Friday, February 02, 2007

Tagcloud as exam analysis

Derek Mueller has a great idea here: view your exams (or other texts) as tagclouds to see where the most frequently mentioned topics are.

Earth Wide Moth: Cloudifying Exams

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Wolf promises to live amicably with pigs

Blackboard has patented educational groupware, but promises not to sue open source competitors.

Slashdot | Blackboard's "Pledge" Not to Sue Open Source Software

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Modes of debate

A conflict is brewing within the Texas Democratic Party, with David Van Os (who recently ran for Attorney General) challenging progressive bloggers to publicly debate him about their disagreements with him. The Burnt Orange Report quotes him:

So far nobody has taken me up on my challenge to the Insiders to a debate over these issues. Come on out and debate me publicly. Don't content yourself with taking pot shots at me from behind blogger pseudonyms. Let's do it in public, in a format where we can challenge each other's assertions and question each other on the spot, in the open. Who will stand and debate me?

What really interests me about the exchange is the implication that oral debate is more honest and trustworthy than textual debate. Textual debate can give advantage to anonymity (as Van Os notes), but it also produces an archivable, searchable record and allows references (hyperlinks, if you're talking about bloggers); arguably, it allows people to keep each other honest through those mechanisms. Textual debate also favors those who have weak speaking skills or who don't think quickly on their feet.

Van Os is comfortable with oral debate, and (correctly, I think) deduces that he's going to be better at it than bloggers. So he frames it in terms of honesty and trustworthiness, and by implication frames textual debate as artificial and deceptive. I'm glad that academics aren't held to those standards, and I hope political discourse won't be.

Burnt Orange Report: Our Eyes Are Upon You, Texas.

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Insert your own Rage Against the Machine joke here

Professor Bainbridge interprets the Boston bomb scare incident as the counterculture selling out:

These two yahoos look exactly like the sort of neo-hippie/anarchists that trashed Seattle back in 1999 and still engage in various forms of counter-culture street theater to this day. Yet, these guys do so not to advance a cause, but to make money advertising a stupid cartoon show on behalf of a major media corporation. The message these two thus are sending to all their counter-culture buddies on behalf of capitalist corporations is: "resistance is futile." ®: Everything is Political; or Why the Boston Hoax Story is about the Triumph of Capitalism

(Via Andrew Sullivan)

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Insert your own speech-act theory joke here

In reaction to the recent bomb scare in Boston, BoingBoing points to stickers with messages such as "Don't Panic! This is NOT A BOMB! Do not be afraid. Do not call the police. Stop letting the terrorists win." 

Boing Boing: Stickers: This is engineering, not bomb-making

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SAGE journals temporarily free

SAGE Publications is allowing free access to their newly digitized backfiles until February 28. I've been pulling down back issues of JBTC.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Turning sugar into diesel?

Sugar + programmable yeast = diesel. Supposedly.
Ethanol is made by adding sugar to yeast, but Amyris believes that it can reprogram the microbes to make something closer to gasoline.

Slashdot | Biology Could Be Used To Turn Sugar Into Diesel

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Massive science fiction mashup

The fans, the fans.

YouTube - Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Babylon 5, Star Wars

Via Drezner.

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

"We're looking to see storage implemented in the mobile ecosystem"

Via Slashdot, this news that Seagate is offering tiny 10-20GB storage devices that connect to your mobile phone via Bluetooth. Obvious advantages include (1) greatly expanded video and photo storage, making the mobile phone a more versatile collection and monitoring device; and (2) greatly expanded music and video content storage, providing an instant challenge to iPods and the iPhone.

"Products using DAVE technology will enable digital content, whether for business or entertainment use, to be stored, moved, and connected in ways never before possible," said Patrick King, senior vice president of Seagate’s consumer electronics business unit, in a press release.

DAVE-based products will be about the size of a credit card and less than half and inch thick, with an operating range of up to 30 feet from the connected phone.

"The reference deisgn is a bit smaller, thinner and lighter than a Moto RAZR," Pait said.

Target price: $150.

Gadget Lab: Seagate Offers Mass Storage for Phones

ADDED: Notice that since it uses Bluetooth, this device will presumably be able to link to any Bluetooth-enabled device, including laptops. So it's a possible replacement for those ubiquitous USB keydrives. And to expand on a point above, it could help qualitative researchers like me to collect data more easily than ever before, by drastically lowering the cost and hassle of the recording equipment I use in my observational and interviewing work. I have a chapter coming out in Amy Kimme Hea's collection that is relevant here.

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Students aren't using landlines ...

... so should universities continue to invest in them?

Smart Mobs: IHL’s tackle loss of landline use

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

"If he were 'Jeb Smith' instead of 'Jeb Bush' he'd probably be at the top of the pack right now"

That's a quote from a social conservative about the current president's brother. This falls close on the heels of Michael Barone's WSJ op-ed discussing the Bush and Clinton dynasties, in which he essentially wonders whether we are making the transition from a democracy to an aristocracy. My sense is that the determining factor is not blood ties so much as the networks of resources each candidate can pull together. Hillary Clinton isn't the front-runner on the Democratic side because she's a Clinton; she's a front-runner because she has managed to put together a strong team and a strong ground organization, drawing on the connections that she and her husband made while in the White House. (That's in addition to being a formidable candidate in her own right.) Similarly, the current President was able to lock in many of the people from his father's organization early in his 2000 campaign. But whether the ties are blood or social, it's a troubling trend; our system is set up to ensure a certain amount of churn in the executive and legislative branches, and that churn is slowing due to the changing dynamics and organization of campaigns.

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Collin overviews mapping tools

Following up on yesterday's post about, Collin overviews that tool and Thinkature.

Collin Vs. Blog: tools for mapping

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TechCrunch is still high on Zoho ...

... and it's hyping Zoho's new Notebook, which sounds like a sort of dashboard for its other products. My impression from looking at the demo is the same as for Zoho's other products: it's trying to be a desktop app, with all of the interface surfacing and bells and whistles that implies.

Exclusive: Zoho Notebook Sneak Peak

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"Students do not relate to newspapers at all, any more than they would to vinyl records"

That's a quote from one teacher in a recent study:
MORE US teachers are using online news sites in the classroom, leaving behind newspapers that fail to grasp the internet's importance in trying to reach students, a study has found.Fifty-seven per cent of American teachers use internet-based news in the classroom with some frequency, said the study, which was based on a survey of 1262 teachers in years five to 12 in the northern autumn of 2006, and released on Monday by the Carnegie-Knight Task Force on the Future of Journalism Education.

Australian IT - Papers losing out in US schools

(Via SmartMobs).

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Monday, January 29, 2007

I want to bake my cellphone

Via Slashdot, an article about stress-testing a rugged phone. I thought hard about buying a shock-resistant phone this last time around, but opted for a fragile, full-featured one with a wrist strap instead. But the G'zOne sounds like you can have your cake and eat it too (pun intended).

Stress-testing and review of the Verizon G'zOne

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How YouTube is changing political campaigns

Jeff Jarvis has thoughts in the Guardian.

BuzzMachine » Blog Archive » Guardian column: The YouTube campaign

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Reading :: In Search of How Societies Work

In Search of How Societies Work: Tribes -- The First and Forever Form
By David Ronfeldt

Over the past few years, I've become really interested in ways that organizations are structured and collaborate, particularly organizations that take advantage of digital technologies to coordinate their work. That led me, among other places, to examine "netwar," or the application of networks to military conflicts. One of the most interesting collections on netwar, reviewed here a while back, is a collection edited by John Arquila and David Ronfeldt; it has really helped me in thinking about how networks form and self-organize. So when Ronfeldt gave me a heads-up on his recent RAND working paper on tribes, I read it almost immediately.

This working paper elaborates the first of four organizational forms: tribes, hierarchical institutions, and networks (p.iii). Ronfeldt argues that these four forms represent four stages in social evolution, with each stage existing along the previous. So societies eventually progress from the tribal (T) to institutional (I) to market (M) to network (N), and since each form incorporates the previous form, Ronfeldt represents each with its initial and those of the previous stages: T, T+I, T+I+M, T+I+M+N. Eventually, Ronfeldt's goal is to write a book that elaborates on all four forms; this working paper constitutes the first part of that book.

When we talk about evolution and progression of universal organizational forms, especially forms such as networks that societies have yet to evolve into, I tend to worry about teleology: the strong controlling narrative that convinces us that we know what's going to happen. Claims such as "Four forms of organization -- and evidently only four -- lie behind the governance and evolution of all societies across the ages" (p.1) seem hubristic. Absolutism and teleology are certainly dangers in this working paper, but I can't get too worked up about them in this case: Ronfeldt is trying to set up a taxonomy that can guide our thinking about how organizations have been observed to work, not set up universal rules, and he also acknowledges that other forms of organization will probably continue to emerge. He also says that "success is not inevitable" when societies attempt to make the transition to a new stage (p.4).

These four forms have been present since ancient times, he says, but have developed at different rates and gained under different conditions:
  • The tribal form was the first to emerge and mature, beginning thousands of years ago. Its main dynamic is kinship, which gives people a distinct sense of identity and belonging—the basic elements of culture, as manifested still today in matters ranging from nationalism to fan clubs.
  • The institutional form was the second to emerge. Emphasizing hierarchy, it led to the development of the state and the military, as epitomized initially by the Roman Empire, not to mention the Catholic papacy and other corporate enterprises.
  • The market form, the third form of organization to take hold, enables people to excel at openly competitive, free, and fair economic exchanges. Although present in ancient times, it did not gain sway until the 19th century, at first mainly in England.
  • The network form, the fourth to mature, serves to connect dispersed groups and individuals so that they may coordinate and act conjointly. Enabled by the digital information-technology revolution, this form is only now coming into its own, so far strengthening civil society more than other realms. (p.1)
"Each form," he says,
requires a different set of conditions before it can take hold, including a revolution in the information and communications technologies of the time. Yet, the progression occurs mainly because the attractiveness of each form lies in its capacity to enable people to address a core problem that a society is bound to face as it develops. In brief, the tribal form excelled—and continues to excel today—at addressing the early problem of social identity and belonging; the hierarchical institutional form, the problem of power and administration; and the market form, the problem of complex exchanges. The paradigmatic strength of the collaborative network form is still unclear; however, it seems best suited to addressing the still-far-from-resolved problem of social equity. (p.2)
These organizational changes, he says, coincide with new values and norms (p.2), new limits (p.3), and modifications to the previous organizational forms (p.3). "If the addition of a new form occurs properly, the older forms end up being strengthened, not weakened, even as their scope is newly limited" (p.3). And "They are not substitutes for one another; they are complements" (p.3). So, he warns, "To do well in the 21st century and beyond, an advanced, democratic, information-age society must incorporate all four forms and make them function well together, despite their inherent contradictions" (p.3).

That transition is hardly predestined. In fact, "many so-called failed states are really failed tribes," while other countries, "failing to make the +M transition ... have reverted to hard-line T+I regimes" (p.5). The US, Western European, and Scandinavian countries, are on their way to creating quadriform (T+I+M+N) societies; "this evolutionary shift explains some of the turbulence America has been experiencing at home and abroad," he adds without elaboration (p.5).

The network shift is what really intrigues me right now, so let's cut to the section on network forms of organization. Ronfeldt argues that
the information revolution strengthens and favors network forms of organization. The new information and communications technologies—all that make up the Net, the Web, the Grid—are enabling dispersed, often small, once-isolated groups and individuals to connect, coordinate, and act conjointly as never before. Power and influence are migrating to actors who are skilled at developing multiorganizational networks and operating in contexts in which such networks are common, as evidenced by the rise of transnational networks of environmental, human-rights, and other NGOs that represent civil society—not to mention terrorist and criminal organizations that represent uncivil society. It is also evident among businesses that form strategic partnerships, and among interagency mechanisms that operate at many levels of government. All are pursuing network designs, although nonstate actors remain generally ahead of state actors at adopting them. These trends, projected into the future, seem to augur major transformations in how the world’s advanced societies will be organized—or, if not societies as a whole, then at least key sectors of their governments, economies, and civil societies. (pp.9-10)
So how do we identify networks and other organizational forms? Ronfeldt argues that topology must be the first criterion, but others include "different kinds of bonds, transactions, decision rules, and coordination mechanisms"; are associated with "different philosophical ideals, codes of conduct, and mentalities"; and "each requires an actor to have different kinds of information to perform well in that particular form" (p.16, emphasis mine). (He provides a lengthy comparative table on pp.19-20.)

The most questioned distinction, he says, is between tribes and networks. Many claim that "tribes are kinship networks" and "in this view, ancient tribes and information-age networks are all networks (or all tribes)" (p.22). However, he argues, the essential dynamics are different: tribes cluster people according to kinship principles, in order not to solve complex tasks but to affirm "identity and belonging for purposes of survival and solidarity" (p.22). This is true, he says, not just in blood ties but in nationalism and fan clubs. In information-age networks, on the other hand, "people who are far removed from each other can connect, coordinate, and act conjointly across barriers and distances" -- and although membership can also serve tribal identity, that's not the point: "this form is suited to enabling people to address modern, complex policy issues that may require efforts from many directions at the same time" (p.22). Think in terms of open-source software development or the complex problems that Barbara Mirel describes in her recent book. In networks, what matters is not bloodline but ideas; members have "fluid, multiple identities"; and networks themselves have "blurred, indefinite boundaries" (pp.22-23). And in this vein, think in terms of postmodernism and boundary-crossing work.

But let's get back to the form of tribes, which is the main focus of the working paper. Ronfeldt describes tribes as
kinship is both ideology and strategy. A tribe’s internal cohesion and its relations with other tribes revolve around a realpolitik not of physical resources but of lineages and marriages ... Arranged marriage is a key instrument for deliberately structuring society. (p.33)
Organizationally, "tribes are resolutely egalitarian, segmental, and acephalous" (p.35) --- that is, they favor individual autonomy, they are not very specialized, and they do not have strong hierarchical leadership. Such characteristics mean that tribes address problems of social identity well; but they handle power and administration poorly and thus do not support complex activity, since they do not have adequate measures for "leadership, decisionmaking, planning, and coordination" (p.43). When tribes begin to develop these characteristics, such as by establishing stable chieftains, they are on their way to transitioning into a T+I form.

Ronfeldt also discusses the "light" and "dark" sides of tribes (and other forms). Just one example: Monotheistic religions have tribal roots (p.42), and "all ancient religious hatreds by groups toward groups ... are sure to speak the language of tribe and clan" (p.42). Those hatreds are with us still; as Ronfeldt notes, in TIMN societies, "tribalism gets concentrated in what becomes the home realm" and indeed "the tribal form is essential to culture, because cultures express the kinship of not only people but also ideas and practices" (p.53). Tribalism is always part of the organizational form, even in more complex structures, and becomes stronger if such a structure collapses:
As a society degenerates and is stripped of the later TIMN forms—the more its state, market, and civil-society systems falter and fall apart—people are sure to revert to the tribal form. It again becomes the driving form. Aspiring leaders may even hype sectarianism or nationalism precisely to put listeners in a tribal frame of mind—inciting their sense of identity, focusing their grievances on outsiders, and energizing them for new sacrifices and struggles. Polarization and tribalism then become of a piece—as polarization tribalizes, so does tribalism further polarize. (pp.62-63)
This link between tribalism and demagoguery isn't explored further, but is still thought-provoking.

Ronfeldt leaves us with these thoughts about the implications of tribe for US policy and strategy abroad:
  • that great powers, as they expand afar, are often ultimately undone by tribal encounters
  • that today’s world is experiencing a tumult of tribalisms, more than a clash of civilizations
  • that Islam, a civilizing force, has fallen under the sway of Islamists who are a tribalizing force
  • that fascism, which fuses hyper-tribalism and hyper-hierarchy, is due for a resurgence. (p.68)
This working paper was fascinating from top to bottom, and I'm looking forward to Ronfeldt turning it into a book. I'm still processing the implications and testing the assumptions that Ronfeldt describes here, and I do have some reservations about the universal and sometimes teleological nature of some of his claims. But he lays out a taxonomy of organizational structures with criteria and characteristics that I will find valuable for thinking through knowledge work and its implications. Others who study work, work organization, and information technologies could also benefit from this clear and engaging discussion.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Mind mapping with

Via Lifehacker, another free app that will make you wonder why you paid so much for that Nova software.

Map your ideas with - Lifehacker

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Adobe Apollo sounds like Yahoo Widgets on steroids

Over at TechCrunch, they think Adobe's Apollo is going to hit the desktop like a ton of bricks, changing how apps are developed:

The reason Apollo is so important is because it changes the rules of the game. It is taking the technologies and tenants [sic] of the web and bringing them to the desktop. Apollo is cross platform and gives web developers access to things like the file system and close integration with the operating system in a set of APIs that are the same whether you’re writing in JavaScript or ActionScript. The web fostered an explosion in the creativity of application development and Apollo will undoubtedly do the same for desktop development.

It certainly sounds like it's going to lower the bar for desktop app development, and it'll be much more flexible than Yahoo Widgets or OSX's Dashboard.

Adobe’s Apollo Provides New Ground For Entrepreneurs

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The other shoe drops: GMail now opens Word attachments in Google Docs

I know, I know: this happened like 24 hours ago, so it's not exactly breaking news. But I did want to point out that this is yet another piece of the puzzle for Google, which is building a unified online office suite suitable for education and small businesses. Google gets what Apple understands, which is that integrating services makes each individual service far more valuable; it's a force multiplier that can vault otherwise unremarkable products to prominence. (Yes, I'm thinking of the iPod-iTunes linkage here.)

Open Word attachments in Google Docs from Gmail - Lifehacker

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Reading :: Technology-Based Solutions to Workforce Service Delivery

Technology-Based Solutions to Workforce Service Delivery
Project directed by Robert W. Glover, Christopher T. King, Francis Dummer Fisher and Lodis Rhodes

Later this month, I'll be talking at the LBJ School about collaboration practices and software that could be useful for policy research project reports (PRPs). These reports are directed by two or more faculty members and involve 10-17 graduate students. To get a better sense of the sorts of documents these teams are writing, I skimmed through two PRPs and read the third one more thoroughly. That's this one, which is on a subject that has really interested me lately: how to prepare workers for the so-called New Economy. Or, as the Introduction summarizes:
The New Economy, characterized by globalization, technological innovation, and rapid labor market change, has increased pressure on both employers and public institutions to educate and train workers more quickly and efficiently. These forces have also led to changes in training content. Workers must possess broad-based competencies, including the ability to communicate, to learn, and to work in teams, as well as technical skills, if they are to succeed in today's labor market. (p.1)
This is fairly standard New Economy stuff. But the report goes more deeply, examining "technology, the New Economy, and workforce development policy" and where the three intersect: "the point at which workers and employers access information and workforce services in order to compete successfully in labor markets" (p.1). And it is specifically focused on Texas policy for accomplishing this.

To address these issues, the report describes several angles: improving access to technology in rural areas, including through distance learning; well-designed courseware and computer-based instruction; online job finding and matching; one-stop career issues; training case managers; preparing students in secondary and postsecondary contexts; and leveraging corporate universities and military training techniques. What emerges is a dry but detailed and interesting examination of these angles in much more localized and concrete terms than are typically used in New Economy readings. The authors manage to concisely examine policy issues and pull these together into policy recommendations -- recommendations that appear at the bottom of each chapter, then are pulled together and repeated in the last chapter.

Recommendations are often tricky in policy documents. It's easy to generate recommendations that are, on the one hand, so general as to be unhelpful ("The Texas workforce system should make effective use of various partnerships and collaborations to implement innovations in information technology" (p.190)), and on the other hand, are too specific or expensive to gain broad support ("The federal and state governments should increase funding for technology resources and facilities for technology training of faculty and staff at postsecondary institutions" (p.187)). We see the same sorts of problems here, but the recommendations are nevertheless useful for getting the shape of a policy response to these issues.

In sum, I found this document helpful in terms of thinking through my own role as an educator and administrator in preparing students for New Economy work, and the specifically Texan focus may also come in useful for my research.

Just in time for the political season, CivicSpace ramps up its offerings

CivicSpace cut its teeth on the Howard Dean campaign, in which it used Drupal to power community sites that supported the campaign. (Drupal's a good open source CMS; we use it to power the CWRL's sites too.) Now, CivicSpace LLC is "a for profit social enterprise dedicating to providing all nonprofits and civic groups an affordable, ubiquitous and powerful toolkit to create social change on the web." That is, if you want to run a campaign (and it is getting to be that season), promote an issue, or establish a community for your nonprofit, CivicSpace combines open source software with its own service and expertise to support your work. More precisely:
CivicSpace continues to offer turn-key site creation services. For a low fixed fee, we will conduct a written needs assessment, configure your website & supporter database, import website content and supporters, and deliver a quality look and feel for your site. All you have to do is tell us what you want, we do the rest.
The above doesn't come from CivicSpace's site, it comes from an email blast I received from them this morning. It also says:

We are happy to announce the open public release of the CivicSpace On Demand service, offering a complete, integrated solution for your community website, online donations, blast email, and supporter database needs.

Based on your past interest in our services, we'd love it if you would be among our first customers to get Groundswell Professional, an integrated fundraising, email, website and database solution at $50 per month with your first 30 days free.

What's Groundswell, you ask?
Groundswell professional is the easiest way to get the world class Drupal content management system integrated with the only open source constituent relationship management system, CiviCRM.
I find this to be really intriguing for a couple of reasons. One is that CivicSpace is offering a service very similar to the "conversational marketing" discussed below, but in the civic rather than the commercial sphere. I wonder how much overlap in expertise there is between the two spheres. The other is that CivicSpace seems to be a classic example of what open source enthusiasts have long argued: that when you open-source your software, you make back your money with services.

Conversational marketing -- and a strange email I got this morning

MediaVillage has a feature on "conversational marketing," a kind of, sort of new approach to word-of-mouth marketing through social media:
Conversational Marketing, explains Troja, "is the marketing strategy of connecting directly to the marketplace through online conversation. It is a direct and completely transparent interaction with customers, potential customers, brand fans and brand detractors. The conversation," he says, "is initiated through ad units in blogs, Internet forums, social networking sites, message boards and any other forum that features two-way conversation. It allows people to talk about themselves in relation to a marketer's products."
Your online identity can become entangled with the products you adore. If you like talking about a product anyway and you show loyalty, the company might as well leverage that to create new marketing opportunities -- right? One of the pathbreakers in conversational marketing is Ford, but pathbreaking is often challenging:
"Of course, the challenge is now to ensure Ford engages in a meaningful dialogue…, Hespos adds. "They need to have Ford bloggers at the ready to respond to comments and address everything that gets brought up in the 'Community Buzz' section of the Ford Bold Moves site and elsewhere on the Internet. Already from blog comments, I can see that some people are skeptical as to whether Ford is really listening and whether they're prepared to engage in real dialogue."
"Ford bloggers" is an interesting concept. How do you encourage a community to form without astroturfing it? Well, that brings me to a strange email I got this morning:
Dear blog author:

We recently came across your site,, while searching for bloggers who blog about Ford issues.

A small group of us have started a new site called Ford Bloggers . Our intent is to bring Ford bloggers closer together, and make a positive contribution to the Internet community.

Would you be interested in joining Ford Bloggers ? Please take a few minutes to have a look at what we are trying to do, and if you are interested, there is a sign up page to get the ball rolling. We would greatly appreciate your support in this endeavour.

If you do not feel that your blog would be a good fit for Ford Bloggers , but enjoy this subject area, come visit us and one of our member bloggers. You can also check our FAQ Section to learn more about Ford Bloggers .

We look forward to hearing from you and seeing you on Ford Bloggers .

(I removed the embedded Javascript from the links above.)

I think this was precipitated because I wrote a post on the Volt a while back -- pretty thin grounds for contacting me with this sort of offer. Is this site a result of Ford's marketing arm? Perhaps -- but probably not. I googled the name of the author, Craig Cantin, and found out that he's sent out practically identical emails for Christian bloggers and Green bloggers. Cantin also has his own Blogger blog, which describes him as "a social conservative with a green conscience." So is he a profiteer? An enthusiast with many enthusiasms? A marketeer? I find the whole thing to be fascinating.