Friday, February 28, 2003

Of Language and Browsers

Torill Mortensen writes eloquently about using the Opera browser and the "New Norwegian" language. Yet another reason to value broader social and cultural experiences in the design of software.

Tracking other conversations

Sometimes I don't want to participate, but I like reading.

Liz Lawley posted some interesting comments on academia. Baldur Bjarnason wrote about the curse of the meme in academia and blog culture. Shelley Powers urges a return to blogging about the rest of the world, and the comment-conversations are fascinating.

I know that many people have no patience for reflexivity - among quantitative researchers it is sometimes referred to as "intellectual masturbation" or "navel-gazing," and in this context it can be referred to as "meta-blogging." But despite limits of usefulness and appeal, it can be very interesting. Reflections on self and group can illuminate otherwise hidden power-relations and problematise the taken-for-granted; meta-blogging draws attention to discrepancies between what we say we do and what we actually do. And a little reflexivity can prevent over-stating the uniqueness and value of any one individual voice. That ought to be worth something!

(Update) I still maintain that it is more interesting to look at *how* people link to each other, rather than *how many* link to each other. Why? Because comment-conversations construct and reflect context-specific relationships (apologies for so many c-words!) and that's what being social is about ;)

Forum: Qualitative Sozialforschung

Forum: Qualitative Social Research is a multilingual online journal. Its main aim is to promote discussion and cooperation between qualitative researchers from different countries and disciplines.

Special Issues:

Subjectivity and Reflexivity in Qualitative Research I. Edited by Katja Mruck, Wolff-Michael Roth & Franz Breuer. Sept 2002.

Using Technology in the Qualitative Research Process. Edited by Graham R. Gibbs, Susanne Friese & Wilma C. Mangabeira. May 2002.

And book reviews.

Thursday, February 27, 2003

From Government to Governance

Adam Greenfield's The minimal compact: An open-source constitution for post-national states, "a minifesto for the constitution of virtual, post-national states."

Adam proposes types of governance based on efforts to:

1) Ensure the greatest freedom for the greatest number, without simultaneously abridging the freedoms of others. 2) Permit individuals with common goals and beliefs to act in their own interest at the global level and with all the privileges afforded nation states, even when those individuals are separated by distance. 3) Provide robust resistance to attempts to concentrate power, and other abuses of same.

The question then becomes, what kinds of constitutional structures are appropriate to furthering the stated aims in an internetworked, interdependent age? What sorts of arrangements of power between humans can account for the deep variation in beliefs and assumptions among the six billion of us who share this planet, while still providing for a common jurisprudence? What measures can be taken that enhance the common security without unduly infringing on the sovereignty of the individual?

I believe that a useful model for the desired structure can be found in the open-source or "free" software movement... This mode (and ethos) of development provides several fertile metaphors, not least the basic, deeply appealing idea of a voluntary global community empowered and explicitly authorized to reverse-engineer, learn from, improve and use-validate its own tools and products... Of particular interest in the present context is the concept of a "codebase," a core of universally-recognized and accepted instructions maintained on a public registry, and a "distribution," which offers a praxis for supporting locally differing, self-contained (but essentially interoperable) variations on the single codebase... Taking these concepts as model, the agreement under contemplation in this paper, the minimal compact, proposes a post-national, virtual state: a hyperlocal polity whose constitution is conceived as codebase. Such a constitution would specify a minimum number of articles to which all signatories subscribe, allowing an instantiation of the state to form anywhere and anywhen one or more signatories is present. Instantiations are free to supplement the core agreement with an arbitrary number of articles appropriate to local contexts, and are further invited to submit such innovations to a central (but distributed) registry for prospective enactment by other signatory communities, or potentially adoption into the core framework.

Without getting into debates about the future role of the nation-state, I appreciate Adam's desire to bring together both global (generic) and local (specific) politics. Much talk of globalisation ignores local social and material practices, and he may well have provided a means to resist the Empire of Disorder without retreating to the extreme position of the TAZ.

But geek that I am, I went for his discussion of immanent polity, portable citizenship and connections of interest and affinity. I read this as a gentle, but clever hack of Bourdieu's Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. People will distinguish themselves by multiple means and travel in their own directions. Adam calls upon the rhizome and opens new lines of flight, but could have gone further to explain the relevance of the following criteria for governance: flexible, adaptive, extensible, infinitely reproducible, nonlocal, interoperable and mutual. How, exactly, are these able to answer his initial, more general, criteria? Or, how well does this scale in both directions?

It's also unclear to me how people who afford less inherent(?) value to the individual would be able to adopt/adapt this. Maybe I'm concerned that Adam's approach is a bit ethnocentric - he claims his proposal enshrines no particular perspective, but that is not true. In declaring any of his global "goods," he has precisely set out values to be universally protected. And I fear his desire for consensus would be difficult to achieve, if not undesirable. Having said that, he seems to have proposed something flexible enough to adapt to multiple voices, and that seems the most important thing.

Most of all, Adam offers an intelligent contribution to recent discussions of emergent democracy - challenging us to imagine a world of flow and ethics.

(From now on, I may just have to refer to my friend as Mr. Smarty Pants! ;)

The Mobile Many

Via SmartMobs: Drug jailed leader commanded a cellphone bomb and riot today in Rio de Janeiro. Rio awakened with bomb explosions, burning buses and gangs of armed robbers ordered by Red Command's jailed drug leader Fernando Beiramar, shutting down schools, commerce and services. He coordinated the movement by cellphone from Bangu's jail. At least 19 buses were burned and 13 people wounded, 2 seriously hospitalized. The goal of initial action to paralyze transport services was sucessfully achieved. When morning came, 3 bombs exploded at Vieira Souto avenue in Ipanema, one of the richest parts of Rio de Janeiro, breaking windows and terrifying people.

On a lighter note: A New Set of Social Rules for a Newly Wireless Society by Mizuko Ito

Before initiating a call to a keitai [cell phone], they will, almost without exception, begin with a text message to determine availability; the new social norm is that you should "knock before entering." By sending messages like "Can you talk on the phone now?" or "Are you awake?" text messagers spare each other the rude awakening and disruption of a sudden phone call. Keitai-wired youth are in persistent but lightweight contact with a small number of intimates, with whom they are expected to be available unless they are sleeping or working. Because of this portable, virtual peer space, the city is no longer a space of urban anonymity; even when out shopping, solo youths will send photos to friends of a pair of shoes they just bought, or send fast-breaking news about a hot sale that is just opening. After meeting face-to-face, a trail of text messages continues the conversation as friends disperse in trains, buses and on foot, nimble thumbs touch-typing on numeric keypads.

Mapping Space and Time

Great article: The London Underground Map: Imagining Modern Time and Space by Janin Hadlaw (via Dan Hill)

... the Underground riders of 1933 were able to make sense of [Beck's] map not because they were versed in the shorthand of information design, but rather because both map and riders shared a common sensibility. It was comprehensible because the logic that underpinned it was coherent with their experience, as modern individuals, of a historically particular time and space. It is this idea of the map as a way-of-imagining not only geographic but, more importantly, social space and (ultimately) time that I wish to explore.

For Beck, the decision to 'ignore geography' in the underground map was quite straightforward. He commented in an interview with Ken Garland, director of the London Transport Museum, that it simply 'seemed common sense. If you're going underground, why do you need bother about geography? It's not so important'. 'Connections,' he observed, 'are the thing'... By 'ignoring geography' in representation, Beck's 'common sense' perception resonated with the emergent concepts of distance and duration... In setting aside geographic space in favor of graphic space, Beck's diagram also dispensed with conventional notions of time, most notably the temporal relationships between places...

It set aside the notion of time and space as enduring categories, and presented them instead as highly malleable... Because the places on the various lines were no longer distinguishable from each other, the map's representational priority essentially shifted from the particularity of the places the Underground linked to the idea of the Underground as a conduit for the flow of trains and people, and ultimately, capital itself.

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

And I always thought things went to shit because we started living too long...

Um, yikes!

Death is an Outrage by Robert A. Freitas Jr. (via Corante)

... Natural death is an outrage. Indeed, it is humanity's, and history's, greatest outrage. Now, at long last, maybe we can finally do something about it. So let's get on with it!

According to the volitional normative model of disease that is most appropriate for nanomedicine, if you're physiologically old and don't want to be, then for you, oldness and aging are a disease, and you deserve to be cured. After all, what's the use of living many extra hundreds of years in a body that lacks the youthful appearance and vigor that you desire? Dechronification will first arrest biological aging, then reduce your biological age by performing three kinds of procedures on each one of the 4 trillion tissue cells in your body.

People are not ants. We don't always separate our garbage and our dead.

Recalled while reading Joi Ito's recent article, Emergent Democracy ...

"The consensus myth of an egalitarian, chaotic system, ruled by self-governing users with the help of artificial life and friendly bots, is now crushed by the take-over of telecom giants, venture capital and banks and the sharp rise in regulatory efforts by governments. (Geert Lovink, Dark Fiber)

"Not many attempts at building alternative networks ever really embraced a participatory democracy that included its users. With roots in artist's collaborations or activist projects, the problem is often a lack of formal structure, which could lead all too easily to a management takeover or privatization. There's a lot still to be written about the experiments of the 80s and 90s in alterative networked economies, polities and cultures. There's a taste here of European experiments to set alongside experiments more familiar in the US such as The Well and Lamdamoo. (McKenzie Wark, Review of Dark Fiber)


"Emergence is above all a product of coupled, context-dependent interactions. Technically these interactions, and the resulting system, are nonlinear: The behavior of the overall system cannot be obtained by summing the behaviors of its constituent parts. We can no more truly understand strategies in a board game by compiling statistics of the movements of its pieces than we can understand the behavior of an ant colony in terms of averages... [All agents] are described in terms of rules or laws that determine their behavior in a larger context... [and] we can talk of an input state being processed to produce an output state. (John Holland, Emergence)

So where can we go if we believe there are no rules or laws that determine people's behaviour?

Monday, February 24, 2003

Yesterday and today

Today there is 20 cm. of fresh snow.

Today I am re-reading Elias Canetti's "Crowds and Power" (Masse und Macht). It's brilliant.

Today is also the end of Reading Week. On Thursday students hand in their research papers, and I have to mark them all before I leave for Austin. This means I have only a few more days to get work done for myself. But I continue to be less than motivated.

Yesterday I spent a half-day at the spa. I got my hair done - and a manicure and hand massage, a pedicure and foot massage, and a face and scalp massage. For four hours, a half-dozen women cultivated gentle extremities of touch, texture, scent and sound, heads, hands and feet. It was glorious!

Saturday, February 22, 2003

Privacy watch

I just got a call from the folks at Citibank about my Mastercard. It seems that on Wednesday my card experienced "unusual amounts of use". This guy proceeds to rattle off a list of charges and asks me if I purchased those items. "We're checking to see if there has been a security breach, ma'am". No, I assure him. It was indeed me who bought the 12 inch strap-on dildo, thank you for asking.

Seriously, part of me is pleased they care if my card is being used by someone else. But I hate knowing that my shopping habits are being tracked so closely. I should use cash more often.

Another day

Still feeling much the same, but am particularly grateful for all the kind comments I received yesterday. (I choose to ignore the ones that weren't.) And special thanks go to fellow grad students for showing me that solidarity is not bound to discipline. Paul, Chad and Nathan - You rock!

This blogging thing is weird. And that's my official anthropological statement. Seriously, I'm beginning to think that blogging is only minimally a social activity. I check my logs and know how many visitors the site gets, including regulars, and I figure that I have been contacted by maybe 5% of these people (and 75% of them are grad students). But I am grateful for the friends I have made and I recognise how this would not have been possible in other times.

Still, I don't want to submit a blog for my PhD. The more I think about it, the more insanely bored I get. (But I think I've made a pretty strong case for submitting a blog-as-dissertation and I have posted all my notes for other interested grad students and profs.) To be fair, it doesn't adequately address my project needs; there are stronger formats it can take. But that doesn't account for my dissatisfaction.

Trevor touches on some of my feelings when he writes about why he doesn't blog more: "It could have something to do with my being horrible at anything that needs attention repetitively, or at least my being bored by things that need daily attention. It could be a bunch of uninteresting self-depreciating neuroses but that's just false humility so I'll drop it. The diaryesqeness of blogging is obviously not going to work for me. These need to be filings Trevor. Chip off little bits that you want to remember and put them here. Blog because its about being yourself."

Being myself? I am only and always myself. But that self is more fulfilled in particular contexts. And maybe this virtual world is not for me. I need people too much.

I'll finish with the best link I was sent yesterday: Why Nerds are Unpopular by Paul Graham. It rambles, but I won't hold that against him because he's definitely on to something! Thanks Frances!

Friday, February 21, 2003

Brought down by a case of The Infinite Sadness

I'm feeling discouraged and disinterested. I don't want to maintain a blog. I don't want to finish my PhD. I don't want to be a consultant.

I've got nothing interesting to say. My perspective is not unique. My voice is weak.

Bringing people together is not enough. How come no one ever asks why we feel lonely when we're in a crowd?

Thursday, February 20, 2003

Mobile research

According to the BBC, a three-year study into the evolution of consumer mobile behaviour, entitled Me, My Mobile and I, suggests that mobile devices are increasingly offering people a way to control their relationships, location and self-image.

This study was conducted by the Teleconomy Research Group in the Management School at Lancaster - and I could only find Google caches of their pages. The research team comprised behavioural psychologists and applied sociologists and anthropologists, and I was trying to find out what theoretical/methodological frameworks they used. The use of anthropology and sociology in management and business research makes me nervous - I have ethical concerns, and I need to know where they're coming from and how the findings will be used. (And, in this case, I'm curious why the Lancaster Science, Technology and Society folks don't seem to be involved.)

So, I managed to find a cached CHI workshop paper which states that the research was "interpreted using applied frameworks from sociology and philosophy. The frameworks are mainly derived from the work of Anthony Giddens, Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard. The leading concepts are identity, dialogue and symbolism." OK - post-structural but still very much concerned with signs and representation.

Now, if they'd just make the results available... I like BBC news and all, but more detail would be good.

The evolution and migration of ideas

Archaeologists and physical anthropologists hold that Homo sapiens evolved in the Central African Rift Valley about 100,000 years ago and began spreading throughout the world, eventually replacing all other hominid species. According to this argument, it took people quite some time to spread out: Australia is believed to have been settled about 40,000 - 50,000 years ago and the Americas around 15,000 - 20,000 years ago.

Every so often, new evidence suggests that these migrations took place 10,000 - 20,000 years earlier. These claims get the archaeology community all twisted up; if the peopling of Australia and the Americas took place earlier than we believe, it would affect all sorts of other assumptions we have about evolution and migration patterns. So, the first thing scrutinised is the technique used to date the archaeological materials (these methods are not as accurate or precise as one might believe). If the dating method is considered to be reliable, then there is always the possibility that data were contaminated or incorrectly collected by researchers.

Australian archaeologists have argued for decades about the skeletal remains of the "First Australian" (known as Mungo Man). Archaeologists originally suggested the remains were about 30,000 years old, and later claimed that the man was buried 62,000 years ago. This later evidence conflicted with known global migration data, and the materials were sent to four independent labs for dating. These tests have now dated Mungo Man's burial to around 40,000 years ago - fully consistent with established knowledge.

Every time I read stories like that, I think of the woman who taught me how to be a scholar - Dr. Ruth Gruhn. Now retired from teaching, she is a brilliant anthropologist who spent her career arguing for an early migration to the Americas based on a coastal entry route, and against the established argument of migration by foot over the Bering land bridge. There was (and probably continues to be) resistance to her work, but she taught me how valuable that can be.

Anthropology is historically bound up with authority and colonialism, and despite advocating a critical reflexivity and advancing scientific method on several fronts, there persists an imperial consciousness in how some anthropologists conduct fieldwork overseas. When I was a practising archaeologist, I never forgot the Peruvian archaeologists telling me that they were more often treated like informants than like colleagues. And then there are the disagreements between European and North American archaeologists working in the Americas. Who conducts the dig, who analyses the data and where it is analysed make all the difference when it comes to explaining the peopling of the Americas. The last time I checked, a group of American scholars had a monopoly on the truth.

But Ruth taught me that truth is relative, and that what we believe today may not be what we believe tomorrow. She taught me that a great scholar has a strong and flexible mind, approaches her studies with passion, but never shuts out other possibilities. She taught me that a great scholar does not choose art or science, but always weaves them together. And it was Ruth who taught me not to be afraid when scholars - and others - disagree with me. Not a day goes by that I'm not grateful for that one.

Wednesday, February 19, 2003


Via V-2 : "K-Bot is the face of the future of robotics. It is a mask of elastic polymer placed over $400 worth of stereoscopic cameras, wiring and tiny motors. And because K-Bot can sneer, scoff, and smile warmly, it is the ultimate in automaton sophistication. It is the first robot with 24 artificial facial muscles and 28 facial expressions, and eyes that could follow you round the room."

Adam conjures the Freudian psychoanalytic notion of the uncanny, and I am reminded of the importance, the power, of faces. The first social interface was one face communicating with another, experiencing faciality.

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari write that "Significance is never without a white wall upon which it inscribes its signs and redundancies. Subjectification is never without a black hole in which it lodges its consciousness, passion, and redundancies." The face is simultaneously the white wall and black hole. More precisely, "the face, at least the concrete face, vaguely begins to take shape on the white wall. It vaguely begins to appear in the black hole."

"I no longer look into the eyes of the woman I hold in my arms but I swim through, head and arms and legs, and I see that behind the sockets of the eyes there is a region unexplored, the world of futurity, and here there is no logic whatsoever... I have broken the wall... My eyes are useless, for they render back only the image of the known. My whole body must become a constant beam of light, moving with an ever greater rapidity, never arrested, never looking back, never dwindling... Therefore I close my ears, my eyes, my mouth" (Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn).


Tim Jaeger, Nano-Thought / Nano-Media.

Takes a look at nano-thought and nano-media as ambient data-cloud, and how new media technologies create a "place where you can enter a 'suspended kind of time' where you can float through the day allowing different influences, words, quotes, and texts to surround and influence you; in other words, allowing things to create a sort of 'mesh effect': Something breezy, that flows, never stops or rests, and is quite organic."

Jan Speckenbach, Match Frame and Jump Cut: A dialectic theory of montage in the digital age

Examines the current state of cinema and two types of editing in film-making: "Any cut in space is a match frame... Any cut in time is a jump cut." Also their relationships to montage, the differences between cutting and trimming, and the "desire of liquidity" (a matter of space/time and performance) in digital editing.

Monday, February 17, 2003

Netting the flow

Google Buys Pyra: Blogging Goes Big-Time

"Google is known best for its search capabilities, but the Pyra buyout isn't the company's first foray into creating or buying Internet content. Two years ago Google bought, a company that had collected and continued to update Usenet "newsgroups," Internet discussion forums. More recently, it created Google News, a site that gauges the collective thoughts of more than 4,000 news sites on the Net. But now Google will surge to the forefront of what David Krane, the company's director of corporate communications, called "a global self-publishing phenomenon that connects Internet users with dynamic, diverse points of view while also enabling comment and participation."

Matt Webb says that Google are building the Memex.

Shelley Powers says: Seems to me that Google is centralizing the data in addition to centralizing the data search; controlling both a source of the data as well as a source of the dissemination of the data. This centralization seems a contradiction to the 'distributed nature of the online world' that Dan Gillmor writes about.

Thus Spoke Nietzsche

I mistrust all systemizers and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.

We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.

[via Friedrich Nietzsche Quotes]

Women and rhythm-section first!

Jazz is there and gone. It happens. You have to be present for it. That simple. Keith Jarrett

Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there. Miles Davis

In my music, I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time. Charles Mingus

There are four qualities essential to a great jazzman: taste, courage, individuality, and irreverence. Stan Getz

Women and rhythm-section first! Jaco Pastorius

Saturday, February 15, 2003

Workshop on User Modelling for Ubiquitous Computing

In conjunction with User Modeling 2003. Pittsburgh, PA, USA, June 22, 2003. Call For Papers.

Really interesting questions about "appropriate techniques to enable users to interrogate and/or amend their user model" and "how to handle and represent uncertainty that comes along with sensors and if the different context levels are domain independent." And of course there's tons of stuff for systems-geeks.

When students become friends

In 1996, the first year of my Masters, I was a TA for Intro Archaeology, and Adrienne was one of my students. She was whip-smart, and her wit and deadly sarcasm stunned me. Adrienne is also super gorgeous - and I used to sit in class and admire her ability to deflect unwanted male advances.

Anyway, our years at Trent were intimate and we became friends, and stayed friends as we both decided archaeology was not for us, and Adrienne embarked on a Masters degree in Museum Studies.

And now I hear that Adrienne is officially a Master - even though she has always been an exemplary Mistress - and working a groovy sounding contract in Zambia!

I love you girlie! Congratulations!

The beauty of the everyday

Spent the day at school yesterday and it was good to hang out with other grad students for awhile. It got me to take my head out of my ass.

Speaking of grad students, Nathan Lundblad waxes poetically on the everyday life of physicists. I love it!

... which reminds me of a quote I saw yesterday - in my dentist's office:

The great tragedy of life is what dies in a man while he is alive. Albert Einstein

... which reminds me of Scott at littlemeanfish on fatigue.

Friday, February 14, 2003


Headmap Blogosphere 2

Smoking girl

I love smoking. I haven't had a cigarette in 6 days. I think about having a cigarette about 6 million times a day. Quitting smoking sucks.

The physical withdrawal was minimal for me. The psychological withdrawal is proving infinitely more difficult. In order to keep my mind occupied, I have taken to studying about 18 hours a day and have become way anti-social. I went out for lunch with my friend Geoff yesterday and he reminded me that obsessive behaviour is, well, obsessive. Unbalanced, and at times, unreasonable and unpleasant for others.

Jason is accustomed to my relative disappearance. Even when I am in the house with him, I have been known to completely retreat into my research for days on end. (I couldn't have a relationship with someone who got freaked out by that.) He brings me food and reminds me to laugh and everything is fine.

But my current retreat is different because it is coupled with the denial of one of my favourite habits. For many reasons, I really do want to quit smoking. But my most frequent emotional state since quitting smoking has been agitation. And, apparently, I don't keep it to myself. To be honest, these days, social interaction just pisses me off.

And this seems a high price to pay for wanting to live longer.

Thursday, February 13, 2003

Shuffle discs

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

For love of narrative

Via Matt at Upsideclown: The Role of Cooperation in Human Interaction. A beautiful way to combine prescription and description.

Anne vs. her mobile phone

As someone who spends so much time addressing the theoretical aspects of wireless communications, I would do well to note my *actual* experiences.

In the Spring of last year, I bought a Motorola Timeport 280. At the time, the only service provider who supported that phone was Fido, and it has since been discontinued. I didn't need or want a PDA (fed gov't workers here are decked out with BlackBerries), but I wanted something that could text, connect to the 'Net and work anywhere in the world. Fine. Or so I thought.

Strike 1: Text-messaging is only available between mobile devices (phones, pagers, PDAs) on the Fido network. (To the best of my knowledge, this is true for each of the Canadian wireless providers.) Since I don't know anyone (or don't know if I know anyone) on the network, texting is pretty much useless to me. There's something weird about community built around technology in this sense: what do I have in common with other Fido users besides using Fido-supported devices?

(Aside - I think one of HipTop Nation's greater social strengths is connecting Sidekick users with non-Sidekick users in the common space of the Web. At a superficial level, I see very little interaction between the mobile bloggers themselves.)

Strike 2: It turns out that mobile Internet access is way too expensive for me in a cost-benefit sort of way. It insufficiently enriches my daily life, or more specifically, offers me little more than already afforded by the wireless LAN in my house. But then again, I've never seen an outside ad-hoc wireless network in action.

Strike 3: Game over. For a number of reasons, I have had no need to use my phone overseas. But today I called Fido to see what's up with my phone while I'm in the States next month. It turns out that I have to request, in writing, the activation of roaming services 60 days in advance of when I need them. This phone is now officially *fucking useless* for every task I wanted it to perform.

As much as I hate Fido right now, I suspect this is also karmic retribution for my technolust.


+ dissertation

Revised methodology position paper (I wish someone would do research on the academic obsession with defending one's position.)

Does anyone know of someone who submitted a blog site as their final thesis or dissertation product? I can't find precedence and need all the support I can get to make this case!

Primary problems: ethics (informed participation), online participatory ethnography, collaborative research, evaluation criteria. I've decided to use Movable Type to power the site, and I also need to defend my choice of software. Part of the dissertation will need to evaluate the possibilities for social interaction and knowledge construction allowed by MT.

+ 3rd year course syllabus - information and knowledge flows - finish bibliography, decide if I want to assign a textbook and/or a collection of readings.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality

Clay Shirky naturalises inequality by invoking statistical power laws.

Prior to recent theoretical work on social networks, the usual explanations [for inequality] invoked individual behaviors: some members of the community had sold out, the spirit of the early days was being diluted by the newcomers, et cetera. We now know that these explanations are wrong, or at least beside the point. What matters is this: Diversity plus freedom of choice creates inequality, and the greater the diversity, the more extreme the inequality.

I [can] read this to mean that we can, and should, dismiss any evidence of social interaction that falls outside the parameters of power laws. To reduce sociality to numbers of connections or degrees of association, or even to individual psychological motivations, denies decades of anthropological and sociological research. Is it a question of evidence, of predictability? Surely the interpretive validity of ethnography has been established. How does Clay's approach explain, or account for, sociality that falls "outside" power laws? I don't think that's "beside the point." To me, what matters is this: quality of connection and substance of conversation.

For interesting commentary, go here and here.

UPDATE 11/02/03: This morning I am struck by the properties of academic language and the performance aspects of stating one's position - it can be so dramatic! I checked out the current course offerings in the NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program - and it looks like they're teaching some really interesting stuff. Where I could find the reading lists, I see familiar sociology and anthropology. Sub-cultures and poetics are being examined alongside evolutionary and emergent networks. In my experience, social science departments can be crippled by divisions between qualitative and quantitative researchers, and I wonder what the political situation is like at NYU...


Dave Winer brings attention to something close to my heart - participation vs. observation. Ross Mayfield's comments on Distribution of Choice are also interesting.

Then there are these choice comments on Boys with Toys and the limits of certain measuring sticks - mucho gusto! And I think that Steve is one of the few people who actually *got* my original post - and he continues to take the heat for claiming that power is about socially-negotiated meaning, not numbers: As an example of what I'm talking about, take Clay's essay itself. He links to a post of mine, sending me the high amount of traffic I'm getting today. And yet, because his link defines my post as a 'lament' (inaccurately, to my mind), anyone who arrives via that link is already going to read it in a negative context. So the 'power' I might gain by having more readers is outweighed by the power he exerts (albeit unintentionally) by partially directing the way those readers read me. That's kind of power I'm concerned with in linking practices, not the unmediated numbers. Right on!

UPDATE 12/02/03: And, as always, Fabio with something damn thoughtful.

Monday, February 10, 2003

When systems don't flow

A philosophical tale about our time by Patricia de Martelaere

The kind of “flow” we are after will not be a “natural” flow at all. The type we want is the water-tap-type, with the water running smoothly and endlessly and the plumber at hand as soon as anything threatens to go wrong: a new image of eternity and god-like perfection (all-seeing and omnipresent eye included). The way water actually flows in its natural environment is nothing like this: its course is full of obstructions and accelerations, it merges with other flows or ends in a lake - and eventually all rivers will end in the sea, where flowing stops or transforms into other processes, like waves or evaporation.

What we like so very much about nature is the idea of an “ecosystem”, in which things are running smoothly and apparently “all by themselves” for a certain time. What we prefer to forget is that nature is struggle and catastrophe too, and that “to flow” for all that lives inevitably also means to stop flowing and to die. Death cannot be represented...

Fainting goats

I've seen these crazy creatures with my own eyes - and the International Fainting Goat Association logo should help clear up any confusion you might have.


website. using movable type. conversational categories. feedback. comments. trackback. connections. xml. rss. multimedia conversations. standards compliant. geo-url and social mapping capabilities. essays. more qualitative measurements. informed participation. accessibility. reflexivity. collaborative research. craft. redesign this site. export content. new categories. mobile and ubiquitous computing. social computing. problems of space. problems of scale. problems of sociality. design matters (crafting technology research and design). digital ethnography (blurring boundaries: blogs as research process and product, impact of software).

On academic discourse

"Habits of thinking and writing that are so familiar to academics that we hardly recognize them often seem counter-intuitive to high school and college students. These habits include the search for hidden meanings in texts and experience generally, the inclination to be contentious and to foment controversy, the tendency to make seemingly obvious assumptions explicit and the general obsession with searching for problems where often there do not seem to be any. The most productive way for teachers to help students cope with these unfamiliar academic habits is to identify these habits in class, inviting students to discuss them and even air their doubts about them."

Graff, G. "The Problem Problem and Other Oddities of Academic Discourse". Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, June 2002, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 27-42(16)

Plus English for Specific Purposes: An International Research Journal

Mobile Sociologies


Not earth-shattering, to be sure, but exemplary of how thousands of people are using online games to either project their real voices or speak up as they might not in real life. Players of EverQuest, the most popular online game in the United States with about 85,000 playing at any time, held in-game candlelight vigils after the Sept. 11 attacks and even created memorials within the game's universe. Such games have become "online petri dishes" to show how far people will go in wedding their real and virtual lives, said Amy Jo Kim, an online-games designer involved with


This is Day 3 without smoking and the only way I can keep myself from lighting up has been to do research 18 hours a day (and I still dream about smoking). It's sick. My beloved acupuncturist has inserted two needles in my left ear that I push really hard whenever I get a cigarette craving. As far as I can tell, the effort it takes - and the pain it causes - to push the needle distracts me long enough to remember that I want to quit. Anyway, it makes me think of what a hedonist I am. I have no small vices or fetishes - they're all pretty hardcore.

Since deciding that my thesis could be best presented as a living, interactive (digital) space - the following problems have emerged:

1. What is a thesis/dissertation? (materiality of paper, durability of thought, relationship between writer and reader, constructing professional discourse, voice and authority, ethnography and reflexivity, idealising the agora, reciprocity)

2. What constitutes a PhD dissertation at my university? Departmental guidelines for a concentration in social and virtual spaces: doctoral thesis "offers an original contribution and argumentation" (like that helps clarify things.)

2. What are the advantages and limitations of printed paper theses? What is lost and gained in the construction of digital theses? What type of digital thesis best suits my project requirements?

3. How can we evaluate digital dissertations? What are the criteria for success in the social sciences? In my concentration in social and cultural theory? How does this relate to the interpretive validity of my argument? How is my argument embodied and materialised? If my dissertation is a live website, how can it best be "captured" for evaluation and archiving? What are the ontological and epistemological implications for "freezing" it in time?

4. What are the ethical considerations for this type of social research and presentation? (Research must be approved by University Ethics Committee according to Tri-Council Policy Statement)

UPDATE: blog posts and comments public/email communication private?
Ethical Issues of Online Communication Research
Ethics of Internet Research: Contesting the Human Subjects Research Model
Ethical decision-making and Internet research: Recommendations from the AoIR Ethics Working Committee (pdf).

Man, trying to do things differently always requires *more work*.

Sunday, February 9, 2003

More on digital dissertations

All of my academic attention these days is going towards making the case for a digital dissertation. I want to submit a Flash dissertation, and I cannot find precedents in the social sciences - although there are plenty of general multimedia theses in the fine arts and hard sciences, and some in the humanities - and I did find an IRC transcript of an online thesis defense. If you know of any interactive theses or dissertations in the social sciences - I'd love to know, please. I have a hard time believing I am the only one trying to do this - or experiencing resistance ;)

For background see the University of Waterloo Electronic Theses Project Team ETD Questionnaire Results (1997) which introduce governance, intellectual property, submission, access, distribution, storage, preservation, social and philosophical issues.

For now, my problem is two-fold: matters of format and structure/content.

I must make the case that my project meets the archival requirements and standards of the University, the National Library and international dissertation archives and publishers.

For example, UMI Dissertations Publishing Guidelines for Dissertations in Digital Format.

"UMI will accept dissertations and Masters' theses on CD-ROM under the following conditions:
1. Software to display, play or read the document is either ubiquitous free ware such as Netscape or Adobe Acrobat or is fully licensed third party software.
2. A copy of the application used to display, play or read the document is available on the CD and is fully licensed to be copied and installed on a reader's machine."

Does this mean if I create my dissertation with Flash, I have to submit (on CD-ROM) the Flash file and a copy of the Flash Player? I checked out the Macromedia End User License Agreement but I don't understand if it prevents me from doing that. I know I can make stand-alone executable files for PC and Mac - but then I don't know if that meets the accessibility and archival standards of dissertation publishers like UMI or the National Library. Any ideas?

But maybe the greater challenge is "social and philosophical" - making the case that a digital dissertation can not only meet the scholarship and research standards of sociology and anthropology, but also expand the possibilities for future research and interpretation.

After all, there's still that weird tension between having to situate one's project within established disciplinary debates - "our history and traditions" - and at the same time make an "original contribution to knowledge."

Maybe I should start by asking "What is a thesis or dissertation?"

UPDATE: I was spending too much time thinking about what *I* wanted to do, instead of what I wanted my *thesis* to do. It can't be Flash. I want it to be a living document and it has to be entirely W3C compliant. I need to figure out a way to evolve this site into my dissertation.

I just finished reading the methodology for Simon Pockley's 1998 web site dissertation, The Flight of Ducks. (One of the thesis advisors was William Mitchell). Good thoughts on accessibility, archiving and preservation. [via ETDs in the Humanities]

Also, Hypertext and Journalism: Audiences Respond to Competing News Narratives by Robert Huesca and Brenda Dervin - raises interesting questions about voice and authority.

Saturday, February 8, 2003

On (Absent) Presence

Fabio Sergio looks at the concept of presence. I'll take this one step further and say that mobile and ubiquitous technologies afford an *absent* presence.

Not unlike the experience of "phantom" limbs - technologies that can go anywhere and be everywhere blur distinctions between distance and proximity, and effectively enable intimacy-at-a-distance. Sometimes, what is *present* is precisely that which is (also) *absent*.

Armchair anthropology

Matt Webb took a close look at his food and called the customer service lines to ask some questions - the results ranged from suspicion (I imagine the call centre staff having recently attended a workshop on social engineering) and confusion, to general consumer helpfulness. My favourites (and Matt's):

Polos. Very friendly. Bloke who answered customer care line based in a portacabin on the factory floor, near the Polo making machine. Asked to describe it, he said it was a like a six barrel machine gun, shooting mints. Loud.

Tate & Lyle. I ask how sugar is made. Customer care put me through to a sugar factory. I ask how sugar is made. Factory put me through to the technical department. I ask how sugar is made. Technical department put me through to a sugar engineer. I ask how sugar is made. Sugar engineer asks me how much time I've got. I ask for the overview. Lovely sugar engineer spends nearly quarter of an hour talking me through the growing, shipping, refinement and chemical processes. My favourite.

Friday, February 7, 2003

UNESCO Guide for Electronic Theses and Dissertations

"Welcome to The Guide for Electronic Theses and Dissertations. We offer this site as a resource for graduate students who are writing theses or dissertations, for graduate faculty who want to mentor ETD authors, for graduate deans who want to initiate ETD programs, and for IT administrators at universities. The Guide is designed specifically for academic researchers and their mentors, yet anyone interested in research and e-publishing will enjoy this resource. Published by UNESCO, The Guide is an international, "living" document, written by ETD (electronic thesis and dissertation) scholars throughout the world."

See Judith Edminster's 2002 PhD dissertation The Diffusion of New Media Scholarship: Power, Innovation, and Resistance in Academe.


Human Computer Interaction Journal - 2001 Special Issue on Context-Aware Computing

If you don't have access to an academic research library, I'm not sure where you will find the journal and/or articles - but I found these essays to be useful for exploring issues around social software:

Changing Places: Contexts of Awareness in Computing - Philip E. Agre
Intelligibility and Accountability: Human Considerations in Context Aware Systems - Victoria Bellotti and Keith Edwards
Context as a Dynamic Construct - Saul Greenberg
Interaction Issues in Context-Aware Intelligent Environments - Steven A. N. Shafer, Barry Brumitt, and JJ Cadiz

Internationale Architectuur Biennale Rotterdam

"Rotterdam will host the first International Architecture Biennial from May 7 - July 7, 2003. The first architecture biennial focuses entirely on the theme of mobility, examining the issue of modern-day mobility and the consequences for architecture and urban development. Architects, civil engineers, urban planners, traffic experts, landscape architects, students, filmmakers and photographers from around the world will spend two months presenting plans and exchanging ideas in the form of exhibitions, lectures, publications, debates, films and excursions. The curator is Francine Houben, partner in the Mecanoo architecture firm and professor at the Delft University of Technology."

How to exhibit invisible cities

Via Dan Hill - Invisible Cities.

"Through the interface of a gallery wall, each city, represented by an audio work of five minutes duration, is accessible through headphones. Participants in the gallery can transcend distance - moving from Moscow to Montreal, from Berlin to Beijing - in the time it takes to plug a pair of headphones into an alternative location."

This raises interesting questions around intimacy-at-a-distance. It renders matters of correspondence difficult, and grounds the discussion in terms of space rather than scale.

And I especially like the inspiration from Italo Calvino: I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them.

This reminds me a bit of the Amsterdam Real Time project and notions of a *lived* city, rooted in everyday social interactions.

Thursday, February 6, 2003


Spent the morning in client meetings. Graphic design problems.
Just finished preparing for tomorrow's meeting with Rob (my PhD supervisor). I'm changing the focus of my dissertation.
Still have to prepare for tomorrow's class and mark remaining 32 exam essays.

Wednesday, February 5, 2003

Symbolic interaction

"The Sedlec Ossuary is a small Christian chapel decorated with human bones. It's located in Sedlec which is a suburb in the outskirts of the Czech town Kutna Hora. In 1996 I visited the place and fell madly in love with it."

Circlemakers: Top of the Crops 2002 and more North Korean propaganda posters

[all via dublog]

Digital ethnography

"One of the central missions of the Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library involves creating a comprehensive system for using technology in fieldwork, beginning with tools and guidelines for collecting and generating data in the field, through the intellectual and technical processing of that data, up to the final publishing and dissemination of materials. Throughout, our system involves a strong ethical commitment to the communities being researched. This means that the system must support:

* local scripts/languages and conceptual systems being used for the generation, indexing, analysis and utilization of materials
* local scholars being empowered to participate in the system from top to bottom
* local schools being able to incorporate the results within their educational system
* products being sent back to the communities in question right down to the village level using innovative strategies for publication and dissemination."

Hungarian art

[origo] Galéria is wonderful.


Ever since the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated and began to fall to earth, I have listened to reporters asking people about the "human remains". Witnesses have reported finding human body parts, and reporters have asked them to be more specific. More specific?! There have been *body parts* falling from the sky! Have some friggin' respect!

New Scientist reports: NASA has not released any details about the condition of the bodies or the formal cause of death - "We have no more details for you out of respect for the families."

Thank you.

Tuesday, February 4, 2003

Reflexivity vs. navel-gazing

Tom Coates continues to unravel the fabric of the blogosphere and readers weigh in - lots of interesting thinking here.

My thoughts since my original post?

I wish I had not framed my discussion in terms of culture and sub-culture - because it seems that non-anthropologists(?) may treat these as homogeneous and mutually exclusive categories, which they are not. All I really wanted to get at was an understanding of the power relations played out in blogging practices - because, for me, these are social matters not adequately explained by mathematical equations and "power laws". And I was interested in the language, in the rhetoric at play. The origin and use of words like "blogosphere" and "A-List" fascinate me - these are social constructs that act-in-the-world.

UPDATE 4/2/03 - Steve has added some very thoughtful comments, and gets right to the points that interest me:

One thing we can't do is to study influence/power by concentrating on links and visibility in a purely statistical way... To get a sense of online influence, I think, we need a more qualitative, ethnographic approach to the web--something I haven't seen much of... The way to understand context specific influence is to explore its specific context. Simple, no? One means of doing this is to track an individual meme, an individual link, in other words, as it moves and meanders across the web. Not to count the number of times it's linked, but rather to understand the ways in which it is linked, because I think real influence, genuine power is tied up in the ability to make meanings and direct the meaning-making of others far more than in raw numbers and visibility.


Also somewhat related: Meg Hourihan on The Margins of the Writable Web

Design for adaptability

Adam Greenfield takes a closer look at designing for adaptability and notions that "seem to be pointing us is towards a place where all of "our" painstakingly garnered knowledge about what makes an interface tick fades in importance compared to the user's ability to order their operating environment as suits them: if they prefer cutesy animated icons and red-on-blue text, if this helps them work more efficiently or simply find more joy in the experience, then so be it."

Well, yes and no. This reminds me a bit of when I argue for different ways of doing sociology and sociologists respond that my strategies will render our discipline obsolete. To this, I always respond that our discipline will be reconfigured, not obliterated. Ditto with design.

If I am designing a teapot, I might choose a shape that can also serve as a flower vase - but that does not absolve me from designing a teapot that doesn't drip when pouring tea. And it's the same with software applications or interfaces. We can provide the means for users to adapt them, but that doesn't mean that we don't design something useful on its own. After all, years of research and professional experience have indeed helped us understand "what makes an interface tick" and there is no reason to throw out that knowledge.

The key to designing for adaptability will involve a balancing act between what designers consider good design and the ability of a user to *also* create their idea of good design. I would think that an adaptable interface is only useful once a stage for adaptation has been built. Some users will never want - or need - to adapt a product, and they should be given a well-designed and useful one. So, in the process of designing a stable base product, designers will also need to build a flexible "surface" - and here I envision something much more flexible than a simple "skin".

Good science, part 2

I talked with friends this weekend about my Friday post, and in conversation, I defended Prof. Dini's expectation of particular "disciplinary knowledge". My friends annihilated my argument.

But let's backtrack a bit. I'm trained as an anthropologist and I accept the reality of human evolution. But anthropologists are also trained to accept the reality of creation myths. When I wrote that evolution and creationism can easily run parallel to each other, I only meant to draw out that each perspective seeks to answer different questions and there is no reason (beyond politics) for them to come into conflict. If I asked an anthropology student the same question that Prof. Dini asks, I would expect the student to tell me about evolution *and* creation myths - because our discipline bounds knowledge in that way. So, in that sense, I think that a biology professor has every reason to expect a student to understand evolution.

But, here's a problem: I am (too) often accused of *not doing* sociology. Why? Because sociologists study society, and I replace that concept with sociality or the social. What I study does not fit into the traditional boundaries of sociological knowledge. Worse yet, I have been known to argue that scientific knowledge can be treated the same way as mythical knowledge. This, of course, undermines the scientific *authority* of our research and (supposedly) makes me a bad sociologist (or at least in North America, an anthropologist rather than a sociologist). And, incidentally, this perspective has cost me more than a few recommendations over the years.

My point is that knowledge, whether or not tied to a particular discipline, changes over time. Historically, scientific *facts* have been disproved, and replaced with *better* facts. Certainly, we should expect scholars to know their discipline, but I also think we need to give scholars enough room to move that they are able to reconfigure the boundaries of their discipline. Different ways of understanding are critical to scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge.

And apologies to those who wanted to debate creationism and evolution with me - I'm not one of those people who will pick one *over* the other ;) But having said that, I will admit that the Young Earth variety of creationism confuses me precisely because it seeks to explain a non-scientific argument in scientific terms. And I'll have to remember that the next time I try to explain science in non-scientific terms...

The Insect Craftsperson

The Wonderful Caddis Worm: Sculptural Work in Collaboration with Trichoptera.

Since the early 1980s, artist Hubert Duprat has been utilizing insects to construct some of his "sculptures." By removing caddis fly larvae from their natural habitat and providing them with precious materials, he prompts them to manufacture cases that resemble jewelers' creations. Information theory, as explained by biologists such as Jacques Monod and Henri Atlan, helps us understand what seems to be the insect's aesthetic behavior. The activities of the caddis worm, as manipulated by Hubert Duprat, are prompted by the "noise"---beads, pearls and 18-karat gold pieces---introduced by the artist into the insect's environment. This article is based on a conversation between the artist and art critic Christian Besson.

[via dublog]

Saturday, February 1, 2003

Good science

Texas Tech University biology professor Michael Dini has been accused of religious discrimination based on his personal policy for giving students letters of recommendation. According to his web site:

If you set up an appointment to discuss the writing of a letter of recommendation, I will ask you: "How do you think the human species originated?" If you cannot truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer to this question, then you should not seek my recommendation for admittance to further education in the biomedical sciences. Why do I ask this question? ...The central, unifying principle of biology is the theory of evolution, which includes both micro- and macro-evolution, and which extends to ALL species. How can someone who does not accept the most important theory in biology expect to properly practice in a field that is... heavily based on biology? ...So much physical evidence supports the evolution of humans from non-human ancestors that one can validly refer to the "fact" of human evolution, even if all of the details are not yet known. One can deny this evidence only at the risk of calling into question one’s understanding of science and of the method of science. Such an individual has committed malpractice regarding the method of science, for good scientists would never throw out data that do not conform to their expectations or beliefs.

First, I always understood that letters of recommendation were optional - as in, the professor doesn't have to give you one if she doesn't want to. And I think that is reasonable. But does this mean that professors should be able to use whatever criteria they want to refuse a recommendation? Is there no sort of accountability?

According to the Liberty Legal Institute handling the complaint, "Students are being denied recommendations not because of their competence in understanding evolution, but solely because of their personal religious beliefs [in creationism]."

I've always thought that a person can *understand* ideas and not agree with them. But as soon as I don't agree with certain perspectives, they inform my perspective in negative, rather than positive, terms. In other words, my position evolves in (at least partial) opposition to perspectives with which I disagree, and my *actions* will relay this opposition.

I've also never had a problem with notions of evolution and creationism running parallel to each other - but I do find it problematic if we are asked to choose one *or* the other, as if they are opposite ends on a spectrum of Truth.

Should a scientist have to *believe* in evolution? To me, that appears to be a question of faith rather than of science - but it does draw out the possibility that scientific method is not always as objective as it claims to be.

Interfaces that change shape

Stewart Butterfield points to Idea: Socially constructed interfaces:

Imagine (if you would) starting off with some kind of application which did one thing - send email perhaps or have instant messaging. The ui would be extremely plain - but you would have the intrinsic ability to 1) connect to friends somehow; 2) be able to construct your own "widgets" which could range from simple tree menus, to throbbers, or even useless animated icons; and 3) have the ability to send these "widgets" to others - which in turn gives you the increased capacity to make more widgets or accept more complicated widgets of your own.

In this way, UI elements and features "evolve" from social interactions. Really cool widgets get shared widely and advance the tool as a whole. Other features which are useless never get shared, or rarely do and would fall by the wayside. The user is constantly incentivised to continue to revise and create new features and GUI's because they gain what I can only describe as whuffie or egoboo - but there would also be some real world benefit.

This further articulates something I started to get at in my Ubicomp paper - the ability of an interface to "change shape" - to *become* what we want or need it to be, in context, and perhaps despite the initial design parameters. I later folded these ideas into the notion of designing for hackability, where the ability to hack a device or application is considered an integral part of designing for adaptability.

CC Copyright 2001-2009 by Anne Galloway. Some rights reserved. Powered by Blogger and hosted by Dreamhost.