Friday, August 15, 2008

Qualitative data analysis on the cheap

SAGE Publications is advertising a new book called Doing Qualitative Research Using Your Computer: A Practical Guide by Chris Hahn. The idea behind it is that you can do qualitative data analysis on the cheap, using familiar tools such as Microsoft Office:
Doing Qualitative Research Using Your Computer is a practical, hands-on guide to using commonly available everyday technology, including Microsoft software, to manage and streamline research projects.
The author discusses using Word, Excel, Access, and so forth to perform these analyses. This is a great idea. Cheryl Geisler did something similar in Analyzing Streams of Language, although that one was more narrowly focused on text analysis.

Me, I'm currently using HyperResearch, but I managed my data for Network entirely in a MySQL database with an open source front end. Honestly, I'm not sure whether HyperResearch adds significant value for me. I do know that it's entirely possible to conduct solid qualitative data analysis with commonly accessible tools, though. Will have to check this book out soon.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

We were cyborgs before we were human

That's the implication of this article, which claims that the invention of cooking stimulated a big leap in human cognition. From the original article:

For a long time, we were pretty dumb. Humans did little but make "the same very boring stone tools for almost 2 million years," he said. Then, only about 150,000 years ago, a different type of spurt happened — our big brains suddenly got smart. We started innovating. We tried different materials, such as bone, and invented many new tools, including needles for beadwork. Responding to, presumably, our first abstract thoughts, we started creating art and maybe even religion.

To understand what caused the cognitive spurt, Khaitovich and colleagues examined chemical brain processes known to have changed in the past 200,000 years. Comparing apes and humans, they found the most robust differences were for processes involved in energy metabolism.

The finding suggests that increased access to calories spurred our cognitive advances, said Khaitovich, carefully adding that definitive claims of causation are premature.

The research is detailed in the August 2008 issue of Genome Biology.

The extra calories may not have come from more food, but rather from the emergence of pre-historic "Iron Chefs;" the first hearths also arose about 200,000 years ago.

In most animals, the gut needs a lot of energy to grind out nourishment from food sources. But cooking, by breaking down fibers and making nutrients more readily available, is a way of processing food outside the body. Eating (mostly) cooked meals would have lessened the energy needs of our digestion systems, Khaitovich explained, thereby freeing up calories for our brains.

Instead of growing even larger (which would have made birth even more problematic), the human brain most likely used the additional calories to grease the wheels of its internal functioning.

To put it another way, our ancestors found a way to pre-digest food outside the body. Biologically, we only have one stomach; prosthetically, we have two. And the authors tentatively suggest that this shift is what allowed us to develop more complex cognition:

Today, humans have relatively small digestive systems and burn 20-25 percent of their calories running their brains. For comparison, other vertebrate brains use as little as 2 percent of the animal's caloric intake.

Does this mean renewing our subscriptions to Bon Appetit will make our brains more efficient? No, but we probably should avoid diving into the raw food movement. Devoted followers end up, said Khaitovich, "with very severe health problems."

The raw food movement and other health food movements tend to focus on "natural" foods and diets. But if we were cyborgs before we were human, does the idea of a "natural" diet even make sense? Second question: is there anything more natural to human beings than a good cookbook?

Riding the Torch

"Riding the Torch" is a novella by Norman Spinrad. The premise is that humanity has destroyed the Earth via nuclear war, and centuries later, humanity's remnants are still traveling in a convoy in search of another world to inhabit. Eventually, the realization sinks in that Earth was unique; there are no other worlds that can reasonably support life, there is no other life in the universe except humanity.

I think of that novella from time to time, particularly today, when I read that according to computer models, solar systems like ours are rare:
The researchers ran more than a hundred simulations, and the results show that the average planetary system's origin was full of violence and drama but that the formation of something like our solar system required conditions to be "just right."

The simulations suggest that an average planetary system's origin is extremely dramatic. The gas disk that gives birth to the planets also pushes them mercilessly toward the central star, where they crowd together or are engulfed. Among the growing planets, there is cut-throat competition for gas, a chaotic process that produces a rich variety of planet masses.

Also, as the planets approach each other, they frequently lock into dynamical resonances that drive the orbits of all participants to be increasingly elongated. Such a gravitational embrace often results in a slingshot encounter that flings the planets elsewhere in the system; occasionally, one is ejected into deep space. Despite its best efforts to kill its offspring, the gas disk eventually is consumed and dissipates, and a young planetary system emerges.

Now don't you feel special?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Reading :: Mobile Communication and Society

Mobile Communication and Society: A Global Perspective
By Manuel Castells, Mireia Fernandez-Ardevol, Jack Linchuan Qiu, Araba Sey

Mobile communication -- specifically mobile phones and pagers -- is impacting work, leisure, and public participation globally. But the implementations are so different in different countries -- due to differences in culture, society, regulatory and legal environments, economic conditions, technologies, infrastructures, and other factors -- that it's hard to summarize the impact of mobile communication or make predictions about new arguments. To better get their arms around these changes, the authors survey mobile communications globally. This book is framed as a strictly analytical account of the current state of mobile communication across the globe: "What we intend to do in this book is to construct an empirically grounded argument on the social logic embedded in wireless communication, and on the shaping of this logic by users and uses in various cultural and institutional contexts -- an argument whose analytical value should stand by itself" (p.4, italics in original).

It's a huge project, but a timely one. As the authors note, "Wireless communication networks are diffusing around the world faster than any other communication technology to date" (p.1). And as they diffuse, they change possibilities across multiple activities. How can these be generalized? The authors approach the task systematically, by analyzing extant empirical studies, but with the caveat that this sector is changing so rapidly that any conclusions are transitional.

First, the authors study the diffusion of wireless communication, looking at factors such as subscriber growth and penetration rate. They note, as others have, than in many ways we in the US are a mobile communications backwater: The US has encountered relatively slow mobile growth, partially because universal service obligations slowed AT&T's efforts in mobile (p.14). In contrast, the Philippines have very high penetration rates, partially because of low prepaid mobile prices (70-90% of phones are prepaid). "The Philippines is reportedly the world's highest texting nation, with the average user sending over 2,000 messages a year" (p.25), while "Japan, on its own, has consistently had wireless-phone Internet access levels exceeding those of North America and all of Europe" (p.25). The US, on the other hand, leads in wifi deployment (p.27) and has the highest penetration of laptop computers (p.28), suggesting that wifi deployment and laptop adoption have retarded adoption of the wireless web here. Surprisingly, two-way pagers were also going strong in the US as late as 2002 (p.60). Elsewhere, such as East Africa, prepaid mobile cards have begun to be used as currency (p.62) -- the gold standard has been replaced by the minute standard.

Interestingly, mobile technologies have increased quotidian, mutual surveillance. One example is caller ID, which was once a security feature but is now used to identify undesirable calls (p.120). Other examples include parents' surveillance of their children by calling them and demanding their whereabouts or by tracking them with GPS (p.120). In Hong Kong, caller ID helps sex workers to separate business and personal lives (p.122), while in South China mobile phones help sex workers to evade police and maintain customers (p.122).

In terms of family, the authors assert that
communication technologies materially allow the post-patriarchal family to survive as a network of bonded individuals, in need of both autonomy and support at the same time. As people rebuild and extend their lives along their networks, they bring with them into these networks, and into their networking devices, their values, perceptions, and fears. (p.126)
The authors are specifically interested in youth culture: their hypothesis is that
there is a youth culture that finds in mobile communication an adequate form of expression and reinforcement. Technologies, all technologies, diffuse only to the extent that they resonate with pre-existing social structures and cultural values. However, once a powerful technology is adopted by a given culture because it fits into its pattern, the technology grows and embraces an ever-greater proportion of its group of reference, in this case young people. (p.127)
Tentatively, the authors assert that a mobile youth culture is emerging with the following characteristics:
  • The management of autonomy vis a vis security. The older population needs the emotional support of the young, while keeping them economically dependent. Youth feel autonomous early (partially because of mobile technologies), but need economic security until relatively late in their development (the parents pay for those mobile technologies). (p.143)
  • The construction of a peer group through networked sociability. These break "the organizational and spatial boundaries of relationships" and are instead "based on choice and affinity" (p.144)
  • The emergence of collective identity. Youth cultures develop codes of social recognition. (p.144)
  • The strengthening of individual identity. Youth culture prizes personalization. (p.144)
  • Consumerism is an important dimension of the culture. Consumption is one avenue of personalization, but patterns of consumption and valuation are "modeled in patterns of signs that constitute a fashion" (p.145)
The authors also note that, as with computer technologies, we are in a transitional phase in which the youth teach their elders about these technologies, something that erodes the patriarchal model and impacts education (p.151).

Moving along, the authors argue that in mobile communication, "the space of the interaction is defined entirely within the flows of communication" (p.172); thus "places are individualized and networked along the specific networks of individual practices" (p.174). One characteristic of the networked society, "timeless time," is enhanced by mobile technologies: "The availability of wireless communication makes it possible to saturate time with social practice by inserting communication into all the moments when other practices cannot be conducted, such as the 'in-between' time during transportation, in a waiting line ... or simply during free time" (p.174). (Timeless time -- though not under that name -- should be familiar to anyone who has read David Allen's Getting Things Done.)

The authors go on to examine several incidents in which mobile technologies enable loose, lightly coordinated political action. (No wonder the Russians, when invading Georgia, bombed cell phone towers.)

Finally, the authors conclude by discussing some of the characteristics of the mobile network society. Just a few of their points are:
  • Relentless connectivity. Connectivity, not mobile communications per se, is "the key feature in the practice of mobile connectivity" (p.248).
  • Instant communities of practice. The authors note "the emergence of unplanned, largely spontaneous communities of practice in instant time, by transforming an initiative to do something together into a message that is responded to from multiple sources by convergent wills in order to share the practice" (p.249). This description reminds me of Engestrom's recent discussions of knotworking and mycorrhizae.
  • Users are the producers of content and services. If you've read Clay Shirky or others in this vein, you have an idea of what the authors mean.
Overall, a terrific book for anyone who is struggling to understand mobile technologies and their impact on work, leisure, and education. I've only scratched the surface in this review. What impresses me is that the authors deliver on what they promised: They stick to a principled, relatively rigorous analysis based on empirical research. I'm going to return to this book often, I think, as I work through the issues of mobile communications.


Twellow is a mashup that makes Twitter more like LinkedIn.
Twellow is an automatically generated directory of Twitter users, organized by occupation. It offers to help users quickly ramp up productive use of the popular microblogging service by finding people with common interests. New features were unveiled on the service today that will make it even more useful.

Obama will announce VP via text message. Smart idea?

Yes, but that's because of the implementation, not just the technology.
Last night, in a cell phone text message that was quickly followed by an e-mail linking back to a new page on his Web site -- -- aides to Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) campaign wrote: "Barack will announce his VP candidate choice through txt message between now & the Conv. Tell everyone to text VP to 62262 to be the first to know! Please forward."
As Castells, Fernandez-Ardevol, Qiu, and Sey note in Mobile Communication and Society, Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi send 13 million "personal" text messages to cell phones on the eve of regional elections on June 12-13, 2004. In other words, he spammed people's cell phones. The text messages backfired, annoying many people, and "Berlusconi lost the regional elections by a larger margin than anticipated." The authors hasten to add that "although it cannot be proved that the cell-phone incident aggravated the defeat, as many observers claim, we can say at the very least that in this case wireless communication did not help the successful reception of the message sent" (p.211).

Why not? "Berlusconi did not understand that the key to the success of the Spanish messages [grassroots messages sent about the Spanish election a few weeks before] in prompting mobilization was that people received them from someone they knew, from the address book of someone who had their name, not from a central register obtained from some company" (p.211).

Notice the last part of the Obama text message quoted above: "Please forward." The strategy is to send the text message to those who have opted in, and have them send messages to others who they know.

Of course, the moment the text messages are sent to those who have opted in, they will be forwarded to Twitter. That's part of the plan, since those who use Twitter are following friends and acquaintances. Whether you find out by text, Twitter, Facebook status message, FriendFeed, etc., it'll be from someone you know and someone who has established a relationship and social capital with you. Smart.

TOC comes to Google Docs

Lifehacker has the appropriate Javascript.

Reading :: Designing for the Social Web

Designing for the Social Web
By Joshua Porter

Bill Hart-Davidson recommended this book to me a while back. (Porter is his former student.) It's a good, solid, readable overview of the challenges and issues involved in designing web-based social software -- which makes it an extremely timely and useful book. I'm thinking about using it in one of my upcoming classes, in fact, since it does a great job of laying out and simplifying the issues of social software without oversimplifying or overspecifying.

Designing for the Social Web is not a detailed design methodology like, say, Beyer and Holtzblatt's Contextual Design. (The research methods section is one page long, for instance.) But it would work well as a companion piece for such a book, one that reframes a methods book in terms of the particular challenges of social software. I'm particularly encouraged that Porter really examines and dissects the role of online community managers -- a crucial role that has become very important to technical communicators but received relatively little examination -- as well as acknowledging the competing interests that must be served in design. Although Porter gives specific examples of these, he doesn't overspecify, and I think that the book will age gracefully because of it.

All in all, I suggest picking this book up. It's a fast and entertaining read, and does a nice job of translating the proclamations of books such as Shirky's Here Comes Everybody into guidelines that technical communicators and others can use.

Reading :: The Blind Side

The Blind Side
By Michael Lewis

The Blind Side has been selected as this year's First Year Forum book at the University of Texas at Austin: the book that all students enrolled in first year rhetoric and writing classes (RHE 306) will read. Like most FYF books, this is a popular title that (loosely) engages a bundle of controversies: in this case, issues of race, academics, and sports.

In a nutshell, the book has two alternating parts.

One part examines a strategic change in football: the introduction of the quarterback sack -- a defensive move that can only be pulled off by a very swift, strong player who can surprise the quarterback on his "blind side" -- required a strategic, systematic response. The NFL's strategic response was to elevate the position of left tackle as a counterbalance, and to find incredibly rare offensive players who are fast, strong, and massive enough to block a QB sack. This position is now the second most highly paid position on the field.

The other part examines the discovery and grooming of a left tackle: a homeless African-American boy from Memphis who ends up at a Christian private school in the Memphis suburbs, is taken in and adopted by a wealthy Anglo-American family, and helped to reach his potential in academics and athletics. At the end of the book, he is pulling a 3.75 average at the University of Mississippi, the alma mater of his adoptive parents -- and playing left tackle.

It's a well written and interesting story. Although sympathetic to the adoptive parents -- in the Afterword, Lewis mentions that he knew the adoptive father since kindergarten and he stumbled onto the story when visiting the family on a social call -- the book attempts to look at all angles of the story, including one accusation that the NCAA investigated: whether a wealthy white family adopted a black son in order to guide him to their alma mater's football program. Lewis concludes that this was not the case, but allows us to make up our own minds.