Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Reading :: Catching Fire

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
By Richard Wrangham

Perhaps a year ago, I read an excerpt from this book, whose hypothesis immediately intrigued me. After waiting for a long time for it to become available at the library, I bought the book on the Kindle. No pun intended.

What's the book's hypothesis? In a nutshell: cooking is what made us human. More precisely, Homo Erectus emerged as a byproduct of learning to cook, and therefore the genus Homo owes its entire existence to cooking. No cooking, no human beings.

This is a rather contested hypothesis. As Wrangham explains, the accepted story is that cooking came much later, and the evolution of Homo is usually attributed to meat eating. Some people, such as raw foodists, even claim that cooking is bad for us. But Wrangham marshals several points in favor of his theory:
  • Cooked foods release more calories than raw ones. For instance, the human body absorbs about 95% of starch in potatoes by the time the food matter reaches the ileum. For uncooked potatoes, that number plummets to 51%. You have to eat almost twice as many raw potatoes as cooked ones to get the same benefit. In fact, great apes eat about twice as much per day as we do, by weight. Interestingly, apes - and other animals - prefer food cooked.
  • Human beings have much shorter intestines than other animals. We can't extract the same amount of calories from raw foods. We also have smaller mouths, weaker jaws, smaller teeth, and smaller stomachs.
  • Human beings' brains are proportionally the largest in the animal kingdom, about 2.5% of our body weight, but using 20% of our basal metabolism rate (compared to 8-10% in other mammals).
  • Human beings are more resistant to Mailard compounds than other animals. (Mailard compounds are carcinogens that result from cooking.)
  • Cooking is practiced by every known human society.
  • Those who subsist on raw food alone report feeling hungry all the time, as well as negative impact on their sexual functions: a rate of infertility greater than 50%.
  • Human beings spend about 5% of their day chewing. If we were to eat only raw food, Wrangham estimates that we would be chewing for about 42% of the day (just over 5 hours). The average calorie intake for a human being is over six times that of a chimpanzee. (At this point, I thought about Clay Shirky's argument in Cognitive Surplus.)
Wrangham argues that given the above, we couldn't evolve without cooking. The numbers don't add up: Raw food simply doesn't give enough calories to support our massive energy-hungry brains, and our small mouths and teeth aren't up for the task of processing it at any rate.

In Wrangham's view, our ancestors enjoyed three evolutionary leaps due to food. First, they began chewing meat along with a rough leaf, which provided additional traction and helped to break down the food. (Chimpanzees do this today, and Wrangham describes persuading his friends to imitate the chimps with raw goat meat and leaves.) Second, they began pounding the meat to tenderize it, using logs or rocks. (Chimpanzees use rocks to smash open nuts, and we've found habiline remains next to crude stone hammers.) Finally, they began cooking. Wrangham pegs each advance to a corresponding increase in cranial capacity: the more our ancestors processed food, the more they could get from it, meaning that they could support larger brains and smaller guts.

So that's the basic argument, and I found it fascinating, although I don't have the background to properly judge it. This argument could have fit into a smaller book or even an article, but Wrangham expands it considerably in a few ways, not all good.

First, he adds several anecdotes that don't always hit the mark: for instance, he recounts a very few known incidents in which people had to survive on raw food and compares them to many anecdotes in which people elected to, for instance, cook each other. You would think that these anecdotes would be fascinating, but they're so dense here that I felt as if I were reading Ripley's Believe it or Not.

Second, in Ch.6-7 he speculates that cooking is at the root of the division of the sexes, a fairly standard interpretation in the vein of evolutionary psychology. I think Wrangham overreaches here.

Third, and more generally, Wrangham tends to go over the same ground a lot. We are repeatedly treated to information about how small human intestines, jaws, and teeth are, how big our brains are, how much cooking changes raw food. A good ruthless edit could have streamlined the book considerably.

Still, the book's fascinating and it's easy to read. I raced through it. If what I've outlined sounds like what you'd like to read, take a look.


Now a quick aside. This is the first book that I read in its entirety on my phone, a Nexus One running Android. I used the Kindle application, which, unlike Google's eBooks, allows bookmarking, highlighting, and notes. Recently I blogged about my worries regarding reading strategies in ebooks, so this book provided a good chance to try out some new strategies.

In general, the results were positive. My eyesight is still good, so I made the font as small as possible, increasing the number of words on the page. The Kindle's highlighting and notes are good, good enough to replace the sticky notes I usually use. I appreciated that my reading progress and notes synched across platforms, so when it was time to write this review, I simply fired up the Kindle app on my netbook and got started. The Kindle's search feature was also very useful for looking up various topics that I had forgotten to tag in the notes. And, of course, I didn't have to carry the book. Nor did I have to wait for it to be delivered.

On the other hand, I have plenty of complaints. One is that the Kindle doesn't allow me to copy from the text or highlighting. I understand that they're trying to keep me from infringing copyright, but they also keep me from copying fair-use passages. Another is that the Kindle doesn't have page numbers. If you want to find out where the information above comes from, you'll have to search the book as I did. A third issue was that, since the Kindle doesn't use page numbers, the progress bar was misleading: I finished the book at the 50% mark and discovered that the rest of it was end matter, including the (useless) index.

That being said, I have been relieved at how relatively painless reading this book on the Kindle app turned out to be. For books that cost more in print + shipping, particularly ones that I can't find in a used book store, I'll certainly consider the Kindle. I can't say the same for Google's eBooks at present.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Reading in the Future

I read a lot. That includes the quotidian micro-reading we all do (email, Twitter, Facebook, texts, news) as well as more sustained reading, such as books. Over the last few years, micro-reading - short works, up to a few paragraphs - has migrated mainly to my phone, which is always with me. But sustained reading has mostly stayed where it's always been (for me): in books and in printouts, annotated mostly through small sticky notes in the margins.

Why? And should that change? I've been wondering over the last week or so whether I should migrate to an e-reader.
1984-ish: My brother and I buy a Commodore 64, disk drive, and printer. We begin playing an Infocom text-only adventure, Deadline. It's complicated, so we decide to set the game to print every interaction so that we can review it later. Soon we run out of paper.

1986-ish: I write a report for high school in longhand. My mother types up the final version on a dedicated word processor.
Transitioning from print to digital was not intuitive. Those of us who went through it thought that a printer was a vital accessory: The computer was where you produced a text, but paper was where you composed it (in longhand), edited it (sometimes on a printout), and shared it (not just out of preference, but also necessity: few friends had a C64, let alone a disk drive or modem). But there were other reasons to use paper.
1989: Working on my undergraduate degree in computer science, I draft programs on paper, type them into the computer, then try to compile them. At the end of a session, I print out the code and hand-edit it. I have to. The screen only shows 80 characters per line and only 24 lines, so I can't get a panoramic view. With a printout, I can lay out several pages, compare different parts of the code, and see how they relate. Also, the printout is much more portable than the computers in the university computer lab - I haven't bought my own computer yet. When I explain my process to an experienced programmer, he says, "Oh, you can't compose on glass?"

1990: I get a home computer and a home copy of Borland's Turbo C Integrated Developer Environment. It changes everything. Now I can split the window and look at code at two different places simultaneously. I can search for unique identifiers too. I can also try out code more rapidly. I don't have a home printer, although I do print out code at school - more occasionally.
Access is a big deal, but so is text density. You simply can't fit much text on an 80x24 screen, and it's very hard to remember the shape of the text you can't see. When you're used to relying on reading strategies based on a broad field of vision, and you lose that broad field of vision, you have to develop new strategies or new tools to compensate. The split screen and search were two such tools.
1994: I begin using Mosaic.

1998: Working on my dissertation, I oscillate between printouts (which I heavily mark up at coffee shops and in my office) and the computer representation, which resides on my home hard drive and at least two 3.5" floppy disks.

1998: I borrow a Palm Pilot and try the to do list, calendar, and notes. I begin to see the potential for microreading.

2000: I'm playing Mario Kart with three other players in Lubbock. The screen shows four different viewpoints, one for each player. I have a hard enough time interpreting what's happening in my quadrant. But one of the other players easily watches the four screens simultaneously. He laughs as he launches a blue shell, then sees it pass through the other players' viewpoints to hit the one in the lead.
Tools aren't the only thing that can improve reading, of course, because human beings don't come off an assembly line. Human beings develop strategies for reading too. When I realized that my friend could pay attention to all four quadrants simultaneously, I realized that he had developed strategies that I couldn't realistically hope to develop. This made me feel old.
2000: After trying to take field notes in notebooks for a month, I buy a Palm Pilot and a collapsable keyboard, on which I take the rest of the field notes. I set up macros to speed up the process and I obtain a simple Palm-based database for managing participant information. (These data eventually become my second book.)

2001: I encourage my students in the computer lab to save their work to a USB drive. One doesn't - instead, he simply mails the file to himself in Yahoo Mail, which is accessible anywhere. I am fascinated at what suddenly seems like an obvious solution.

2002 or 2003: I use a small grant to buy a Sharp Zaurus, which runs Linux. I start outlining papers on it, but find that even with its greater screen density, it's too hard to get a sense of how the paper develops. I also get a copy of mysql running on it, which I use for formulating queries of my field notes.
Microreading is great for small screens. And we do a lot of microreading: to do lists, shopping lists, calendars, references. For sustained reading, though, I have trouble getting the hang of using the small screen. That wasn't for lack of trying. Meanwhile, more and more content was migrating online.
2007: Inspired by research on multiple monitors coming from Microsoft, I request and receive a second monitor. It helps tremendously. I start grading online.

2008: I buy an Android phone and am frustrated that I can't edit Google Docs with it.

2010: Android now allows Google Docs editing. I use it a little.

2010: Apple releases the iPad. I am unimpressed. It's too big.

2010: I finally buy an eBook, Phillip Bobbitt's Terror and Consent, for $9. It's 679 pages. I try to read it on my phone, and quickly realize that although I'm reading the words, I'm not retaining them. It feels like I'm reading through a straw. A week later, I find the same book at a used book store and purchase it for $2.
At this point, I have microreading down. I read an enormous amount of text through my phone. But when I try sustained reading on the phone, it eludes me. It's as if I'm still stuck in 1990, still trying to figure out the tools - or in 2000, realizing that I don't have the strategies to cope. Sure, I can add a monitor, but I realize that I'm trying to meet two opposing conditions: field of vision and mobility. Greater mobility means a smaller screen, which means a smaller field of vision, which means less sustained reading.

This would not be a big deal but for three things:
  • I like mobility. I don't like hauling books around.
  • I like tools. I want to use tools that will enrich my reading experience, such as search, and print books don't offer many new tools.
  • I like strategies that improve reading. And part of me is worried that I'm missing out on strategies that will improve my reading - and that some may simply be beyond me, though they'll be intuitive to younger readers. That is, I begin to wonder if my reliance on print books is my version of the VCR my parents couldn't figure out how to program.
So that's where I am now. I'm interested in how others are dealing with the same issues. In particular, if you read ePubs:
  • On what form factors do you read them? Laptop, tablet, dedicated reader, phone?
  • What tools do you use to aid your ePubs reading? Search, highlighting, notes, other? Are some of these outside the ereader?
  • What strategies do you use when reading ePubs? Do you combine them with other versions? Tackle different types or sections of readings on different form factors? Follow a nonlinear pattern when reading? Bring different expectations to ePubs?
I'd love to hear what you think. Leave your comments, or tweet me @spinuzzi.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Reading :: How Writing Came About

How Writing Came About
By Denise Schmandt-Besserat

In grad school, I ran across an article that made a deep impression on me, Denise Schmandt-Besserat's 1986 article on the origin of writing in the West:
Schmandt-Besserat, D. (1986). The origins of writing: An archaeologist’s perspective. Written Communication, 3(1), 31-45.
The article, which I ended up citing in the preface of my first book, really altered my understanding of writing. Based on extensive archeological work, Schmandt-Besserat argued that writing was not developed for literature, religion, or storytelling. Rather, it was a hacked-together accounting system, originally implemented as a set of clay tokens. Here's how I glossed it in my book:
Denise Schmandt-Besserat argued in 1986 that Sumerian writing, which was at that time considered to be the oldest example of writing, essentially started as a quirky Sumerian accounting system. According to her account, tax collectors began making clay tokens representing livestock, bushels of grain, and containers of oil to tally the actual goods that they had collected. Since it became unwieldy to carry around these tokens, eventually Sumerian bureaucrats began making clay “envelopes” to hold them. And since it was not possible to see inside these envelopes, they would press each token into the side of the clay envelope to make an imprint before firing it. The resulting group of impressions functioned as a tally of the livestock. Eventually some clever accountant realized that once the impressions were made, the tokens were moot. Soon the envelopes became round tablets and scribes eventually began imitating the tokens’ impressions with a stylus. The rest, as they say, is history.
The article really brought home to me the materiality of writing - and the series of accidents and adjustments that went into our most protean tool.

Of course, Schmandt-Besserat's 1986 article was a summary of much longer works. Another, lengthier summary is her book How Writing Came About, a popularized version of her more scholarly Before Writing: Volume 1: From Counting to Cuneiform.

I haven't read the scholarly version yet, but How Writing Came About is just breathtaking. For me, at least, I mean that literally: at several points I was actually holding my breath. Maybe that's corny, but when Schmandt-Besserat carefully peels back the years and reconstructs the trail of innovations that gave us writing, I got a clearer sense of the length of time involved, the problems that had to be solved, the societal and organizational changes that accompanied writing's evolution, and the many ways in which it could have been stifled. Schmandt-Besserat isn't a suspense writer by any means - she has a dry style even in this popularized version - but the material makes up for that, carrying the story forward.

So what's the story? There are two.

The first story is that of the archaeologist unraveling the evidence to determine the origin of writing - not an easy feat, given how broadly that evidence was scattered and how deeply embedded were the assumptions about writing. As Schmandt-Besserat explains in the Introduction, myths claim that writing was a gift from the gods - or God. In the 18th century, scholars adopted the pictographic theory: that writing evolved from pictures (p.4). And in the 1930s, when very early tablets surfaced that seemed to contradict the pictographic theory, archaeologists tried to reconcile evidence and theory by positing earlier versions from which abstract symbols evolved (p.5). Yet challenges continued to occur. One was that tablets did not emerge until well after the establishment of cities. "How, then, did the Mesopotamian city-states function without record keeping?" (p.6). Nevertheless, archaeologists stuck by the pictographic theory. "At the same time," Schmandt-Besserat tells us, "excavations steadily produced small tokens that, as I will show, were the antecedents of writing" (p.7).

Yes, tokens:
small clay objects of many shapes - cones, spheres, disks, cylinders, etc. - served as counters in the prehistoric Near East and can be traced to the Neolithic period, starting around 8000 B.C. They evolved to meet the needs of the economy, at first keeping track of the products of farming, then expanding in the urban age to keep track of goods manufactured in workshops. The development of tokens was tied to the rise of social structures, emerging with rank leadership and coming to a climax with state formation. (p.7)
Right. And this gets us to the second story.

Tokens were counters, counters that allowed people to keep track of their goods - a vital precursor to city administration. But counters don't scale well by themselves, since once you get past a certain point, it's quite unwieldy to carry around tokens. So people developed a variety of methods to store and archive tokens. One way was to create clay "envelopes" (like hollow balls) in which tokens were placed and sealed. Of course, a closed and sealed envelope doesn't give you a good idea of how many tokens, or what kinds of tokens, are inside, so "accountants eventually resolved the problem by imprinting the shape of the tokens on the surface of the envelopes prior to enclosing them" (p.7). (I explain to my students that this method is similar to baking a calzone after embedding one of the ingredients on the outside.) Soon - "soon" in archaeological time, anyway - accountants realized that the outer markings made the tokens superfluous. They began producing solid clay balls with token markings on them, then began using a stylus to imitate the imprinting of tokens. "The signs were not pictures of the items they represented but, rather, pictures of the tokens used as counters in the previous accounting system" (p.7).

At this point, the author provides a few photographs. And if you're like me, you stop breathing. I'm not overly emotional, but there's something arresting about seeing these crude tokens and envelopes, invented and adapted by nameless scribes in the deep past, just trying to solve a problem and unwittingly creating a system that would eventually encode legends, histories, laws, sacred texts, mathematics, as well as picayune applications such as bubble gum wrappers and this blog post. It's like seeing the first wheel or hammer. But in these precursors of writing, you can actually see the fingerprints of the craftsmen who developed them. These tools weren't developed by a faceless mass of people - they were developed by individuals with names and families, aspirations and disappointments.

The solid clay balls were a turning point because the markings, although superficially the same, "assumed an entirely new function. Whereas the markings on envelopes repeated only the message encoded on the tokens held within, the signs on the tablet were the message" (p.55). After the envelopes gave way to the clay balls ("tablets"), it took 200 years (eight generations) to move from token impressions to additional pictographic representations (p.57). The plainer tokens were conveyed by being impressed, while more complex tokens were "transcribed into incised pictographs" (p.79). That is, there were two different scripts. Why? The author speculates that this is due to "the way tokens were handled in various offices": simple tokens were impressed because they were kept in clay envelopes, but complex tokens weren't - because they were "perforated and strung," that is, kept on strings or thongs (p.57). And why were there two different kinds of tokens stored in different ways? "The plain tokens represented products of the farm and the countryside, whereas complex tokens stood for goods manufactured in the city. It is therefore logical to assume that the two types of tokens were handled by different hands in different offices" (p.57). Eventually, they met in the emerging writing system.

The plain/complex token division gives us some idea of the environments that produced writing. In Ch.5, Schmandt-Besserat further explores these environments, taking us back to pre-writing symbols (e.g., notches on bones), then to the neolithic symbols that emerged in conjunction with agriculture: "the clay tokens modeled in distinctive shapes, each representing a precise quantity of a product" (p.93). Unlike the previous symbols, the tokens were entirely manmade and entirely for communication and record keeping (p.93). "The greatest novelty of the new medium, however, was that it created a system. ... This system made it feasible to simultaneously manipulate information concerning different categories of items, resulting in a complexity of data processing never reached previously" (p.93). And "Furthermore, the system was open; that is to say, new signs were added when necessary by creating new token shapes, and the ever-increasing repertory constantly pushed the device to new frontiers of complexity" (p.94).

Tokens were in fact "the first code," and evidence suggests that they even used a rudimentary syntax: "It is likely, for example, that the tokens were lined up on the accountant's table in a hierarchical order, starting on the right with tokens representing the largest units. That was how Sumerians organized signs on a tablet, and it is logical to assume that the procedure was inherited from former usage in handling tokens" (p.94). As a code, the token system spread intact across the entire Near East.

Schmandt-Besserat speculates that the token system itself evolved from "a former usage of counting with pebbles, shells, twigs, or grains." But "the various shapes have no known Paleolithic or Mesolithic antecedents. But the counters have the merit of bringing together as a set, for the first time, each of the basic geometric shapes, such as the sphere, cone, tetrahedron, triangle, quadrangle, and cube" (p.94). Some were probably iconic, but others appear arbitrary (p.94).

Yet as the system became more widely used, it failed to scale well. For one thing, "the tokens lacked a capacity for dissociating the numbers from the items counted" (p.96). For another, "the number of types and subtypes of tokens multiplied over time in order to satisfy the growing need for more specificity in accounting. ... This proliferation of signs was bound to lead to the system's collapse" (p.96). The system had advantages: "the system was simple" and "the code offered new performances in data processing and communication" (p.96). And the system "presaged the Sumerian writing system" in its semanticity, discreteness, systematization, codification, openness, arbitrariness, discontinuity, independence of phonetics, syntax, and economic content (pp.97-98). But its drawbacks included its format, the difficulty of making permanent records, and its inefficiency due to its limited repertoire of tokens (p.98). These drawbacks led to writing, which offered permanence; accommodation of more diverse information, an end to the repetition associated with one-to-one correspondence, and an end to the limited system of concept signs by becoming phonetic (p.98).

Look how long it took:
  • 30,000-12,000 BC: tallies
  • 8,000 BC: tokens
  • 3,100 BC: writing
In Chapter 6, Schmandt-Besserat puts these different systems into socioeconomic context. "Tallies, plain tokens, and complex tokens were different because each fulfilled the needs of a distinct economy and social organization. Writing, on the other hand, was a result of other stimuli" (p.101). Specifically, "Tallies, plain tokens, and complex tokens kept track of vastly different items: the former recorded time, whereas the latter two computed agricultural products and manufactured goods" (p.101). This part really got my attention, since it reminds me of some of the epochal readings I've been doing over the last few years.
  • The author argues that before agriculture, people needed only to track time (via tallies), since "lunar notations would make it possible for dispersed communities to gather at intervals to reaffirm their ties and celebrate rituals" (p.101).
  • But "agriculture brought about a need for accounting," so tokens appeared (p.102). Interestingly, tokens did not seem to be used for trade yet.
  • With the advent of industry, the token system expanded, for the first time generating "complex tokens" that represented "finished products typical of urban workshops, such as textiles, garments, vessels, and tools; processed foods, such as oil, bread, cakes, and trussed ducks; and luxury goods, such as perfume, metal, and jewelry." Still, these complex tokens were not related to trade (p.102). Complex tokens were strung, while simple (agricultural) ones continued to be kept in clay envelopes.
Schmandt-Besserat ties these writing precursors to their societies' socioeconomics. Specifically,
  • hunter-gatherer societies do not accumulate many goods, so they don't need an accounting system, just a tally system for keeping track of time (p.103). She estimates that the egalitarian system typical of hunter-gatherers can manage a maximum of 300 people (p.104).
  • agricultural societies are "rank societies," in which an elite oversees a redistributive economy (p.104). Such rank societies involve both redistribution and control - two functions at which writing excels. "Writing was the backbone of the economy of redistribution - an economy that brought prosperity to Sumer" (p.105).
  • The State resulted in complex tokens (p.107). "Complex counters belong to the Mesopotamian temple institution, where they coincided with such socioeconomic changes as monumental architecture, the monopoly of force, and bureaucracy which point to new strategies in pooling communal resources" (p.108). These changes also include taxation (p.108).
Writing, then, is the outcome of abstract counting - the subject of Ch.7. (As I tell my students, if you enjoy reading and writing, go thank an accountant.) In Ch.7, Schmandt-Besserat goes into the details of counting and the transition to abstract writing. Just go read it.

Part III of the book consists of pages and pages of artifacts - mostly tokens - categorized by type and function. It's fascinating.

Okay, let's wrap it up. Go get this book and read it. As I said, it's a popularization of Schmandt-Besserat's scholarly work - work which I'll need to read and cite soon - but it's packed with insights and careful inferences that will change your understanding of writing. It's especially important for those who study the history of writing, but I hope you can also see how it informs information design, information architecture, professional communication, and socioeconomic studies of writing. If you have a scrap of reverence for writing, this book will make you breathless too.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Reading :: Cognitive Surplus

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
By Clay Shirky

When I got this book in the mail, I started reading the plaudits on the back aloud. "Clay has long been one of my favorite thinkers on all things Internet." "Clay masterfully makes the connections." They seemed very impressed with me until I confessed that it was really Clay Shirky's book.

Okay, so maybe I'm a little envious. But Shirky earns those plaudits with clear, engaging writing and a thesis that is both unintuitive enough and intriguing enough to get people reading. In this case, the thesis is that economic changes have given us free time, and each generation finds ways to invest its free time. For newly industrialized London in the 1700s, the solution was gin. For 1950s US, it was the sitcom. For this generation, it's the Internet and other connectivity tools. That is, this generation's cognitive surplus is no longer completely wasted: people can actually make and share things. In one anecdote, Shirky recounts explaining Wikipedia to a TV producer, who sighs, "Where do they find the time?" "Hearing this, I snapped, and said, 'No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from.'" (p.9).

Bravo. As Shirky passionately argues, the TV generations spent enormous time in the basement comparing Ginger and Mary Ann. The Internet generation - some of it - spends time producing things. Those things might include the innumerable versions of "Bed Intruder" that I surfed on YouTube this morning, sure. But some include the blog post I'm currently writing, which may possibly help someone out, or Wikipedia, or fan fiction. That's not simply because of innate generational differences. "Generations do differ, but less because people differ than because opportunities do" (p.121).

Overall, the book is well written and intriguing, and does a great job explaining how "makers" fit in and thrive. I'd recommend it to anyone who's trying to figure out participatory culture - or trying to find some good pleasure reading.

Reading :: Postmodern War

Postmodern War: The New Politics of Conflict
By Chris Hables Gray

In the Preface of this book, Chris Hables Gray announces that he wants to address a "dogma" of the history profession: that history is not progressive. Gray disagrees: "There are patterns we can see that clearly show a kind of progress, if we remember that love and cancer both progress, grow, and spread" (p.vii). This seems like a statement at odds with postmodernism, but Gray, who apparently developed this book from a dissertation directed by Donna Haraway, is clearly concerned that war as a way of life really is progressing. He signs his Preface "Love and Rage, Chris Hables Gray" (p.viii).

Love and rage do permeate the pages of this book, particularly the latter. Unfortunately, rage makes people careless. Gray criticizes Arquilla and Ronfeldt, but he confuses their netwar concept with Network-Centric Warfare (p.24 and elsewhere); he criticizes Latour for claiming that nonhumans should have rights as humans do (p.75 - a mischaracterization); he criticizes AI researchers from not learning from the Bhagavad-Gita (p.72), forgetting that this sacred book's central message was that Arjuna should put his conscience aside and slaughter his enemies for the glory of Shiva. Finally, Gray proves his point that "while the enemy is labeled female, our weapons can be considered male" by quoting - the owner of the New England Patriots (p.43).

With this track record, I am reluctant to take many of the book's assertions at face value. Gray attempts a cultural studies-based critique of postmodern war, and in some places he succeeds, but this 1997 text suffers from the events of the last 13 years. For instance, he scoffs at the suggestion that Third World countries are an actual threat, and instead suggests that they are simply justifications for further swelling military budgets (p.34); today, we are dealing with the aftermath of the A.Q. Khan network, including the actual threat of actual long-range missiles tipped with actual nuclear warheads, and SDI has new life as a shield against such threats. He criticizes the move to heavily "market" military news (p.41); now we can see the repercussions of controlling information during warfare, repercussions that don't just belong to the US (see readings by Arquilla and the US Army War College).

That being said, Gray does provide some valuable thoughts about postmodern war. Some of the best contributions are represented by the bullet points on p.169, where Gray argues that "the main moral justification for war is now peace"; "war is becoming cyborgian" (think Predator); "the battlefield is now a [3D] battlespace"; "many targets may not be attacked"; and "wars can only be won politically" (pp.169-170). These statements, and others in this chapter, not only make sense but seem in accord with later work on fourth-generation warfare. (Search this blog for Arquilla, Ronfeldt, Robb, and 4GW for more examples.)

Last thing. Gray starts his book in Sarajevo, where World War I started in 1914 and where the US and allies tried to stop ethnic cleansing in 1995. What jumps out here is that these dates bookend the "Long War" that Phillip Bobbitt discusses in his masterpiece The Shield of Achilles. Although Gray and Bobbitt seem to come from very different places, I saw several points of possible conversation between the two books throughout.

Reading :: Through the Interface

Through the Interface: A Human Activity Approach To User Interface Design
By Susanne Bodker

Here's another book from my grad school days - although it wasn't on my reading list. I had just become interested in activity theory due to a talk David Russell gave one of my classes in either fall 1994 or spring 1995. At the time, activity theory had only been discussed by a handful of rhetoric and writing types, so I began looking outside the discipline, specifically at human-computer interaction and related areas (since I was very interested in how electronic communication would impact our field). This 1991 book was in the library, and I remember being incredibly excited as I leafed through it, then borrowed it, then bought my own copy.

The first thing I want to point out about the book? No triangles. When Bodker wrote her dissertation, which was the basis of this book, she hadn't heard of Yrjo Engestrom, whose work (and triangle diagrams) has since become the face of activity theory in the West. Bodker eventually heard about Engestrom at a conference, and ends up throwing in an incidental citation to Learning by Expanding in the book, but the work is actually based directly on Leont'ev and Vygotsky. Consequently, Bodker focuses much more on the levels of activity than we might expect, and leans on Wittgenstein to discuss objects and representations. It's a really interesting take on activity theory, particularly after being soaked in Engestromian AT for so long.

But this book is useful for interaction designers even if they don't care to learn about activity theory. That's because Bodker was also involved in the fabled UTOPIA project, in which the techniques of Participatory Design were developed. So Bodker's empirical cases, theorized within a second-generation AT framework, are interesting from a designer's point of view: inventive, often low-tech, driven to encourage participation. For instance, she discusses mockups developed with paper and colored slides, designed both to educate her users about computer interfaces (most had never seen one) and to encourage their full participation (they could modify the paper mockups easily). From my perspective, it's a fascinating account of how these techniques developed, how Bodker theorized them, and how they came to impact UTOPIA and Xerox PARC. (They have, of course, impacted a range of disciplines in the intervening time; see my article "Lost in the Translation" for a fuller account.)

Although the book still bears the marks of a dissertation, it's still a solid piece of scholarship. It inspired me deeply when I read it, and I was saddened when it disappeared along with a box of books during my move from Texas Tech. I finally got around to ordering a replacement, and I'm glad I did - it still holds up. Pick it up if you're interested in AT, PD, or interaction design.

Reading :: Local Knowledge

Local Knowledge: Further Essays In Interpretive Anthropology
By Clifford Geertz

I picked up this book in grad school. It was on my reading list for the qualifying exams in my Ph.D. program - at that time, rhetoric and professional communication was going through the "social turn," so we were reading a lot of cultural anthropology. But I confess I didn't quite make it through the book back then. I did recently, but it involved a lot of skimming. Honestly, this classic didn't keep my attention. I think there were at least two reasons why.

The first was that these insights, which were fresh when Geertz was first writing, have become pretty well integrated into scholarship in the interim. Geertz studied cultures all over the world, and he notes issues such as multiplicity, associative thinking, and (what some might call) postmodernist blurring of categories. Such issues were still fairly new and contested in 1983 (when the book was published) and even less well known in the preceding decade, when Geertz delivered the lectures on which the chapters were based. But much has been written about these issues since 1983, so the book didn't provide much in the way of additional insights for me.

The second reason the book had trouble keeping my attention was stylistic. As noted above, the chapters were based on lectures Geertz had delivered. I could tell: The chapters were scoped too broadly, covering too much ground, without enough local detail and focus to keep me engaged or to make their arguments concretely. As summaries that connected the dots of Geertz' vast work, they did well, I assume. But I haven't read Geertz's other work, so I was frustrated by how much was glossed over, including (in many cases) methodology. Additionally, like a good lecture text, these chapters did away with strong navigational cues such as headings.

Nevertheless, I appreciate the general arc of the book. In particular, I appreciate how he got across the same lesson that Rogoff later communicated: that we must examine cultures within their own value systems and milieux. Geertz not only preaches this, he practices it.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Reading :: Militant Islamic Ideology

Militant Islamist Ideology
By Youssef H. Aboul-Enein

"Today's war will not be fought on the Clausewitzian model," argues Youssed Aboul-Enien; "it will be fought by analyzing the fantasy ideology of Islamist militancy and making it unappealing to a greater segment of the Muslim population by staying on message with key Islamic laws, histories, and precedents that discredit [militant Islamists such as] Azzam, Ibn Taymiyyah, bin Laden, and Zawahiri" (p.151). This sentence summarizes both the value and the folly of the book.

First the value. Aboul-Enien, who "is a US Navy Medical Service Corps officer and Middle East Foreign Area Officer" (p.251), argues that to combat al Qaeda and similar movements, the West needs to distinguish among Islam (the religion), Islamists (groups or individuals who advocate "Islam as a political as well as a religious system," p.2), and militant Islamists (who advocate "Islamist ideological goals, principally by violent means," p.1). Islamists can be difficult to deal with, but the real danger is militant Islamists, including al Qaeda. Aboul-Enien argues that we in the West must understand how militant Islamists diverge from the other two groups, specifically in how they interpret Islam, if we are to effectively combat it. To do this, Aboul-Enien provides a historical perspective of Islam's development, starting with Muhammad's life and the history of his successors, then focusing on key thinkers who developed militant Islamist ideology. If you've wondered about the life of Muhammad, or Islam's relationship to Judaism and Christianity, or the difference between Shia and Sunni, this book does a nice job of laying these out.

Aboul-Enien also does a nice job of demonstrating how militant Islamists diverge from the text of the Quran, ignoring swathes of it and taking statements out of context. To combat militant Islamist ideology, he argues, we must confront that ideology with the actual Quran and point out the differences. And here, we get to what I think is the folly of the book.

A nice Episcopalian seminarian might naively hope that he can persuade members of Christian Identity that their ideology is wrong, sola scriptura, but most of us wouldn't expect him to make much headway. Religious interpretation is heavily influenced by the complex semiotic system of a given community. (To give a less pejorative example, atheists who nitpick the Bible's math rarely find converts because their targets tend to have a more flexible or layered expectation of the Bible than they expect.) Religious interpretation isn't a math problem or a syllogistic exercise. So although Aboul-Enien provides what sounds like a perfectly reasonable critique of militant Islamist ideology, he seems to put too much faith in the power of orderly exigesis.

Nevertheless, I recommend the book as a good way for Westerners to understand the background of Islam and of militant Islamist ideology. It's a fascinating story, generally well told.


I've been reading lately, but I haven't been blogging because my writing time has been soaked up in other ways. But the semester is over, so I'll try to pop out several reviews over the next couple of weeks, including Susanne Bodker's Through the Interface, Elizabeth Eisenstein's The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, and Denise Schmandt-Besserat's How Writing Came About.

Reading :: Shopping for Bombs

Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network
By Gordon Corera

Last week, Wikileaks dumped a large number of classified US cables, including the revelation that Iran has bought advanced missiles from North Korea, missiles that could carry payloads from Iran to European and Russian cities. According to the New York Times, "The missile intelligence also suggests far deeper military — and perhaps nuclear — cooperation between North Korea and Iran than was previously known."

Disturbing? Sure. But I wasn't surprised. The week before, I had read Shopping for Bombs, in which Gordon Corera details what is known about the A.Q. Khan network. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, built a supplier and distribution network - which was 90% legal - to acquire components for developing nuclear weapons, and eventually, to sell nuclear components and secrets. It's not easy to build a nuclear bomb - it takes tremendous knowledge, resources, and patience. For instance, it takes thousands of finely calibrated centrifuges to refine uranium to the appropriate level, and it's not easy to design and machine these centrifuges or acquire the uranium. Khan figured out how to do this, largely through plans he stole in the early 1970s. And then he began to export it: to Iran, to Libya, and to other possible customers.

Of course, nuclear weapons aren't much use without missile technology to deliver it, and missiles are another tough nut to crack. Khan did not know how to develop missiles. North Korea had developed No Dong missiles, but hadn't successfully developed the bomb. So the two states transferred technology to each other. Although conclusive evidence is lacking, Corera cites circumstantial evidence that the two states, both of which were short on cash, traded secrets and technology as well as selling them. (With this precedent, it hardly seems surprising that North Korea would find it worthwhile to provide missile technology to Khan's former customer Iran.)

Corera emphasizes that although Khan had the resources of Pakistan behind him, he did not necessarily represent the State in his dealings. Khan had an extraordinary amount of leeway, so much that he could keep his dealings secret from, and untouchable by, Pakistan's prime minister.

Ultimately, what brought down the AQ Khan network was overreach. Libya decided to order the whole package - an entire nuclear program, soup to nuts, rather than ordering plans and components and making it work on their own, as Iran and North Korea had. This meant that the network had to make extraordinarily large purchases, purchases that were easier to track. At the same time, Libya (perhaps with an eye to the results of Gulf War II) decided to come in from the cold and give up its nuclear program, and its secret talks with the US provided some clues that allowed the US to intercept shipments.

Corera pens a gripping story here, one that I wish were fiction. It's well worth reading, especially in light of the Wikileaks document dumps.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

RSA workshop on emerging genres

If you're not doing anything this summer, consider this Rhetoric Society of America workshop on genre:
Carolyn R. Miller, English, NC State University, Department of English
Victoria Gallagher, Communication, NC State University, Department of Communication

2011 RSA Institute

Workshop on Emerging Genres

How do we develop shared recognitions and identifications in a changing world? This question lies at the heart of rhetorical theory and practice, and the concept of genre provides a productive way of addressing it. As ways of acting together, genres constrain and enable, constitute and regulate; indeed, genres link together in systems and ecologies that constitute our social identities, institutions, and cultures. While genre has been an active area in rhetorical studies in the past 30 years (with studies of oratorical genres such as presidential inaugurals and apologias, as well as of professional and workplace genres such as scientific research articles, employee performance appraisals, and corporate annual reports), it is also a concept that cuts across disciplines and media: it has been discovered or rediscovered by literary and film studies, television and media studies, information science, anthropology, linguistics, and visual studies. Moreover, the new digital media have created a plethora of new opportunities for symbolic action and thus the potential for many new genres. Thus, we might ask: How do new genres emerge? How do they balance stability with change? How are new genres related to old ones? What are the potentialities and limitations of genre as a concept for understanding material rhetorical practices? Can the same theories that were developed for oral and print genres help us interpret visual and digital genres? This workshop will explore these questions using several cases and examples as well as inviting development of theoretical and critical approaches to new media and practices.
If that sounds interesting, click through to the application form and more information about the workshops.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

"Hold on Loosely: How Loose Organizations Work"

I've just accepted a slot at South by Southwest Interactive, where I'll be leading a Core Conversation titled "Hold on Loosely: How Loose Organizations Work." My thanks to all of you who voted.

In the Core Conversation, I'll be doing a bit of talking, some of it about the research I've been doing on loose organizations in Austin. But much more importantly, I'll be leading a conversation with others who work in loose organizations - and posting a set of takeaways here on my blog.

That means I need you to come join the conversation. If you're planning to come to SXSWi2011, and especially if you work in a loose organization, please do come to the session - and be prepared to swap stories and express your thoughts about the future of your work. I'll moderate, but this really will be a core conversation.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Facebook's new trick: it turns friends into direct marketers

What really appeals to me about social media is that it lets people make direct, genuine connections with each other. I'm really taken with the fact that status messages let us pick up a sort of ambient status of our friends, colleagues, and associates. It's good to know what others are thinking, feeling, and concerned about. It's also good to hear their arguments. That's especially important during big events such as election campaigns. For instance, when I watch candidates debating, I now tune into my Twitter stream to see how people on the right and left interpret and react to statements. The reactions of people I know seem more important to me than the scripted reactions of the talking heads that are employed by news organizations. And seeing their points of view helps me to think twice about political statements rather than simply accepting them. It deepens my understanding of the national conversation and helps me to think in terms of compromises, not lines in the sand. That's good for democracy, I think.

And that's a good reason for not unfriending people whose political beliefs you disagree with, by my lights. You get out of a partisan echo chamber and begin to understand how people across the political spectrum might interpret the same statement in different ways, associating it with other statements. Let's not call it the wisdom of crowds; let's call it diversifying the viewpoints to which you listen. It doesn't mean you agree with them, but it means you understand them.

So I'll read the status messages of people across the political spectrum. On Twitter, which I love, that's the only way to share this information. On Facebook, about which I have more mixed feelings, people have other options: they can share stories, they can tag photos, they can comment on anything, and they can even post directly to your wall if they have a personal message for you that they also want to be public. It exemplifies the personal connection between people. Used well, it can deepen the personal understandings across people who hold different views.

But here's the thing about Facebook. Its primary goal is to extract marketing data from users so it can more effectively monetize them. Every Facebook interaction potentially adds to your further definition as a market segment.

What happens when you put these two together?

Alas, we found out this last electoral cycle. A few different Facebook applications rolled out that tried to marry personal connections with direct marketing. That is, they turned trusted friends into direct marketers. Here's one example from an LA Times blog:
The California Democratic Party unveiled a new tool in its kit of get-out-the-vote operations Monday: a first-of-its-kind Facebook application that sifts through a user’s friends list, matches it with the friends’ party registrations and voting histories and pops out a list people who vote Democratic but don’t regularly vote.

It then encourages users to tell their non-voting friends to cast a ballot Nov. 2.

Without a trace of irony, the story explains that "the development of the Facebook app was made possible because of funding from Chris Kelly, Facebook’s former chief privacy officer, who lost this year’s Democratic primary for state attorney general" (my emphasis). A Democratic spokesman adds, "In the same way that we target voters with direct mail, this is part of the same strategy for us" (my emphasis).

That's not the only Facebook app to do this job. BarackObama.com rolled out its Commit to Vote app, which goes through your friends list and posts a reminder to vote to your friends' wall. Yes, all your friends. Yes, this means that a form of communication that used to indicate a personal connection - posting to someone's wall - becomes the equivalent of direct mail. Worse, if the person using the Commit to Vote app shares many friends with you, your stream is suddenly full of identical direct mail pieces: the message posted to your wall and the messages posted to 33 of your friends' walls. Conservative WSJ blogger James Taranto ridicules this approach (last item): "Wow, so that's the Democrats' secret weapon. ... Facebook spam..." Yes: with Facebook, anyone can now be a direct marketer. Anyone can set up the equivalent of a robocall - for as long as they have Facebook friends, anyway.

I personally don't care who came up with the idea, on whichever part of the political spectrum. It's a very troubling turn for social media because it takes the two contradictory sides - the social features that enable deeper and more expansive personal connections, and the trove of marketing data that enable marketing connections - and fuses them together in exactly the wrong way. In 1999, the Cluetrain Manifesto urged us to understand markets as conversations. In 2010, conversations have become marketing.

I want the conversation, not the marketing. And that means that if some individual wanted to post to my wall and have an actual conversation, I would be fine with it. But unfortunately they can't. Because of the Commit to Vote app, I have restricted access to my wall, and I don't see lifting those restrictions anytime soon.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Coworking in Austin: Space12

Some coworking spaces in Austin (Conjunctured, Cowork Austin, Cospace, Link, and Brainstorm) are dedicated coworking spaces: they might hold community events and mixers, but day in and day out, their mission is to provide office and collaborative space for coworkers. Those coworkers form their community. Other spaces, however, serve a different community: a preexisting, often spatially defined community. For instance, at Soma Vida, coworking happens alongside yoga and wellness services, and the proprietors see the entire space as a sort of community center serving the area, particularly small entrepreneurs with families who seek a work-life balance.
Space12 takes the community center approach, as I discovered when I talked with its codirectors, Sam Lee and Paul Wang. But its clientele is quite different, and that different approach netted Space12 the Austin Chronicle's 2010 nod for Best New Collaborative Art and Volunteer Space. More on that in a minute.

From Coworking in Austin: Space12
Space12 is located deep in East Austin, at East 12th and Airport, and aims first and foremost to serve the local, spatial community in which it is located. “It's kind of the opposite of a typical community center,” Codirector Sam Lee explained to me. “We host and we kind of create a space so that people could use it to do their own community initiatives.” After all, he added, “There's a lot of great community efforts already in Austin. Why create another thing, another program that offer services? So, instead of offering services, we're offering space. It's almost like an open canvas where people can come in and kind of realize their own community efforts.”
As Sam and Paul Wang, Space12’s codirectors, explained, Space12 is not a for-profit business. Rather, it’s an outreach of Vox Veniae, an Austin church. Paul explained: “I know most churches expect to sort of, ‘Listen to us, and then you'll get the service.’ We're really trying to bring it back to the original roots I think of Christianity where we share and live together. … . So there's no presentation, there's no process, there's no ‘you have to listen to a ten minute gospel presentation before you come cowork.’” Rather, Vox Veniae sought a multipurpose space that wouldn’t remain empty six days a week, one that would help them meet their mission of serving local communities. They leased this space, which was once a notorious nightclub, and put it to work: as a space for nonprofits, as a community space, as a rec room, as a sanctuary, as a concert venue.


So what community is being served here? Space12 serves three coworking groups.
First, people from the neighborhood, including students. Some of these people are in great need. “Of the schools in this area,” Paul pointed out, “eighty percent of the parents are unemployed in three schools.” So Space12 finds ways to serve them. “We get guys walking in off the street, and they're like, ‘Hey, I don't know how to put a resume together’ … ‘Hey, can you show me what this thing called Craigslist is? How do I find landscaping work through that?’” At the same time, the neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying, filling with professionals “who do work out of homes, accountants, graphic designers, web designers.” How to get them to connect? “In the same way,” Paul continued, ”I think that we want them to cowork out of here, but still kind of give back.” Whereas at other coworking spaces, coworkers might take breaks and socialize with each other, at Space12 coworkers can volunteer to help neighbors and nonprofits – whether it’s helping someone understand Craigslist, helping neighborhood students use the computer lab, or shelving books for the Inside Books Project.

From Coworking in Austin: Space12

Second, Space12 does short-term space rentals for events. For instance, two months ago they rented space to a film crew. Film crews tend to come together for a short time, perform casting calls, meet funders or donors, and have planning sessions – and it’s hard to do that in someone’s apartment. At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to enter a lease for short-term events like these. So Space12 is well positioned to serve these sorts of short-term coworking groups. (Notice that Cowork Austin also serves the film industry in a similar capacity.)
Third, the church staff themselves work here at Space12. Coworking here allows them to work in proximity, but also to work alongside and serve community members.
Beyond these groups, Space12 provides space to other nonprofit initiatives. For instance, about a quarter of the space is now dedicated to the Inside Books project, which gathers books and ships them to prison inmates. They also house Cipher, a group that performs spoken word and hip-hop. An artists’ collective also uses the space. (See their list of partners for more.)

From Coworking in Austin: Space12


This interview with Space12 came at an exciting time for me. The fact is, lots of organizations have space that is paid for, but that remains empty through much of the work week. Those organizations include clubs such as the Kiwanis and Shriners, but especially churches, whose buildings are practically empty except for a few hours on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. When, I had wondered, will these organizations see the potential for supporting their members’ activities during those unoccupied hours?
Space12 turns that paradigm on its head. Rather than using a traditional church building for other purposes, it took a building and used it for as many things as possible: church, concerts, coworking, outreach, nonprofits, etc. “There is just a lot of wasted real estate that churches sit on,” Paul emphasized. His message to churches is: “Your building campaign is done. God doesn't just live in the building.”
To that end, Paul and Sam see Vox Veniae opening more Austin spaces for community development, working through their nonprofit Austin City Spaces.
When I thought about existing institutions using their excess capacity, I imagined them serving their own constituents: Shriners officing out of the Shriner Hall, Baptists working with other Baptists. But Space12 turns that capacity into outreach, more truly fulfilling the church’s mission. It’s an exciting development in coworking, and I expect we’ll see other organizations exploring similar forms of outreach as they work to connect to their communities.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Coworking in Austin - Update

Austin now has eight coworking spaces. How did that happen? Stay tuned for more profiles, or click the "coworking" tag to the right to see the ones I've written so far.

View Coworking spaces in Austin in a larger map

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Qualitative Research Network deadline extended to October 29

If you're planning to go to CCCC, consider the Qualitative Network Forum:
This year’s QRN is scheduled for Wednesday, April 6 from 1:30 – 5:00 at the 2011 Conference on College Composition and Communication in Atlanta, GA. Proposals may focus on specific concerns and/or broader issues related to qualitative research, and we encourage submissions from those at any stage of the research process (e.g., planning, data collecting, data analyzing, publishing).
This year, speaker Beth Daniell will give an address titled “The Questions that Need Answers” and lead a discussion about the issues qualitative researchers face and strategies for sustaining researchers, research projects, and even the field of qualitative research itself. Following Beth’s talk, the rest of the QRN workshop will be devoted to research roundtables where novice and experienced researchers will present their work-in-progress and experienced qualitative researchers will lead discussions designed to provide helpful feedback and suggestions.
Guidelines for submissions are outlined in the revised cfp. If you have any questions, any questions at all, please feel free to email Gwen Gorzelsky (g.gorzelsky@wayne.edu) and/or Kevin Roozen (roozekr@auburn.edu), the Co-Chairs of the Qualitative Research Network.
And here's the CFP:
Call for Proposals: Individual Research Presentations for the Qualitative Research Network to be held Wednesday, April 6, from 1:30 – 5:00 at the 2011 Conference on College Composition and Communication in Atlanta.

The Qualitative Research Network, which occurs annually at the CCCC, is offered for new and
experienced qualitative researchers. As a pre-conference research network, the Qualitative Research Network is open to everyone, including those who are already presenting at the conference in other venues.

EXTENDED DUE DATE for proposals: October 29, 2010.

Keynote Speaker & Research Roundtables:

During the first hour of the workshop, Beth Daniell will give a keynote address titled “The Questions that Need Answers” and lead a discussion about issues that qualitative researchers face and strategies for sustaining researchers, research projects, and even the field of qualitative research itself (see abstract and speaker biography below).

The rest of the Qualitative Research Network will be organized in research roundtables where novice and experienced researchers will present work-in-progress for feedback. Experienced qualitative researchers will be on hand to offer suggestions and to lead the roundtable discussions. The goal of this annual workshop is to offer mentoring and support to qualitative researchers at all levels of experience and working in diverse areas of study within the college composition and communication community.

Presenters at the research roundtables may focus on specific concerns and/or broader issues related to qualitative research, and we encourage submissions from those at any stage of the research process (e.g., planning, data collecting, data analyzing, publishing). Each presenter will have twenty to thirty minutes for both presentation and feedback, which will necessitate that presenters offer concise and accessible summaries of their studies. After all submissions have been collected, the planning committee will provide presenters specific details about the format of the workshop.

Proposal Information:

Please send via email a brief description (approximately 500 words) of your research proposal by October 29, 2010 to both Gwen Gorzelsky (g.gorzelsky@wayne.edu) and Kevin Roozen (roozekr@auburn.edu), Co-Chairs, Qualitative Research Network.

Be sure to include a brief overview of the research project, the stage of its development, and the questions/issues you wish to discuss with other researchers. Place your proposal in the body of the email and attach a file (.doc, .docx, .rtf, or .pdf). Descriptions need not be exhaustive; we ask that you provide a general overview of your study as well as a statement about the kinds of feedback you would like to receive. If you have any questions or would like further information, please contact us.

***Presenters for research roundtables will be notified of their acceptance by November 11. ***

Keynote Speaker Biography:

At Kennesaw State University Beth Daniell is Professor of English, Director of Composition, and Coordinator of General Education in the English Department and Director of the WAC Program in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. She has served as writing program administrator at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Clemson University, and University of Alabama. She teaches—or has taught—courses in literacy studies, rhetoric, writing, composition research, composition theory, literature, and women’s studies. She has published articles and essays in journals and collections in our field. Beth is author of A Communion of Friendship: Literacy, Spiritual Practice, and Women in Recovery, and editor, along with Peter Mortensen, of Women and Literacy: Local and Global Inquiries for a New Century.

Keynote Address Abstract:

If research is the attempt to make sense of not only what is around us, but also who we are, then we need to treat the questions we need answers to as both professionally and personally important. Dismissing neither the pragmatics of nor the obstacles to research, we are called to answer questions emerging from issues that touch our lives. When questions matter personally, we find the motivation to gather data, analyze, write, revise. Questions arising from our felt needs produce sometimes troubling, conflicting, or surprising data for which there is no ready-made theory. Such questions engender projects where results can be messy, where theory and data sometimes argue fiercely. These questions sometimes yield manuscripts about which a reviewer may say, “This reads as if writer did the research first and then tried to find a theoretical perspective.” We should nonetheless go where our questions lead—so that when we are old, we know we’ve accomplished something of value.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Coworking in Austin: Link Coworking

Just over a year ago, I saw an email on the coworking Google group announcing a planned coworking site in Austin: Link Coworking. A week or two later, I interviewed the proprietor, Liz Elam, at a local coffee shop. She had a specific vision of a coworking space, one that she had begun during her previous stint as global account manager at Dell.

Liz, I discovered, is an aggressive researcher. Over the next year, whenever I heard about a new coworking space, I would show up to see it - and almost always, the proprietor would mention that Liz had just visited or was about to visit. She's also visited coworking sites across the country. When I had an opportunity to add a fourth person to my SXSWi 2010 panel, I thought Liz was a natural.

So I've been hearing for over a year about Liz's ideas for a coworking space - ideas that have gone through multiple iterations, but always have certain principles at the core. Liz argues that coworking spaces can use different models, orient to different professions and segments, while still adhering to the precepts of community and collaboration that seem to inhere in all coworking spaces.

Liz told me, "I think what makes Link different is I actually worked out of my home for nine years. I worked in corporate America and I was isolated. I was trying to hold meetings in Starbucks and what I figured out was I wanted a place like this to work. So this is really built exactly like I've envisioned it the whole time, because this is where I wanted to go work. And when I look at other coworking spaces - and I visited over 15 from New York to L.A. - what I found were a lot of them weren't really environments I felt energized by and I really was comfortable in." Many of the coworking spaces, Liz found, just had the wrong vibe for some professionals in their 30s and 40s:
Some kind of felt more like a dorm style, and some were just a little bit more casual than I like. And I think that's great and there are people that love that and good for them. It's not what I am energized by and like and expect in the place where I want to work. So I created the space that I'm most drawn to, anticipating that other professionals in their maybe 30s and 40s are going to want to work from here too.
Coworking has typically skewed younger, toward the "webbie/techie crowd." Liz fully supports these spaces, but believes that "we've been ignoring a very significant, well funded part of the market." Link Coworking focuses on this niche, attracting independent workers that won't be comfortable working in a more casual environment. One profile might be:
somebody that works in high tech ... they probably already have a home office and in that home office they have a beautiful monitor and maybe mahogany walls and they have two kids and a barking dog and a spouse. It's not ideal for them, and they're running around town or going to the airport and they need a place where, a few times a week - maybe two, maybe three - they come in here and get work done in a better environment, and bring in customers to meet in the meeting rooms like we're sitting in, because it's not professional to go and sit in a Starbucks and talk about a $10 million deal. ... This is a place where you can bring your client and be proud to bring them.
Link caters to other independent professionals as well: entrepreneurs, small business owners, independent workers. Current members, for instance, include an entrepreneur, a life coach, a realtor, and an interior designer. Liz says that she is aggressively pursuing independent workers who are women in particular.

At the same time, Liz emphasizes that Link is still a coworking site: it's still a place for professionals to meet, form community, collaborate, bond, and bounce ideas off of each other. "I’m looking to build a community that will collaborate, share and help each other and greater community around them," she told me later. Link is not an executive suite, it's a full-fledged coworking space.
For a coworking space to work, they really require a catalyst. That is somebody that's within the space that manages it, that introduces people that has speaker sessions, really helps form a community. And those don't really happen in executive suites. But there are lots of people who come in here and say, "Hey, I'm on the phone all day, I'm a lawyer and I have to have a closed door," and I recommend that they go look at a Business Suites or a Regis, because I'm not selling closed door offices.
Liz has put different measures in place to make sure that coworking happens. For instance, the website (built in Drupal) shows basic outward-facing information on the members; but if you're a member, you can log in and "go behind the curtain and you can see more information about the people that you're working around." The space, featuring mixed seating arrangements in an open configuration, facilitates interaction and collaboration. Community presentations and events are hosted in the space, open to members. When I visited, Link had only been open two days, and Liz already had stories of how the coworkers had collaborated. And she already sees the patterns emerging: "people tend to go to the same spot, but people also go to where the people are. They only isolate if they need to get something done. But the rest of the time, people want to sit at the same table where the other people are. There are 40 places to sit. They're sitting next to each other."

At moments like this, Liz gets an extra sparkle in her eye. She makes no bones about Link being a for-profit business, but she's also very obviously excited about being a connector and cultivating Link as a space for genuine connections and interactions, all within a beautiful place to work. "I want people to network, support each other, employ each other and possibly start a venture out of Link," she told me later.

Link differentiates itself in other ways. For instance, it provides concierge services: "we take things off your hands so you can focus on work," Liz emphasized. Link also provides a space that has been custom-renovated for coworking - and furnished by Turnstone with furniture designed for this sort of environment. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide a lot of natural light. Power outlets and ethernet plugs are installed in the floor, within reach of each station. Of course, Link also offers wifi, and Liz insisted on a T1 line to ensure high capacity. Finally, Link offers a red phone booth for private conversations (although you of course must bring your own phone.)
How did Liz get to this particular location? She had five tenets for choosing a site, and finding a place that matched those five tenets was a struggle:
  1. It had to be less than a mile from a major thoroughfare.
  2. It had to have abundant surface parking.
  3. It had to have outdoor seating.
  4. It needed to be on the first floor.
  5. And it needed to be within walking distance of retail and restaurants.
Liz looked all over Austin for the right spot, and finally found it in the Anderson Lane Shopping Center: A few steps from Madam Mam's, Korea House, the Alamo Drafthouse North Village, Office Depot, San Francisco Bakery, and other spots. As I observed, someone could drop by a nearby coffee shop on the way to Link, then literally park their car for the rest of the day as they worked, lunched, worked out at the gym, dined, then caught a movie.

What's next? Liz believes that we'll begin to see coworking segment to address different industries, and we may even see dedicated coworking spaces for employees of single corporations - but still holding true to the principles of coworking. Community-building is critical, she emphasizes, but different space configurations are going to support different sorts of work.

One more thing. If you're in Austin, you really should come by for Link Coworking's Grand Opening Party. It'll include tours by Turnstone and a live DJ. I'm planning to be there, so look for me, and tweet me @spinuzzi if you don't see me.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Reading :: Discovering Qualitative Methods, Second Edition

Discovering Qualitative Methods: Field Research, Interviews, and Analysis
By Carol A.B. Warren and Tracy Xavier Karner

I really enjoy reading texts on qualitative methodology, even those that, like this one, are pitched to upper-level undergrads and incoming graduate students. They're easy to read through and compare, and sometimes they highlight differences in fields, disciplines, and research programs more clearly than looking at the literature itself. That's especially true for Discovering Qualitative Methods, which is aimed at sociologists in training. Reading it, I was intrigued by the clues about sociology that it conveyed through its assertions.

The book follows a basic approach of introducing qualitative methods and giving background on law, politics, and ethics before diving into the practical issues of gaining entrance to a site, collecting various data (observations, interviews, artifacts), and analyzing the data. The first two chapters would seem familiar to anyone performing or reading about workplace writing in my field - although the examples tend to come from settings that are unfamiliar to most college students and academics, such as nursing homes, biker gangs, cults, and the radical environmental movement. (Other examples, such as a lesbian community, would perhaps have seemed more exotic to students in the past. Still others, such as drug dealers, represent activities that we hope are exotic to them.) Indeed, as the book unfolds, the authors pull out still more examples along these lines, and ask students to use caution when investigating them. For me, these example sites seemed quite odd - almost like sightseeing for academics - compared to the workplace and organization sites to which I send my students.

As I read further, other differences emerge. For instance, in the chapter on fieldnotes, readers are cautioned not to take observational notes while observing, because "it is virtually impossible to continue to observe closely while looking downward taking notes" (p.112). Instead, readers are told to observe for a half hour or more, then find a quiet place to write a thick description (p.118) - one that includes sights, sounds, smells, textures, and anything else they can record. The examples are heavy with adjectives and adverbs: they read like the work of nonfiction creative writers. A finished field note "resembles an essay or narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end" (p.120). The authors advocate using quotation marks to identify quotes, even when the exact quotation is not available and the researcher is conveying only the gist (p.120). This strategy of writing field notes, presumably, works well over the long period of time that it takes to write an ethnography - but it would be difficult to execute faithfully when examining microlevel details in shorter case study research.

Again, these different methodological choices represent different research objectives and orientations. I'm just startled at how different these turn out to be. And the theme continues when we get to analysis. The first page of the analysis chapter actually made me laugh out loud: the authors grimly tell us that analysis will involve physical and emotional exhaustion (p.215). But I can see why: analysis involves open coding, which leads to themes, which are then linked into analytical descriptions (p.237). Other than that, the authors provide examples but not much guidance. This sort of analysis is quite inductive, involving multiple passes over thick field notes and interviews, and the authors assume that these documents will all be separate rather than in a database or analysis software. How to organize all of these data? "Some sociologists use visual diagrams, process flow charts, or organizational structure charts. Others have drawn maps of their settings .... we find ourselves using the tried-and-true format of an outline" (p.238). For an example, the authors provide a half-page outline. I can understand why, since the authors are expecting longer ethnographies in which researchers seek to generate coherencies from the data rather than examine it with a preexisting framework. But still, the analytical tools - and their process - are much less specified than I expected.

As you may have picked up, I spent a lot of time comparing this book to how I teach my qualitative methods classes. Based on my field's assumptions and goals, I don't think I would use this book - but at the same time, I can see how it would be a better fit for sociology than the methods I use. It's an intriguing read, and I recommend a look for anyone who is teaching qualitative research methods.

Reading :: Apprenticeship in Thinking

Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context
By Barbara Rogoff

If you read my review of Rogoff's The Cultural Nature of Human Development, you have the gist of this earlier one. The Cultural Nature of Human Development summarized Apprenticeship in Thinking and related research in a popular version. This book is the original, which means that it's less polished but more obviously an academic argument, with appropriate cites and a bit more involved with debates on cognitive development.

Here, Rogoff defines her subject matter:
For the purposes of this book, cognition and thinking are defined broadly as problem solving. I assume that thinking is functional, active, and grounded in goal-directed action. Problem solving involves interpersonal and practical goals, addressed deliberately (not necessarily consciously or rationally). It is purposeful, involving flexible improvisation toward goals as diverse as planning a meal, writing an essay, convincing or entertaining others, exploring the properties of an idea or unfamiliar terrain of objects, or remembering or inferring the location of one's keys. (pp.8-9)
But, Rogoff adds, "Problem solving is not 'cold' cognition, but inherently involves emotion, social relations, and social structure" (p.10). Indeed, as in The Cultural Nature of Human Development, Rogoff emphasizes problem solving within the sociohistorical milieu in which people develop and participate. To get there, she relies on work grounded in Vygotsky and Piaget. Reasonably, she reminds us that
my work, like that of anyone else, involves the appropriation of concepts that I have found useful in the works of others. The use that I make of their ideas undoubtedly involves some transformation from the ideas they offered. This is in the nature of dialogue. The transformation is liable to be greater the more distinct the backgrounds of the speaker and listener, or the author and the reader. The refraction of Vygotsky's ideas, like those of Piaget, through a foreign lens - through differences in time and place, language and intellectual climate - contributes to the listener's making something new of the speaker's words, for better or worse. My purpose in this book is not to explain Vygotsky or Piaget or others, but to build from what I make of them. (p.14)
This is a nice move, since it lets us get past the issue of fidelity to a theory and pushes us toward Rogoff's observations and inferences. Again, you get the gist of these from my review of The Cultural Nature of Human Development, so I won't repeat them here except to say that you'll quickly see why this book is a classic. If you're a casual reader, I'd read The Cultural Nature of Human Development first; if you're publishing in this area, read Apprenticeship in Thinking.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Our lockdown experience at UT

People have been asking me about what happened during the University of Texas lockdown today. It was really quite uneventful. Here's what happened from my point of view.

First, the blow-by-blow is on Twitter: http://twitter.com/spinuzzi

Two students and I camped out in our computer classroom, which is a converted bomb shelter. We felt perfectly safe and kept up to date via Twitter, Facebook, and text messaging. Among other things, I communicated with other professors and admin staff in lockdown along the hall.

At one point, a SWAT team showed up, touched base with us, and asked us to remain there until we got the all-clear.

We were in Parlin, and we received updates from social media suggesting that a second shooter was barricaded in Calhoun, the building immediately south of us. However, we saw no shooter.

Honestly, the situation was quite surreal. The classroom has only one window, in the door. The door's about three inches thick. So we felt completely safe. At the same time, we watched an update that a San Antonio TV station had put on the web. The students had okay mobile phone coverage; my phone wouldn't call out, but the classroom had a corded phone so I was able to call loved ones.

Around 11:40, they surrounded the all-clear, and we went home.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Coworking in Austin: Link Coworking (part 1)

Today's opening day for Link Coworking. Liz Elam has been working like a demon to get this space open, and it's finally paid off. I'll interview her soon for the blog, but in the meantime, drop in. And if you can't, you can take a look at some of the (amateur) photos I shot today. They don't do it justice - it's a beautiful space.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Coworking in Austin: Cowork Austin

Cowork Austin is on the third floor of the Hannig Row Building on 6th Street, just across from the Driskill Hotel. In other words, it's about as close to the center of downtown Austin as you can get: a few blocks north of the river, east of Congress, and northwest of the convention center.

If that sounds familiar, it's because this space has been recently rebranded. It originally opened in January as Texas Coworking, but one of the partners recently left the organization and the other, Blake Freeberg, rebranded the space in August.

So how does Cowork Austin fit into the suddenly crowded set of Austin coworking spaces? Blake describes a spectrum of coworking spaces. On one end are businesses with excess square footage: "Oh, we have an extra desk in our office. We'll lease it out." On the other extreme are incubators such as TechRanch: "coworking with an intention to model and develop your business and mentor you." Somewhere in the mix are communally based models.

But Cowork Austin is more about enabling small businesses: it's "both a place where we can meet and help people or build a platform for them to do their business on. See these things grow. It's kind of an enabling thing." He adds, "I approach coworking from a slightly different angle, not what coworking is, per se, but what it enables. ... it's kind of a low cost business platform with shared knowledge that amplifies your business opportunities at the beginning." That amplification comes from abundant networking opportunities. Cowork Austin summarizes this idea in their tagline, "the un-office office."

Not that everyone at Cowork Austin has to come seeking networking: although those opportunities are there, Blake says, many come because "I don't have to put the deposit down. I don't have to sign a two year lease," and the space is relatively cheap. Coworkers prepay month to month.

What do coworkers get other than a space to work and the opportunity to network: "If you're a member, you have access to our address, you have a keycard to come in here 24x7, and you have rights to use the printer. We have a black and white and color ones coming up. You have the kitchen and you have everything. We do Internet but we don't do phone. That's twentieth century." Blake explained that Cowork Austin expects everyone to have a mobile phone or to use Skype; Cowork Austin has no landline phone. But it does offer parking for $15 more per month.

At the beginning of the month, Cowork Austin was growing: it had 12-14 coworkers, generally working in the tech industry, but also including a book publisher, a movie director, a wildlife conservation group, and a music festival planner. "These are industries that I have not seen in other coworking spaces," I told him. "And they kind of characterize Austin, you know? Film, music, artists..." Nodding, Blake emphasized that "work encompasses people's, not just computing stuff, not just pure business stuff but the art and the music that is Austin. I want to be a kind of holistic place."

That holism has led Blake to open Cowork Austin to different opportunities. For instance, art from local artists is displayed on the walls. They recently hosted a tequila tasting. They host interface design meetings, Women in Tech meetings, a Cassandra hackathon, and they plan to host an all-girl, all-night hackathon. "We have space for [a 20-person] group. Can't do the 50s to 100s. Not yet," he added.

Blake is optimistic that coworking is going to be around for a while. "I certainly don't think it's going to shrink," he told me, "And I think, fundamentally, it derives from professionalism and the tax code." On the one hand, "It doesn't take an army to build out a idea that monetizes things that you can live off of. So, that gives freedom. And on the other side, the tax code fundamentally says that if you hire a consultant you can write them off." So he sees corporations "moving to optimize their core business and hire consultants for everything else." And that means more need for coworking spaces, as those consultants seek offices - and as they seek more cohesive, more networked environments to match they sort of work they have to do.