Friday, August 31, 2007

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Iraq's WMD found -- in New York

Dangerous Iraq chemicals found stored at U.N. in NY | Top News |

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GPhone apocalypse

Lots of discussion of the iPhone here. I like the sketches and the wish list, both of which appear to be entirely speculative.

The Gphone is coming; how Google could rewrite the rules | last100

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Reading :: Participation and Power

Participation and Power: Civic Discourse in Environmental Policy Decisions
By W. Michele Simmons

It seems to me that we in rhetoric and professional communication should spend more time talking about civic discourse, policy discourse, and public communication. Certainly much of this ground "belongs" to other fields and disciplines, such as government, law, and public affairs. But as Carolyn Rude has argued, those of us in RPC have a lot of expertise in written communication and argumentation in general, and certainly in specific genres such as recommendation reports. So books like W. Michele Simmons' Participation and Power represent a positive trend -- even though I am not enchanted with this specific book.

Let's first talk about what the book is about. Politics and Power describes Simmons' study of how the US Army included the public in a series of meetings about their plans to destroy 1269 tons of VX nerve agent at the Newport Chemical Depot. These meetings were not the Army's idea; rather, they were mandated by Congress. Simmons argues, more or less persuasively, that the Army implemented these meetings in ways that minimized actual public participation in decision-making. She argues that
the complex issues involved in risk assessment, governmental law, and governmental agencies present challenging obstacles to negotiating a policy that all involved parties consider just. By just, I mean that all affected by the decision had the ability to actively participate in the decision-making process. (p.3)

Based on that proposition, Simmons deploys a set of analytical tools to examine how parties were invited into, or discouraged from participating in, decision-making in the VX case. She does this by observing meetings, interviewing activists and Army spokespeople, and reviewing regulations. One very positive result is the figure on p.52, in which she sketches out the federal regulations, state and federal agencies, agency programs, and cross-institutional programs involved in the weapons disposal program. With that many regulations, agencies, and programs involved, one would expect some serious contradictions and double binds, even without throwing in the public, and those contradictions manifested in some very focused attempts by the Army to move the program along -- and some less focused attempts by heterogeneous nongovernmental elements to oppose it on a variety of grounds. Let's call these nongovernmental elements "the public," because Simmons does, although that label hardly does justice to the discontinuous activities, relations, and objectives that we can glimpse through Simmons' report.

Simmons asserts that the Army's approach to public meetings was pro forma and was either (a) designed to reduce public participation or (b) at the least, wasn't designed to properly encourage and leverage it. This case is fairly persuasive (at least in the weaker formulation b). So what could be done about it?

Unfortunately, this is where the discussion loses focus. Simmons promises an "approach" or a "rhetoric" of public participation in decision making, and she argues that this approach/rhetoric/model should be based on participatory design. This conclusion is problematic at several levels.

At the first level, the conclusion flows from Simmons' assertion that "Discourse and decisions are ethical only if all affected are allowed to participate" (p.100), and further, "Approaches that claim citizen participation through a few citizen representatives, that do not allow multiple publics access to decision making, or do not grant equal status to different groups, attempt to unify the public in ways that work to marginalize their contribution to the construction of a policy" (p.100). This conclusion, if taken seriously, would argue for a repudiation of representative democracy. The genius of representative democracy is its ability to black-box citizens in terms of interests; that's why it scales. Simmons' assertion opens up all of those black boxes, those Pandora's boxes. It is for that reason that participatory design has always drawn on user representatives -- originally labor representatives in the UTOPIA project, and later functional representatives (randomly selected users). Predictably, when Simmons gets to a case study of students working with "the local community" (p.142), that community is blackboxed into "community residents, teachers, citizen groups, and municipal workers" and students conduct "participatory observations" with representatives of each group (p.143). (These appear to be functional representatives.)

This brings us to the second level at which the conclusion is problematic. Simmons argues that formulating public policy is a sort of design work, and the student case in Chapter 6 involves actual information design work in service of communicating policy to the public. But the analogy between design and policy formulation is just that -- an analogy -- and it is not up to the task of underpinning a concrete model or methodology for public participation in policy formulation. I was actually surprised when I turned the last page of the book, because beyond very general principles such as involving the public and making sure everyone's voices are heard, I hadn't seen any specific guidance or strongly detailed participation model. This is of a piece with Robert Johnson's User-Centered Technology, on which Simmons draws extensively but which similarly speaks in terms of participatory design's general orientation rather than its innovative and thoughtfully constructed methodology.

And this gets us to the third and most problematic factor of the conclusion. Simmons wants to base a model of public participation on a design methodology, and she draws somewhat on Pelle Ehn's classic work to do that. But if she had only read Ehn's work more carefully and followed his citations a bit, she would have discovered that participatory design's future workshops component is based on Robert Jungk's future workshops, a well articulated model of public participation along the lines that she seeks, one that was extensively tested with dozens of community groups in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. (I review Ehn's and Jungk's books elsewhere on this blog.) So, for me, reading this book was like watching Romeo drink the poison just as Juliet is stirring. So close, so close to discovering the underlying potential of the participatory design approach for civic discourse.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Japan's edge in broadband

The Washington Post reports:

The copper wire used to hook up Japanese homes is newer and runs in shorter loops to telephone exchanges than in the United States. This is partly a matter of geography and demographics: Japan is relatively small, highly urbanized and densely populated. But better wire is also a legacy of American bombs, which razed much of urban Japan during World War II and led to a wholesale rewiring of the country.

In 2000, the Japanese government seized its advantage in wire. In sharp contrast to the Bush administration over the same time period, regulators here compelled big phone companies to open up wires to upstart Internet providers.

In short order, broadband exploded.
Japan's Warp-Speed Ride to Internet Future -

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GPhone roundup

Suddenly rumors are (again) buzzing about the GooglePhone.

Om Malik speculates that the GPhone is an attempt to take on the $100 PC, which makes sense: the tight integration with Google Apps provides some computing functionality, the mobile phone paradigm is easier to support in places with low PC penetration, mobile phones are already being used in innovative ways in these areas, and the hardware should be cheaper. claims that GPhone will run a modified Linux kernel. He adds more speculation about the competition with the $100 laptop as a long-term strategy.

And engadget clarifies (?) that we're not talking about a phone per se, but a mobile OS that would run on hardware manufactured by other providers. The OS rumor is supported by Google's 2005 acquisition of Android.

Making do with a $4B warship

Danger Room has an article about the stealth Zumwalt-class destroyer, built to cruise close to shore, appear on the radar as a fishing boat, and unleash a torrent of artillery rounds on cross-border armored troops. The problem? Between design and implementation, warfare changed. Massive tank armies are out. So the Navy is trying to recast Zumwalts as an air defender for aircraft carriers. The problem: the stealth design is lousy for this purpose, since it sacrifices stability and volume.
Simply put, the world is changing faster than ship design can keep up. “But that's not a new problem," Work says, citing the early 20th century and the post-Cold War period as similarly rapidly evolving eras. "When you keep a ship between strategic eras, you almost always have to goon it up.” That means kluging together all sorts of weapons and sensors you never anticipated during the design phase, and making do with less-than-perfect hull forms.
This is a familiar story for anyone who has read Max Boot's War Made New (reviewed earlier on my blog).
Danger Room - Wired Blogs

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Maybe marriage really is an institution

BoingBoing links to a bare press release about a study by sociologists at George Mason University and North Carolina State that "concludes that unmarried couples that live together divide housework more evenly than married couples." From the press release:

Couples with an egalitarian view on gender--seeing men and women as equal--are more likely to divide the household chores equally. However, in married relationships, even if an egalitarian viewpoint is present, men still report doing less housework than their wives.

"Marriage as an institution seems to have a traditionalizing effect on couples--even couples who see men and women as equal," says Davis.

The obvious question -- and I haven't read the full study -- is: is marriage the cause, or does it just correlate? Commenters raise this and other methodological questions.

Shacked-up couples share housework better than marrieds - Boing Boing

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My Cell Style

Sprint's new website is an online quiz that purports to tell you what your mobile phone personality is. I took the quiz, but many of the questions didn't have a right answer for me. I was labeled a "technosexual," which sounds more like something on Fembot.

Michael Arrington, who was also labeled a technosexual, provides some sophisticated analysis:

Sprint Sucks And Their New Website Is Stupid

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How people became currency

A meditation on the guy who traded up from a red paper clip to a house.
So if the world of the red paper clip is neither a typical goods nor a typical labor market, then what is it? Perhaps it's the world of another Alice, the world through the looking glass. On one side of the mirror, the side where most of us live, we each make our way in the marketplace based on our own unique bundles of ability and work experience. The object of our quest--money--is just the opposite. It is utterly interchangeable; a dollar is a dollar, and we don't know or care about where it's been or what it's done.

On the other side of the looking glass, the world of one red paper clip, things operate in reverse. Here it is individuals who become interchangeable and their past experience irrelevant. Content is content, and anyone can fill the bill for a recording contract or film role. The objects of the quest, by contrast, are unique or idiosyncratic--fish pens and doorknobs come across in Mr. MacDonald's book as having more personality than their owners--and are valued precisely for where they've been and what they've "done." Why else would Rhawnie and Corinna hang onto the paper clip? It's because, as Mr. MacDonald says, it has "a great story."
OpinionJournal - Leisure & Arts

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Do companies benefit from social networking?

SmartMobs points to this ZDNet column which in turn points to research at UW and NYU about social networks -- not sites like Facebook, but actual connections with people across media:

According to two U.S. researchers, fewer degrees of separation make companies more innovative. They’ve studied the innovative performance of about a thousand companies in various industries over a six-year period. And they’ve concluded that “companies that network and form strategic alliances are more creative and develop more patented inventions than those that don’t.”
As ZDNet author Roland Piquepaille cautions, the result seems intuitive to many of us, but the methodology -- measuring innovation via patent numbers -- may not be the best for studying innovation per se. Still, worth a look.

» Do companies benefit from social networking? | Emerging Technology Trends |

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