legal status (and by the alcohol regulations in general). Beer geekery is embedded in the increased prominence of online communication. Pre-Internet beer people were pretty much just “beer nerds.” Today’s beergeeks are almost all Internet-savvy and many beer-related activities happen through mailing-lists and websites. (Usenet newsgroups used to be fairly important but, since 1994 or so, mailing-lists and websites have pretty much taken over.)

As is the case with many other groups, online interactions give way to face-to-face interactions, friendships, and elaborate support systems. Meeting at brewpubs to sample beer and “talk shop,” beergeeks are bonding. And this type of bonding often creates strong… bonds. I personally have a large number of anecdotes which reveal the strength of the bonds among beergeeks. And, as a social scientist, I’m fascinated by the phenomenon.

Going back to Losh’s points(!), I might say that beergeeks are connecting more with broader social groups than the homebrewers she seems to have had in mind. Using the “think global, drink local” motto, beergeeks (including homebrewers) are situating themselves in complex social systems. They/we talk about important social and political issue.

And we do drink good beer.