Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Reading :: Organizing Modernity (second reading)

Organizing Modernity: Social Ordering and Social Theory
By John Law

I reviewed this book a while back, and was not kind. But reading Law's After Method made me decide to reread the book, especially after running across a reference to the project management aspects of Law's case. So I took another crack at it. The second read was more positive. I still wouldn't place this book high on a reading list -- it's still my least favorite of Law's books -- but it does have some virtues.

The book is a study of order and ordering at the Daresbury Laboratory. But -- and this fact is what yielded my previous review of the book -- it is just as much an introspection of the role and limits of the ethnographer in such a study, as the ethnographer is involved in his or her own ordering project. Law's angst throughout the project is due to becoming acutely aware that his own ordering practices -- what data he collects, what he chooses to analyze and write, how he presents the results -- are as artificial and partial as those he observes at the site. This realization is often crippling, and Law writes of having to retreat from the site to his car to have lunch, of worrying that the real action was always happening elsewhere, of fearing the power and status of his participants. (Really, it's a very fearful book, and intentionally revealing in its fear.)

Law argues that "perhaps there is ordering, but there is certainly no order" (p.1). So, he wonders, what material conditions enact this ordering? What are the social technologies of control? If we accept that there is no root order (p.2), and that the social is materially heterogeneous (p.2), how do we understand ordering? To find out, he embarks on an organizational ethnography of a world-class science lab (p.3), and he examines his own ethnographic work for ordering as well. The last he sees as vital: "Let me put it this way: as I describe the Laboratory I do not always want to make myself invisible. ... I believe this would be wrong because ethnography is also a story of research - and in some measure a tale about the conduct of the ethnographer as well" (p.4).

And so, instead of going about this task the traditional way, with a well-developed methods chapter, Law engages in a lot of introspection in this book. At points I felt as if I were his therapist, as he claims that "we [ethnographers] all go native" (p.39); as he describes how his introvert nature led to feelings of shame and how his retreat to the library allowed him to regroup without shame (p.45); as he admits that he is "shit scared" during ethnography work and he wonders why other ethnographers don't admit this (p.148); and as he frankly describes his fear of powerful people in particular. All of this was work for me, particularly in that I actually don't identify with most of what he's describing and trying to impute to ethnographers in general. At one point, he lucidly describes how enterprises as a matter of course maintain a front stage and a back stage, but then he explicitly disallows this approach from his own writing (pp.178-179). No back stage for Law: his ethnographic writing must be personal, reflexive, and bare: "And I choose to do this in a way which I now think is part humanist - that is by laying myself, as a person, on the line" (p.190).

But wait a minute. Law elsewhere argues (as a student of relational materialism should) that
a person is an effect, a fragile process of networking associated elements. It is an unusual theory of agency only to the extent that I want to fold the props - and the interaction with the props - into the person. And I want to do this because without the props we would not be people-agents, but only bodies. So this is a theory of agency, but it is more than a theory of agency. Or, to put it another way, it is a theory that is not simply about people. And here's where I part company from some kinds of social theory. Unlike many, I don't think that actors or agents necessarily have to be people. I'm uncertain, but perhaps any network of bits and pieces tends to count as an agent if it embodies a set of ordering processes which allows it (or others) to say 'It is an agent, an actor.' (pp.33-34)

Given this view that people are network effects, I am not clear on how Law achieves his revealing of the backstage, i.e., his baring of the self or authenticity. Particularly in this mode, writing, which as Law points out is ordering work: an effect of context that tends to hide that context (p.31). In writing the ethnography, Law has made conscious decisions to foreground or front-stage certain things while backgrounding or back-staging other things. To put this another way, Law's revealing of his innermost thoughts is also constructed, and when he pulls the curtain aside to reveal his backstage, that act itself is a bit of misdirection, since the backstage itself has a backstage. As Law discusses earlier on in a bit on reflexivity, "there is no reason to suppose that we are different from those whom we study" (p.16).

Maybe here, at the end of the review, is a good place to discuss modes of ordering: "I think of them as fairly regular patterns that may be usefully imputed for certain purposes to the recursive networks of the social. In other words, they are recurring patterns embodied within, witnessed by, generated in and reproduced as part of the ordering of human and non-human relations" (p.83). And in these terms, we might think of Law's self-reflexive ethnography as a mode of ordering, an attempt to adapt and further the genre of self-reflexive ethnography with the purpose of encouraging reflexivity across the social sciences.

And although this book forges some interesting connections for those interested in relational materialism, perhaps that's the chief contribution of this book: to perform reflexivity in a way that allows budding ethnographers to communicate among themselves what sorts of challenges they face as they become ethnographers. On second reading, I could see this book being used as a performance in an introductory class on qualitative research methods.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Reading :: Documents

Documents: Artifacts of Modern Knowledge
Ed. Annelise Riles

Documents are a big deal to those of us in writing studies, particularly technical communication. But to ethnographers, they have not typically been attractive foci. Yes, they are analyzed along with other artifacts, but (as Riles suggests) they usually take a back seat to field observations and interviews. Perhaps, she says, documents are despised by ethnographers because studying them means that ethnographers treat their own knowledge as just "one instantiation of a wider epistemological condition" (p.7). (See the article "Chains and Ecologies" that Mark Zachry, Bill Hart-Davidson and I wrote a while back for some thoughts about this issue.)

But interest in documents is picking up in ethnographic circles, due in part, no doubt, to the rapid spread of documentation and the trend toward ethnographies of workplaces and bureaucracies. This volume gives us some idea of this interest. For me, as a rhetoric and writing professor and workplace researcher of writing, the project is interesting in outline: what do ethnographers think of documents, and what new perspectives will they bring to bear?

In practice, I regret to say that the insights are not startling. The authors of the collection's pieces study NSF proposals, documents used at the UN, cases and parent-generated biographies of infants, attributions in scientific articles, intake records at a Papua New Guinea jail, university mission statements in the UK, and documentation of Fiji gift-giving. Each of these cases is interesting and each has flashes of insight - particularly the chapter on infant biographies. However, most focus primarily on representation of the documentation's author or subject, and none really dig into how the documents are interwoven into complex activity, either in routine problem-solving or novel situations. In other words, we learn a lot about how biographies and intake records represent and socially shape infants and convicts respectively; but we don't get to see how these representations travel across bureaucracies, become transformed in relation to other documents or activities, or develop over time in response to recurrent needs. In retrospect, I am a little startled at how focused the investigations are on specific documents and subjects as opposed to the bounded systems in which they function.

So who should read this book? If you're interested in representation in documents, or if you want an ethnographic take on documents -- particularly document types similar to the ones above -- this book might be worthwhile. If you're already in writing studies and are seeking cases that will deepen your understanding of how documents work, though, I wouldn't put this book at the top of the list.

Reading :: The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
By Malcolm Gladwell

What can I say about The Tipping Point? It's a national bestseller -- as well as a former First Year Forum selection at the University of Texas (meaning that it was taught in all first-year composition courses that year). The author, Malcolm Gladwell, became tremendously well known based on it. And it apparently helped people think very differently about "how little things can make a big difference," as the subtitle suggests. It's compellingly written and accessible.

And yet I felt frustrated by it. Gladwell wants to study human phenomena such as trends, crime, and the popularity of children's shows, and he wants to answer the question of how they reach the "tipping point," the critical mass beyond which change happens rapidly. To understand the tipping point, Gladwell investigates it in the same terms as epidemics, an approach that has some inherent attraction to me. Gladwell's approach is to set up a three-legged stool for understanding how tipping points occur: "These three agents of change I call the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context" (p.19).

The Law of the Few is that "in a given process or system some people matter more than others" (p.19) - whether those people are spreading gonorrhea or networking with others in a business capacity. Gladwell subdivides these into Connectors (people who make connections with others), Mavens (people who learn about and educate others about their particular specialty of information), and Salespeople (people who are unusually persuasive and charismatic.

The Stickiness Factor "says that theere are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable; there are relatively simple changes in the presentation and structuring of information that can make a big difference in how much of an impact it makes" (p.25).

Finally, "The Power of Context says that human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem" (p.29). Gladwell provides several examples of how contextual or environmental factors appear to have a causal relationship with certain human behaviors we would normally consider individual.

Okay, none of these laws seem earth-shattering to someone who's read much in the sociocognitive literature. It's a systems approach. So why did I find it so frustrating? I think it's for two reasons. One, Gladwell's typology isn't that well fleshed out. We get many engaging stories, but it's hard to know how well these three factors cover or explain the phenomenon. The book popularizes the typology, but it doesn't make a strong case for it. In particular, we don't get a good sense of how the three relate, when one accounts for the phenomenon vs. the others, or how they interact to collectively explain phenomena. We might even begin to wonder what other factors are out there. Are there others? Are others even more important? It's impossible to tell from this book.

The second reason is a bit more focused. Gladwell's typology has a built-in tension related to agency. How much can be explained by individual agents whose individual, situated actions matter more than others - the Law of the Few? How much can be explained by the system, particularly the context, in which agency is reduced to a network effect -- the Power of Context? And how much is explained by how alike audience members are - the Stickiness Factor? Gladwell asserts that each is important, but doesn't seem to deal with three very different understandings of human agency here, much less attempt to reconcile them.

Nevertheless, Gladwell writes about these cases well and does a great job illustrating the three principles he's forwarding.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Reading :: Designing Collaborative Systems

Designing Collaborative Systems: A Practical Guide to Ethnography
By Andy Crabtree

Designing Collaborative Systems has favorable blurbs on the back by Graham Button (XEROX Research Centre, Europe) and John A. Hughes (Lancaster). So it shouldn't be a surprise that the subtitle "a practical guide to ethnography" really refers to the particular strain of ethnography that Button, Hughes, and others such as Lucy Suchman use: ethnomethodology. As Crabtree explains in Chapter 3, "the term ethnography denotes neither a unified method nor a coherent school of thought. Rather, and as Shapiro makes clear, the term ethnography is a gloss on various and different analytic formats" (p.87).

In fact, as is typical of ethnomethodology, Crabtree argues strenuously that ethnography should not take an analytic format as a starting point (in a footnote on p.87 he singles out activity theory on this point), and he even objects to research protocols in general: "What is seen through research protocol, is not a reflection of cooperative work, but a function of the methods applied and the theorizing done by the researcher in applying them" (p.49). Instead, he urges researchers to "set aside his or her preconceptions and instead be faithful to the phenomenon, exploring and inspecting Work Organization as it is observably 'put together', constructed and assembled by the Organization's staff in their real time collaborations" (p.50). Therefore, he says that the first phase of investigation is Exploration, in which the researcher should "start anywhere, with any person that looks approachable and least likely to be bothered by the presence of a researcher, and collect as much material as possible of whatever sort is appropriate" (p.51). The researcher then proceeds to Inspection (in which categories emerge) and Analysing.

It would be easy to get caught up in the family fight among competing qualitative traditions here -- I'm not in the ethnomethodology camp, although I can see its appeal -- but instead let's talk about how Crabtree develops these ideas. In Chapter 2, Crabtree takes us through ethnomethodological data collection and analysis, discussing its philosophical and methodological suppositions along the way. In Chapter 3, he discusses how to apply ethnomethodology to work studies. Then, in Chapter 4, he introduces us to participatory design and its methods, along with some history of its development and controversies. Finally, in the Summary, he provides the purpose.

Yes, in the Summary! Crabtree answers the question that I had been asking the entire way through. After all, the text seemed too advanced for people who were just coming to ethnomethodology without a social science background, such as students or working software developers. On the other hand, the discussion of methods and methodological underpinnings seemed too elementary for those with qualitative research backgrounds. The material seemed too vague and too background-heavy for a how-to, and too practice-oriented for a methodology text. It didn't situate the methodolgy well among other methodologies. It tended to show more than tell, with large sets of data displayed in the later chapters but rather thin discussion of how to collect and analyze one's own data. So who was this book supposed to reach?

Here's what the Summary says:
The purpose of this book has been to sensitize the reader to a discrete ensemble of practical strategies and methods for the study of work and the use of ethnomethodologically-informed ethnography in the creative process of design. The book took its departure from the requirements problem and the inadequacies of HCI formats and methods for describing, analysing and representing the design space. ...

... The format articulated herein is practical rather than theoretical in character and is intended to orient the analyst to important features of the workplace or factors to be taken into account when observing and describing work and undertaking analysis of the design space. The primary orientation here is to cooperative work. ... (p.165)

And that's as clear an answer as we get.

So to whom would I recommend the book? Graduate students who are conversant in qualitative research, conversation analysis, or ethnomethodology and who want to apply these skills to cooperative work.

The future of mobile phones in a global recession?

I started thinking about this question recently, when it became clear that we were heading into a recession (at best). How is it going to affect workplaces, especially technology-centric work, and the consumer space, which has enabled so many of the changes we are seeing in knowledge work? And in my personal life, would I give up my mobile phone?

Along those lines, I was interested in Tomi

Loopt comes to Android

Finally, a major location-based social networking service comes to Android. Reviews are good. Has anyone else had experience with Loopt?

"It's an inauspicious time to decry helpful, even vital democratic initiatives in favor of ideology ..."

That's Chris Dannen of Fast Company, complaining that "President Bush has expressed disapproval of the free nationwide Wi-Fi proposal being considered by the FCC and Congress." He explains the proposal in this way:

The legislation, which is before Congress now, would require whoever buys the chunk of wireless spectrum being auctioned next year to set aside a quarter for no-fee service to rural areas that don't have broadband access.

The spectrum being auctioned, called the Advanced Wireless Services (or AWS-3) spectrum, is being vacated by television broadcasters, who must switch to wired digital broadcasting in January by federal mandate. That leaves a new swath of "white space" free to be leased by the highest bidder.

Without getting into the proposal itself, I want to point out this instance in light of the principle of universal service.

As I discuss in Network, the idea of universal service first meant simply the ability to place calls from any phone to any other. Later, it meant total market penetration: close to 100% of people who wanted phone service could obtain it. But in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it began to take on a new meaning, as a universally obtainable slate of services. Common services, such as call waiting, can be considered part of basic service once they achieve a certain level of market penetration. So the slate of services that define basic telecommunication is continually evolving; today's innovations become tomorrow's basic service.

The exigence for this? "[T]he assumption that access to up-to-date telecommunications is now the material basis for individuals' participation in democratic society" (Spinuzzi 2008, p.108, italics in original). We still pay a luxury tax for telecommunications service, but that service is now considered vital to our democracy. That's what jumped out at me about the quote above, which sounds passable now but would sound completely ludicrous in 1983.

Monday, December 08, 2008

G1 review: Cooking Capsules

One of the most interesting and unique applications for the T-Mobile G1 is Cooking Capsules, which is essentially a cooking show for your phone.

If that sounds bizarre, let's keep in mind that the G1, like the iPhone, is more like a handheld Internet device that just happens to have telephony as one of its features (in the G1's case, not a particularly central feature). The G1 is a lifestyle device, and cooking certainly fits into people's lifestyles.

So back to Cooking Capsules. The application currently has six recipes, each of which has a two-minute video, a shopping list, and step-by-step directions in a tabbed interface. So you watch the video to get a sense of how the recipe is put together, use the shopping list in the store (why not?) to select your ingredients, then follow the directions as you cook. If you learn more easily by listening, you can revisit the video at any time. And if you have trouble doing sums in your head, the shopping list has a slider so you can make anywhere between two and eight servings. (The default is four servings, and the video and recipe directions don't change, so you'll still have to figure out the quantities at some point.)

The videos are nicely put together. They don't have stellar production values, but they are nicely done, and they look stunning on the little G1 screen. The two sets of recipes (Indian and French) have different intros and engaging music that will get stuck in your head. To keep videos under time, the producers make liberal use of Baz Luhrman-type video speeding through potentially boring parts (such as pouring liquids). I noticed some pausing and stuttering in the video stream, but only sometimes -- usually around dinnertime, which makes me think that perhaps the CC servers were in heavy use at that point.

Shopping lists and directions are both nicely clear. Both allow you to check off items. In fact, I was really impressed with this setup, which offers a lot of potential for delivering instructional materials.

So how did it work? I botched my chana dal (I rushed the simmering a bit), but the dish still turned out passably. I'll have to try another dish soon. My guess is that after the first of the year we'll see a lot more recipes - and we'll be charged for them. Fair enough.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Social networking within the enterprise: A report from the front

Mike Gotta of the Burton Group is using a variation of contextual design to analyze data on social networking within the enterprise. His project looks valuable and ambitious, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he produces.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

G1: Text messaging

As I said in the last review, the G1 is an indifferent phone. But when it comes to texting, it's really quite good.

That's not just because of the keyboard, although the keyboard certainly helps. As I intimated in an earlier post, one big reason I didn't go with the iPhone was its lack of a keyboard - or, really, any physical buttons beyond the single button at the bottom. It reminds me of Apple's one-button mouse. The G1 has four physical buttons plus the world's smallest trackball, which is arguably overkill, but I'm not complaining. I can choose not to use a button. But I can't choose to use one that's not there.

Without the keyboard, iPhone users have a problem. To use this elegant piece of hardware, they have to inelegantly hold it in one hand while repeatedly jabbing it with the forefinger of the other hand. Although the softkeys are not too small for everyone, I found them to be very hard to select in my in-store tests. Sure, I might get used to them. But I would still have to jab the device with my forefinger. No thanks.

In contrast, the G1's keyboard is like a Sidekick's, hidden beneath a screen that you slide out. When you do this, the screen orientation changes to horizontal and you can type with your thumbs. Both thumbs. In practice, this is a lot faster. (Although it's not as convenient as texting on the physical ten-key of my old phone with predictive text activated. I really liked one-handed texting, but that won't be an option on the G1 until someone comes up with a suitable soft keypad.)

The keyboard is small, and at first I was worried that it wouldn't be up to the job. But after a couple of days, I found that I was typing at a pretty good clip. The main problem is that I don't see any arrow keys or beginning-of-line/end-of-line options. Too bad! You can use the trackball to guide the cursor, but the trackball is oversensitive (it's about the size of a BB) and I find that I often jump lines or jump out of the field with it.

I'm disappointed that you can't seem to cut or paste text in the Messages program, too. You can cut and paste in GMail, GCalendar, and the Browser, but not across all programs.

So far, no surprises. But the messaging program itself is great. It divides texts into threads: every time someone texts me, their texts and my replies are put into an easily navigated thread. Threads are listed by interlocutor and alphabetized by their contact name (if they're in Contacts). If you text multiple people, it starts a thread with all of them and you can see all of the outgoing messages you send to the group. Android doesn't allow you to set up groups, but they would be redundant given the threaded functionality.

When you receive a message, G1 alerts you in the status bar (more on this later) and when you enter Messages, the active thread is marked with a green bar. I'm much, much better able to tell at a glance what messages I've received and to see from context what conversations are going on. And of course my Twitter stream is kept separate from my other conversations, which makes it much easier for me to make sure I don't accidentally send a personal message to Twitter or vice versa.

Overall, if you're looking for a phone primarily for texting, the G1 looks great.

G1: The difference between a mobile internet device and a phone

Last post, I talked about how remarkable the G1 in terms of gathering information about locations, thanks to its compass, GPS, and camera. Capabilities like these are why I decided to go with the G1. But devices can't always be great at everything. And if you evaluate the G1 based on its nominal primary function - as a phone - you won't be impressed, because it's a C at best.

Why? So many reasons.

The G1 has a green and black physical button on the front (on other phones, it's labeled "Talk") and pressing it brings up the Dialer - a tabbed interface with a soft ten-key for dialing, a call history, a Contacts list, and a Favorites list (for contacts you've starred). The contacts, by the way, sync beautifully with your Google Contacts (more on which later). So far so good.

Dialing goes as you would expect, but it's not intuitive that once you've dialed the number, you must press the green physical button.

Dialing into voicemail is similar to any other phone I've had: long press 1. No visual voicemail, but I can live with that. (A vendor is supposedly developing third-party visual voicemail.) But the ten-key fades from the screen after a few seconds, so navigating the voicemail tree - or any other phone tree - is not fun. You have to press a physical key to bring the screen back up, then press the soft key you want. If you get my voice mail and you hear me say "Clay Spinuzzi" followed by an uncomfortably long pause, that's why. Perhaps there's an easy fix for this issue, but it should work out of the box.

You have a similar issue when hanging up. Say goodbye, take the phone away from your face, and press the red-and-black hang-up button. The screen lights up to show your call is still going, Press it again, and after a pause the call ends. If you're impatient, perhaps you press it twice, in which case the call ends and the device goes to sleep.

If you use the headphones, as I discovered recently, it's almost impossible to tell if you've actually pressed the headphones button. I plan to put some kind of bump on the button so I can tell where the thing is.

On the other hand, the G1 gets some things very right.

For one thing, calls are much clearer than on my previous phones. Great. The headphones are also nicely done. I've seen some complaints about the setup: the headphones have a lower part that plugs into the micro USB and contains the microphone, and then a jack for standard stereo headphones. For me, that is not a problem -- unless you want to use the headphones and charge at the same time.

For another, the other parts of the dialer really work well. The call history is great, with visually sharp characters as well as well-designed and color-coded icons to show the kinds of events in the call history. The Contacts can show all contacts (including any email address you've ever mailed through GMail), particular categories of contacts, or just contacts with phone numbers. Star one of these contacts and it'll show up under the Favorites tab, which is a great way to track the people you call frequently.

But integration with online contacts is not the only kind of integration. If you use Google Maps to look up a business, you can add it to your Contacts. Name, address, phone numbers, website if applicable, all go to contacts. That's been a real timesaver for me. Incidentally, you can use Contacts to launch phone calls, text messages, email, web browsing, or Google Maps; it becomes a nerve center for a variety of activities.

One more issue. Unlike the other phones I've owned, the G1 doesn't appear to allow me to assign a particular key to a phone number. But you can assign a contact shortcut to the desktop, which functions the same way. It's less intuitive for me, but it works well enough not to be a deficit.

Okay, so that's the phone portion. Bottom line, if you're primarily looking for a phone, keep walking. But if you're looking for an internet device that by the way has phone capabilities, the G1 might still fit the bill. And if you are interested in text messaging, it's definitely a strong contender. More on that soon.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

G1: Clairvoyance and Omniscience

As part of the ongoing T-Mobile G1 review, let's start with the G1's unique features. First, let's acknowledge that the G1 is like any Google product: beta. It is far from seamless. But its perpetual internet connection, compass, GPS, and camera allow it to do some interesting tricks. Let's enlist a little hyperbole.

Clairvoyance. When Google unveiled Android, the showstopper was their demo of StreetView. Google Maps had recently added StreetView to the desktop, allowing you to select a location and see a 360-degree photo of the location. You could pan it with the mouse to look at what your destination looks like. It was like clairvoyance. Android took that one step further: view street view with the compass on, and as you physically move the phone around, the photo pans. North in the photo is north. I have tried out this feature and it's fantastic.

Omniscience. But suppose you're visiting San Francisco and you want to know more about the local landmarks. Install and start Wikitude. The app uses GPS to figure out where you are and the compass to figure out where you're pointed. Then it lights up locations on the map with descriptions pulled from Wikipedia. But the real payoff is in Camera View: you see the real landscape through your phone's camera, and the landmarks are overlaid over the landscape. It's like Luke's binoculars in Star Wars.

Maybe you'd rather look at the stars. SkyMap takes the GPS and compass data and displays a 3d view of the stars, planets, and constellations. If you've wondered if that bright star is really Venus, you can compare the star map with the sky. And if you want to know what stars you would see if the Earth were transparent, just point the phone toward the floor.

These two capabilities are just the first of many exciting ones that the G1 brings. Which is great, because the G1 is a wonderful mobile internet device, but not a great phone. More on that later.

Obama's edge-based organization?

At the Harvard Business blog, John Sviokla is discussing what they call "Obama's Edge-Based Organization." He puts it this way:

What does it mean to have an edge-based organization? It means that everyone has situational awareness, skills to take action, shared values, and decision rights to empower the edge to take action (My thanks to my friends John Henderson and John Clippinger who have deeply influenced my thinking on this topic.) Obama's campaign did all of these.

Obama used the internet to endow the very edges of his organization with all the tools to self-organize, to get out the message with sophisticated media. He even armed them with an Apple iPhone application that allowed you to compare your address book to the centralized Obama campaign phone logs and see if there was someone you knew who needed to be called by you - not the machine - to support Obama. (See also my earlier blog post on Obama's use of the network compared to Hillary Clinton's.)
Hmm, I am not sure I want to go all the way down the path with this. What are the edges of the organization, as opposed to independent actants that are allied to the network? To use one offhand example, it was one of Obama's supporters at the periphery of his organization who broke perhaps the most damaging story about him. The article makes the organization sound much more coherent and unified than it actually seems to be.

Ribbit's killer app challenge

Ribbit, the company that built Amphibian (discussed in some of my previous posts), has unveiled a killer app challenge:

Ribbit is pleased to announce our $100,000 Killer App Challenge, a chance for developers to create the next killer application on the Ribbit open platform for integrating voice communications in applications, web sites, and communities.

The competition begins immediately and will conclude in March 2009. Cash prizes totaling $100,000 will be awarded to the most compelling, creative, and useful application in each of five development categories, as well as a grand prize for the best overall entrant.

The Killer App Challenge is an unparalleled opportunity for creative professionals, developers and entrepreneurs to have their ideas launched on this global stage. We’re looking for the kind of apps that will improve interactions between business and user, help brands better interact with their audiences, and evolve social networking into the next level of essential communication.

Mashable also pines for a command line for the Web

... and mourns poor Yubnub, a project that flourished briefly but that was truly ahead of its time. The new hope: Mashable points to Kwyno.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Why the G1?

As promised, I'll be writing a series of short blog posts about the T-Mobile G1, the first Android phone to hit the market. I purchased mine last Saturday and have been working through its features. These will be covered in later posts. Here, let's set the background.

From 2000 to I think 2005, I was an avid PDA user. I went through three PDAs, shown here in a group photo:

Three PDAs in cradles

Ah, so many memories. The Visor on the left was my first PDA, a simple and well designed piece of equipment that I used with a fold-up keyboard to take field notes at Telecorp.

The Zaurus in the middle was an actual handheld PC running Linux; I quickly installed OpenZaurus so that I could perform various tricks, and I also ran Apache, MySQL, and PHP on it. Yes, that is ridiculous. The bottom part slid out to reveal a keyboard. Oh, it also took a CompactFlash card, so I acquired a CF wifi card and did a lot of surfing throughout the house.

The iPaq came at about the same time I switched my Linux laptop for a Macintosh. I had hoped that the iPaq's Windows Mobile operating system would provide a more stable and consistent runtime environment. Wifi was built in.

When the iPaq died, I faced the decision of what PDA to buy. At the top of my list was email and web browsing, which had become necessities. Fortunately, web services had really taken off by then, making SMS a de facto command line for many Internet services. So instead of a PDA, I bought a basic phone with high-speed internet capability. Here it is, two years ago.

My phone

It was much smaller and lighter than a PDA, and it allowed basic PDA-like functions. I could set calendar appointments and receive reminders via SMS. I could check email. I could do basic web surfing. I had a set of contacts, of course, which I would laboriously code into the phone. I could even look at (but not edit) my Google Docs and other services. In 2007 I began using Twitter and Facebook, mostly through the phone. In some ways that phone, with its relatively stripped-down interface, was like my beloved Visor. But without the fold-out keyboard accessory. And it began to really enhance my increasingly mobile lifestyle. I could catch up with email and tasks on the bus, for instance, or while walking across campus.

But as time wore on, phones began to incorporate other features such as GPS, and I realized that these other features were going to enhance mobility in significant ways. More on that in a future post.

Others have been comparing the G1 to the iPhone. I won't do that except peripherally. My comparisons will primarily be to my history of phones and PDAs. Look for these to come soon.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Reviews of the G1

As my Twitter stream shows, I acquired a T-Mobile G1 phone on Saturday. I'm still gathering my impressions, and will blog several mini-reviews over the next couple of weeks. Unlike other reviews, I won't spend a lot of time comparing it to the other devices I strongly considered -- the iPhone 3G and the Blackberry line of products -- but instead will discuss the progression that I took from PDAs to my previous phone to this one. As always, I'm thinking in terms of how this device will or will not support truly mobile work.

I was wrong about Jaiku

In the run-up to the T-Mobile G1 launch, I confidently predicted that the launch would coincide with the relaunch of Google's Jaiku service, which has been closed since Google acquired it. I noted how Jaiku could be the "killer app" for Android, providing location-based services with Twitter functionality and GMaps integration.

Well, here we are in the second week of November, and my prediction was wrong, wrong, wrong. Too bad. Google, get it together! Why don't you listen to me?

"Your business has accumulated a lot of stupid."

NotAnMBA has thoughts on how to take the opportunity of lean times to restructure your business. Less hierarchical, more networked.

GTD calendars

Stephen at HD BizBlog is selling the 2009 version of his DIY calendar along with other GTD collateral. Product description says:
This is a one-page-per-day DIY calendar page that is designed with the F-pattern for eye-tracking. This special design takes your natural eye movements into account, making it far more efficient for retrieving the important data that you have put into the calendar.
I'm still surprised at how flexible the GTD framework has turned out to be. David Allen advocates fairly simple tools - desk calendars, index cards - but in an era of cheap customization we see lots of entrepreneurs bringing their own expertise to bear on the framework to create supplemental tools. GTD is like the Twitter of productivity systems.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Those Sarah Palin rumors

Ann Althouse has a thoughtful post on the reports you may have heard, the reports emanating from inside the McCain campaign regarding Sarah Palin's intellect and conduct. You may have heard them already: Palin thought Africa was a country rather than a continent. Palin appeared to McCain's aides in a bathrobe. Palin acted like a diva and didn't prepare for her interview with Katie Couric. Althouse is skeptical:
We don't know who's telling these stories, but obviously, there are many people with the motivation to blame others. Even assuming the stories are true, they don't have to be told. Why destroy Palin, a rising star in the Republican Party? Who wants her ruined? I'm not saying she doesn't deserve to be ruined. I want to know if the stories are true, and I want them in their most accurate form. (She thought Africa was a country? Really? Was this the slip of a tired, inattentive person, or someone who is clearly an ignoramus?) But I also want to know who wants us to know all these ugly things and why.
Right. Losing (and lost) campaigns tend to find scapegoats, partially because the aides want to avoid blame when they seek their next job, and partially because campaigns are an exercise in holding together fractious parties. The campaign is over, and now the Republican factions will enter a period of infighting among social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, small-government conservatives, neoconservatives, etc. as they renegotiate their coalition.

I didn't know there was an Office of the President-Elect, but I am glad to see, which should give a window into the transition process for our new president.

I'm hoping more of the site becomes interactive as time goes on, though -- right now it's mostly brochureware. The "Agenda" section looks like it has been repurposed from the campaign website.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


I've seen this Firefox extension pop up in a few places this morning, so when I got a chance, I installed it so I could take a look. Amazing.

You know how you're reading a story in your browser, you get interested in a particular phrase, and you get distracted as you Google for it, check Wikipedia about it, and so forth? Juice does all that research for you in a side pane. You highlight the phrase, drag it slightly to the right, and the rest of the work is done automatically. It might be enough to make me stick with Firefox as my primary browser even after Chrome for OSX comes out.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Rolling your own free, customized, free, multiplatform, and free qualitative data analysis tool. For free.

Qualitative data analysis tools are expensive. When I came to UT in 2001, I had the university spend $500 on one popular QDA tool, NVivo. It was going to change the way I did research. So I installed it, played around with it, was not impressed, and abandoned it.

Much more recently, I decided to try HyperResearch on the advice of a grad students from Education. Again, UT sprang for the $400 needed to buy it. I used it for two studies and again, I was not impressed: in some ways it was very limiting, particularly in terms of relating various types of data and coding. The interface was clunky.

And look: $900 spent for nothing.

But between those two times, I managed to analyze 89 sets of observations, 84 interviews, and assorted artifacts. This work followed me across three platforms (Linux, MacOSX, OpenZaurus), and it didn't involve an off-the-shelf qualitative research tool. I'm coming back to this solution for managing the data in my latest study, a study of collaboration and project management at high tech organizations. It offers better print formatting, more flexible data analysis, and multiple interfaces that can be chosen for the specific type of analysis or data entry. It's multiplatform. Fast. And it didn't cost me a dime.

So how do you save $400, $500, or even $900 on your next qualitative research project? It takes a little setup, but you can do it.

When you're analyzing qualitative data, you might have several different kinds of data. Here's the data types I regularly use:
  • Interviews (audio recordings and transcriptions)
  • Observations (transcribed field notes)
  • Artifacts (usually digital photos or paper that can be scanned; I have also recorded ambient noise at sites.)
You might also use other data, such as system logging.

In addition, you typically have administrative data such as information on participants (I include first and last name, pseudonym, and title at minimum).

For each of these data, qualitative analysis includes coding. You can code in several different ways, but let's keep it simple and think of coding as free-form tagging.

So how do you make sense of all this? Let's start with some don'ts:

Don't use Excel or other spreadsheets. Spreadsheets only offer two dimensions, and that means you're very limited in how you analyze the data. You'll end up doing one of the following:
  • Creating a spreadsheet for each datatype. So you'll have spreadsheets for observations, for interviews, etc. Since spreadsheets don't provide an intuitive or robust way to link data between spreadsheets, you'd have to do that connective work by hand.
  • Creating a single spreadsheet into which all data go. This will involve tremendous redundancy, with several fields going empty in every entry -- and lots of redundant data, since you'll have to tag name and date for every entry.
Don't try to manage all this outside of a table. Sure, you could dump your data in a big Word file and use comments for tagging, and sure, you could search text and comments. But you lose a lot of granularity that way, as well as the ability to gain a top-level view (e.g., how many times did I use this code vs. that code?).

Don't store your data online. Several free web-based services offer great solutions. But your data will not be secure. In many cases, you simply won't be allowed to store your data on an unencrypted server that isn't administered by the university.

So that's what you don't do. Now here's what I do.

Overview of My System
I use a MySQL database to store the data, with a different database table for each kind of data. The first table to set up is the Participant table, with each participant receiving a key index number. Other tables are all indexed by that participant number, so I can join tables based on participant.

Each table has a CODES field where I can insert codes from a list. I keep the list of codes in a text editor and surround each one with asterisks like this:
The asterisks allow me to search across a table and pick up just the codes -- searching for "**COMPANY" picks up codes that start with that string, while searching for "COMPANY" might pick up uses of the actual word in interview or observational notes.

To analyze the data, I use several MySQL front ends, including YourSQL, CocoaMySQL, and phpMySQL. These front ends are all free, they afford different views of the data, but they all work on the same underlying data. The result is far more flexibility than I would get from an off-the-shelf QDA tool.

Obviously, this solution isn't for everyone:
  • You don't have to learn SQL, but learning just a little bit will make your life a lot easier.
  • You may have a hard time storing files in your SQL database, depending on your front end. I typically store them on the hard drive and store filenames and metadata in the database.
  • This method allows you to code by line, not by line portions or longer blocks.
How to Set it Up
The setup is not hard, but you'll need to be comfortable with uncertainty. Or get your system administrator to do it.

1. Download and install MySQL.
Go to (or and download the free software. It has versions for several operating systems. The site also has a ton of documentation; keep a window open for installation.

2. Download one or more MySQL front ends.
Cruise on over to and search for SQL. You should get a large list of SQL utilities and clients, some of which will be applicable, many of which won't be. I am using OSX, so I downloaded the following front ends:
  • YourSQL
  • CocoaMySQL
  • phpMySQL (this one runs on your internal web server, so it works across platforms, just like MySQL. It will take some additional setup.)
3. Create a database.
Follow your MySQL installation instructions to set a root user and password. (You can set different user and permission levels, but if you're the only one using the database, why bother?)

Once you do this, run your front end (or one of them, if you downloaded several) and follow instructions to connect to MySQL. Then create a database. I suggest naming it something descriptive -- not "research". For instance, I named the database for my current project "research-pm" -- the same name I used for my tags in GMail, GDocs, and Remember the Milk for the same project.

4. Create a table for participants. Create rows.
Now you create tables within the database. MySQL is a relational database, which means that you can relate the tables in different ways once you have them set up. I typically make the participants table the "handle" for most of the rest of the database, since most of my analysis focuses on what individuals do and say. So we create that one first.

So what do you need to know about your participants? I usually put in the following information:
  • pkey: a participants key. It's a unique integer that identifies the participant. When you refer to participants in other tables -- such as observational notes -- you can use that same number to designate the same participant in these other tables.
  • lname: Participant's last name.
  • fname: Participant's first name.
  • fname_p: Pseudonym.
  • position: text field for their job title (or similar information that might be relevant, such as profession).
  • site: If the study includes multiple sites, use either a text string or a number to indicate each.
  • Observation and interview dates: Depending on the data collected, you might or might not include these dates. Usually you can get these from querying the appropriate data tables.
Once you have roughed out the participant table, fill it out with information about each participant.

5. Create tables and rows for each kind of data you collect.
Each will be indexed to the participants table. For my current study, I created:
  • observations
  • interviews
  • interviewfiles
  • artifacts
  • site notes
For each of these, create at least the following:
  • key: The unique key for this piece of data. If it's from an observation, you might call this "okey," etc.
  • pkey: This field links the individual to her or his data. If a given observation was of participant 1, you'd put a 1 here.
  • date: The date you collected the data. If it's an observation, you might call it "obsdate," etc.
  • text: The data itself. For instance, if you're filling in observational notes, "obstext" would contain perhaps a paragraph from your notes. If it's an interview, "inttext" would contain an answer or paragraph from the transcribed interview.
  • codes: The codes you assign to this piece of data.
  • notes: Any additional information you might want to insert that doesn't fit into the fields above. Sometimes I use this to make notes about further investigation, artifacts I should collect, or methodological issues.
6. For each table, fill out rows.
You can do this manually via one of the front ends. You'll find that each front end has advantages and disadvantages in terms of data entry.

If you don't mind learning a little SQL, you can take your raw data (say, observational notes or transcribed interview notes) and insert the appropriate SQL around them with some search and replace commands. Once you do that, you can plug the whole mess in as a single query and it'll update the table with that data. That's what I do. It's much faster as long as you're willing to spend half an hour learning the appropriate SQL command (INSERT).

7. Code the table.
Now that the data are in the tables, code each table. In this scheme, that means filling the "codes" field for each row of each table. Codes can come from your starter codes, open coding, axial coding, or all three. I typically put them all in the same field; you could differentiate them or place them in different fields if you think you need that level of complexity.

Note: If you code thousands of lines of data with a code (say, **WORKPLACE**) and then decide you really need to rename this code (say, to **WORK**), you can do a search-and-replace with the "update" command. See documentation for details.

Similarly, you can do autocoding with an "update" command. For instance, suppose you want to make sure that each mention of "msword" in the field notes is coded with **SOFTWARE_OFFICE**. You can use "update" to search for those incidents and code them appropriately. Brute-force coding can be tricky -- you risk false positives and broad-brush characterization of the data -- but depending on your data, it can also be very useful and gain a lot of traction quickly.

How to Search
Now that you've entered and coded the data, you can do simple and complex searches.

1. Simple searches within tables
These are searches within one table. For instance, suppose you want to find a mention of msword in your observational notes just so you can look up the context. Or you want to see how many interview notes are coded with **SOFTWARE_OFFICE**. I usually use these two tools:

Search-as-you-type (YourSQL)
I love search-as-you-type. The idea is that as you start typing the string, the results reduce. Eventually you have zeroed in on the data you want, even before you're done typing.

The advantage is that you get the results quickly. The disadvantage is that this method searches across all fields, so you might get false positives. Suppose you're looking for "software" in the observational notes, but you catch all instances of **SOFTWARE_OFFICE** in the codes.

Search by string (CocoaMySQL)
This method allows you to specify the field and the relationship before you search. So you might set "obskey=1" to catch all observations of participant 1, or "codes like "%**SOFTWARE_%" to catch all observations where the codes field includes a code starting with "**SOFTWARE_".

The advantage is that the search is fine-grained and focuses on just one field. The disadvantages are that (a) it's not as fast as search-as-you-type and (b) you can't set up searches that look in more than one field.

But if you want to set up more complex searches that go across tables, you'll have to learn a little more SQL.

2. Complex searches joining tables
Since MySQL is relational, you can link these tables you've set up, and the result is a much more powerful set of queries.

Here's an example from the Telecorp study that became my second book. I had the following tables:
  • "workers"
  • "interviews"
Now suppose I want to grab all interview notes for Customer Service workers that are coded ***JOB_DESCRIPTION***", then append the workers' first names and pseudonyms to them so I can remember who they are. I ran this query so that I could see how the many different CS workers understood their jobs, especially so that I could zero in on differences in those understandings.

That's too complex for the simple queries earlier. So I ran the simple SQL query. The names after dots (ex: workers.fname) are field names in the given table.
select workers.wkey, workers.fname, workers.fname_p, interviews.notes, from workers, interviews where ((workers.area='Customer Service') and (workers.wkey=interviews.wkey) and ( like '%**JOB_DESCRIPTION**%'))
So we can get really specific searches that join the different tables and allow us to slice the data in different ways. I could have added further codes beyond job description, searched across additional areas, specified a date, etc. In fact, I did do all of these, and I occasionally joined three tables to yield really interesting connections among the different types of data.

Formulating these can be a pain, so I formulate them once, make sure they work, then save them. If I want to run it again with a different code, I copy and paste.

How to Print
One big problem with HyperResearch is that it does an appalling job printing data. In the system I've described, you could print in a number of ways. The best two are:
  • Use phpMySQL to generate the table you want, then print from the browser.
  • Use MySQL from the command line to dump the query into an HTML file.
As always, see the documentation.

So that's a lot to absorb, and I would have to write an entire tutorial to give you a more detailed idea of how to implement this system. Since I'm sort of busy with research, I won't do that. But don't hesitate to comment with specific questions.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Blogs are Op-Eds, Twitter is a Focus Group

That's the upshot of Mark McKinnon's latest:

Twitter is filling an important gap in the digital democracy -- a gap that most did not even know was there. If blogs are the inner monologues that occur after we have had a chance to sit down and think, then Twitter is the internal (albeit sometimes random) thoughts that most of us have all day long. Twitter allows us to tap into the collective brain; there is something very fascinating but strangely voyeuristic about this.

And (in contrast to my heading above):
Twitter is more than just a large, unorganized focus group; it is a link to real-time constituent consciousness.
An example:

For anybody who had his or her computer open to this page while watching the debate, it would have been hard not to notice the stark contrast between the stoic live audience and the very lively online audience. It was not as dramatic a shift as the first televised debates almost 50 years ago between Kennedy and Nixon, but more subtly suggested the game has changed.

Yes, sort of. I noticed that people in my Twitter stream all seemed to think that their candidate was creaming the other one -- even though they backed different candidates. Comments tended to focus on microlevel concerns such as candidates' facial expressions, verbal missteps, perceived slights, and imagined inner dialogues of the candidates. It makes sense that these spontaneous reactions came out of this spontaneous medium. Watching these Twitter streams allows you to see memes emerging, but also the prejudgments and entrenchments that people bring to the debates. They have to be triangulated with other, less spontaneous indicators to actually mean something for elections, I think.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

You can't use Evernote for qualitative data analysis, even though it would be perfect

I mentioned a few days ago on my Twitter stream that qualitative data analysis tools are expensive and tended to lag other software, and that I preferred to build my own customized databases for QDA with MySQL and various front ends. More on that soon. But first, a few words about Evernote.

Evernote is described this way:
Evernote allows you to easily capture information in any environment using whatever device or platform you find most convenient, and makes this information accessible and searchable at any time, from anywhere.
Essentially, you install Evernote on all of your input devices, such as your laptop and iPhone, and capture the data you find most useful in the ways that you find most useful. So suppose that you see an interesting note on a whiteboard. You take a photo and it gets uploaded to Evernote. Text, audio, etc. all go to the same place and are accessible anywhere. Brilliant.

Whatever gets uploaded is "run ... through our recognition technology" and synchronized across all your input devices. Then you tag it and make notes. Tagging, of course, is a great way to code data. Now you have a vast, annotated, searchable database of heterogeneous data elements that can be accessed from anywhere and that is automatically synched (and therefore backed up). Perfect for qualitative data analysis, right?

Alas, no. Because any self-respecting institutional research board would balk at raw qualitative data being stored on a machine or server that is not owned and properly secured by the university. My IRB, for instance, specifies that data must be password-protected and stored on a hard drive that is encrypted at rest.

Hence I use a local, password-protected database running on an encrypted hard drive, and I set my screen saver to require a password for wakeup. I put audio, photos, etc. on the same hard drive. The drive gets backed up to a secure server. And anything I can't stick on the hard drive, such as physical collateral I pick up at the site, goes into a locked closet in my office.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Going to Iowa

Tomorrow I'll be flying to Iowa to visit my alma mater, Iowa State. Friday I'll deliver a rambling talk filled with personal anecdotes and accept an award.

If you're in the neighborhood, drop by!

Friday, October 17, 2008

BrightKite becomes useful

BrightKite's iPhone app now accesses the iPhone's GPS data. As you may remember, BrightKite was one of the early location-based services (LBS), but it didn't have an app for the iPhone launch or a way to extract GPS data. To update your location, you had to actually type the address. I quickly gave up on this. But the new app grabs the GPS data, which may give BrightKite a new lease on life as it competes with Loopt, Moximity, and other LBS.

Android's target

FastCompany repeats what many others have said: that Google's Android operating system is really targeting Windows Mobile, not Apple's iPhone. Well, sure.

On the other hand, initial reviews of T-Mobile's G1 have consistently said that it's a worthy competitor for the iPhone, although not as integrated or intuitive. This is terrible news for Apple, since Android is going to be deployed on several phones produced by several OEM's. If the very first one to be a worthy competitor, what happens when several OEMs compete with each other in refining the experience?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Going laptop-less

Abilene Christian has started a new program in which every student is given either an iPhone or an iPod Touch. (Those with iPhones have to foot the bill for their own service plans.) ACU supplies custom web apps that can be used with these handheld devices. Students can access campus maps and data in the cloud as well as class schedules, calendars, and so forth. They're a lot cheaper than laptops, and battery life is better (once you turn off 3G and rely on the campus wifi).

Obviously mobile devices are not substitutes for laptops or desktops ... yet.

Going paperless

Peter Merholz justly claims, "I called it!" The paperless office is back.

Let me take the occasion to make my own call. Unless the current economic straits are disastrous, we'll see an acceleration of this trend, with paper -- like email -- becoming primarily a way for younger workers to accommodate older ones. Of course, the worse the economy gets, the more older workers will delay retirement and the more paper will be used for routine communication.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

A new ecology of work

A couple of weeks ago, Not an MBA posted some thoughts about the new ecology of work and its repercussions. The conclusion:
My feeling is that it’s time to compare notes, to look at these missing pieces and others, and to make sure that they are addressed in ways that benefit and serve the workers. Forget about the tags “coworking”, “Jelly”, etc. for a moment, and consider the near future in which work and workplace is increasingly defined as a network of intentional local spaces, and as communities of working peers with something in common beyond the accidental fact they work for the same company.
Right. I suspect we'll see some really interesting changes in sectors whose organizational structures are beginning to resemble rhizomatic networks rather than hierarchies. (In fact, there's a book on this issue of networked organizations.) And there's a lot more thinking to be done about how mobile telecommunications and cheap digital tools are reconfiguring workspaces and consequently work organization.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Obama iPhone app

Talk about target marketing. The Obama iPhone app makes it easy to donate and call friends to persuade them to donate. Obama's campaign has been consistently adept at leveraging technology users.

No-so-Smart Mob

From BoingBoing: "A man robbed an armored car outside a Monroe, Washington bank and used a dozen unwitting accomplices to act as decoys during his getaway. He hired the accomplices on Craigslist and instructed them to wear very specific clothing."

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

How to survive ...

Not long ago, we were treated to blog posts on how to survive a zombie invasion. Now people are getting serious about how to survive a global financial meltdown. There's some overlap.

Surveying location-aware services for the iPhone

I'm late to the party on this, but TechCrunch has a nice overview, including Austin's own Moximity.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Droid Sans

Here's a story about the design of the default font for Google's Android.

C-SPAN's hub for the debates

I received an email yesterday letting me know about how C-SPAN will cover the debates Web 2.0 style:
I remember reading a post of yours a few weeks ago about the Web 2.0-friendly hub C-SPAN had launched for the two party conventions. I don't know if you've heard about it yet, but C-SPAN just announced the other day that they're going to launch a similar hub for the presidential debates; they're going to be following Twitter tags and monitoring blog posts that cover the debates. Here's the clip where they announced the new launch:

Anyway, I thought this was something you and your readers would find interesting.
I do. Unlike the conventions, the debates I will probably watch live. But I'll also want to see what people are saying and tweeting about them, and I do like C-SPAN's approach of bringing these all together.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Network advanced copies arrived today

My advance copies of my new book Network arrived today (well, probably yesterday, but I didn't check my box yesterday). I'm happy to say that they look beautiful and that I am really excited to get this book out there.

Amazon is still showing the book as "pre-order," but I expect that will change soon.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Even in the US, we send more text messages than we make phone calls

That's what this story on texting points out. Among other things, it indicates that literacy is taking new shapes. As I've been saying over the last couple of years, these new shapes have been understudied and need to become more of a focus. And I mean by actual empirical researchers, not just people who grumble about MySpace supplanting great literature.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Neanderthals died because they never quite figured out how to divide labor across large social groups?

That's one possible reason, according to this National Geographic article.

Cheap mobile phones for practical deployment of lifesaving technologies

Popular Science has a short article on how Dean Kamen (of Segway fame) is partnering with Nokia on an innovation challenge. Kamen's stake is to improve bottom-up organization in developing companies so that they can more easily deploy lifesaving technologies: water purifiers and generators. From the article:

Each purifier and generator provides enough power and water for a village; but, with one million villages in India alone, deployment is a challenge. In the past, Kamen has worked with multinational companies to launch his inventions, but the top-down approach of a big company doesn't mesh well with the million-village scale of this project.

The developing world has a high number of cell phones per capita -- the counterpoint to having very little in the way of landlines -- and the idea is that software running on Nokia's platform could be used to network and control a village's small-scale power and water supply.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Google Docs in the classroom

I mentioned on Twitter that I use Google Docs in my classroom, and someone asked me to write a short blog post about it. So here it is.

We're blessed at UT because at the CWRL we have several computer-assisted classrooms and the freedom to use these with various types of software. Last year, in the spirit of exploration, I had students write and submit papers using Google Docs, the web-based office suite. Google Docs allowed me to avoid the usual stack of papers as well as the email ping-pong that occurs when students email drafts to me. It also was easy to use -- basically it has the same level of capability as Microsoft Works -- so the learning curve was relatively shallow.

But I was more interested in the collaboration aspects. GDocs allows you to share your document with others, meaning that many collaborators can look at the same document and even edit it at the same time. It automatically allows features that you have to turn on in Word, such as edit tracking and comments. Paired with a project management system such as Basecamp, GDocs was a great way to support the dreaded group project. That's how I used it the first semester.

An added bonus was that I could embed my own comments in the document. That meant that I could review drafts and even insert grading comments directly into the text. (UT does not allow me to post grades on an off-campus server, so the grades are handled through UT's own gradebook application.) So I began to think about using GDocs for all assignments, not just the group project.

Last spring, I decided not to require GDocs. Instead, students turned in papers. It was a nightmare: versions floated around, it was hard to track which version was which, I had to wait until classtime to hand back comments. These are all common and unremarkable issues, but once I knew there was a better way, they seemed intolerable.

So this semester, I required all students to turn in all assignments on GDocs. I simply assign labels to them to differentiate the different classes and assignments (and I have one red label "_TO_GRADE" to track what I haven't touched yet). So far it's working well.

An added bonus is that I was able to lead students through peer reviewing via GDocs. Students inserted comments in each others' papers. When I reviewed the drafts later, I commented on these comments as well. It worked quite well.

I don't believe I've used GDocs to its maximum extent, but it's worked very well so far.

Questions? Drop a comment or drop me a line.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Reading :: Soldiers of Reason

Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire
By Alex Abella

In the Foreword to this book, the author tells how he gained access to RAND. "One of the managers," he tells us dramatically, "confided that he thought agreeing to this book was either the brightest or the dumbest move RAND had ever made" (p.3).

Interestingly, I read the Foreword just days after I mentioned to a RAND contact that I was about to begin the book. His reaction was unenthusiastic; he had not read the book, but seemed to imply that those who had were not impressed. Not great, but not terrible, more of a wash.

That's a pretty good summary -- both of the writing style and the book's content. The book is full of hyperbolic statements and characterizations like this one:
RAND's hawkish views of Soviet intentions, distilled in Leites's works and Nitze's jeremiads, fit the paranoia of the age, the national terror over an impending nuclear conflict, the abhorrence of anything that wasn't true-blue American. Nevertheless, RAND analysts believed that with hard work, dedication, and sacrifice -- and the prescriptions issuing from Santa Monica -- there might still be a future worth living. One of these RAND prescriptions would pull the world from the brink of possible nuclear annihilation, while another would rewrite the basic concepts of social welfare, politics, and government in America and the West. (p.39)
Yet the book itself is just okay. Abella is curious about RAND, but that curiosity leads him to attribute all sorts of things solely or primarily to RAND that seem to have deeper and broader roots. For instance, he attributes RAND's development of rational choice theory with "redefin[ing] the foundations of public policy by assuming that self-interest defines all aspects of human activity" (p.52) and noting that "RAND people were the primary practitioners of realpolitik in America's intellectual world" (p.96), while seemingly unaware of the interplay with Machiavelli and Adam Smith (neither of whom, I hasten to add, was a RAND analyst). For Abella, RAND seems to be the obligatory passage point for these fundamental shifts, but RAND is only one vector for the development of these ideas.

I also began to distrust Abella's characterizations of leading RAND figures from the glory days of the past. Invariably, these figures were portrayed as larger than life, with larger-than-life eccentricities and tragic flaws and blind spots. As often happens with this sort of text, the closer we get to the present day, the blander and more colorless RAND researchers get -- just as the miracle-working patriarchs of the Old Testament make way for the people you see at your local synagogue or church. I began to wonder whether the larger-than-life figures from the old RAND were more the artifact of temporal distance than faithful characterizations, and whether they became larger than life because they were mostly dead, known only through documents and recollections, unable to talk back to Abella's characterizations.

In any case, this book was interesting in spots, but I would seek out corroborating histories if I were to use it as a source.

Reading :: Search Engine Optimization for Dummies

Search Engine Optimization for Dummies
By Peter Kent

When I recently Twittered that I was reading this book, I received two or three replies suggesting that SEO was "snake oil." SEO is certainly vulnerable to this claim: search engines are secretive about their exact algorithms, which seem to change frequently, and much of SEO consists of following good web design practice in any case. But this book makes the case that there is a there there: You really can do some things to boost SEO.

SEO, or search engine optimization, "refers to 'optimizing' Web sites and Web pages to rank well in the search engines" (p.14). The author, Peter Kent, argues that although many companies offer SEO without real expertise or measurable outcomes -- and many web designers will claim to build SEO sites without anything to back up that claim -- SEO is actually achievable.

One basic way to achieve SEO, Kent says, is simply to follow web standards: use validated markup, make sure images have ALT text, make sure the META tag is properly filled with keywords. (Coincidentally, these are the same measures you should take for ensuring web accessibility.) But other ways include registering links with web directories; getting reciprocal links; and examining keywords to see which ones will capture traffic to your site, then weaving them into your text and META tags. The latter was most interesting to me, since it involves actual research and some degree of what might be regarded rhetorical analysis.

In all, this book appears to provide a solid foundation for SEO. It doesn't tell you everything you need to know, I'm sure, but it gives you an idea of what SEO is and how it differs from snake oil.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Assistant Professor position, Emerging Communication Technologies and Digital Media

Are you in rhetoric or a related field? Do you study digital media? Are you an assistant professor or about to receive your Ph.D.? And have you ever dreamed of working at a Research I university in the (self-proclaimed) music capital of the world?

You may be in luck. We're hiring. I'm the chair of the hiring committee.

Don't hesitate to contact me over email if you have questions, and please disseminate widely to your graduate students, friends, etc.

The Department of Rhetoric & Writing (DRW) at The University of Texas at Austin is accepting applications for an assistant professor position in emerging communication technologies and digital media, including video and gaming, and with emphasis on production.

DRW faculty members have the opportunity to teach a wide array of courses designed to contribute to the undergraduate major in Rhetoric and Writing and the graduate concentration in Digital Literacies and Literatures -- all with the support of our nationally renowned Computer Writing and Research Lab (CWRL), which operates state-of-the-art computer classrooms. As a member of the DRW faculty, the selected candidate will be expected to teach at all levels of our curriculum, to direct dissertations, MA reports, and honors theses, to publish actively, and to offer service to the Department, the College, and the University.

The successful candidate will demonstrate both a scholarly and a pedagogical commitment to the intersections of rhetoric and technology studies and should have completed a PhD in rhetoric and writing or a related field prior to start date.

The DRW boasts a dynamic, collegial, nationally and internationally recognized faculty with interests in the history, theory, and criticism of rhetoric, composition theory and pedagogy, technologies of writing, visual rhetoric, empirical research, writing in the disciplines and professions, rhetoric and poetics, and language and literacy studies. Sub-units of the DRW include the Undergraduate Writing Center, the Computer Writing and Research Lab, and the College of Liberal Arts Writing Across the Curriculum Initiative. Teaching load is 2/2; salary is competitive.

Application deadline is October 31, 2008.

Email a letter of application, curriculum vita, dissertation abstract, and statement of teaching philosophy (no longer than one page) to Search Committee Chair Clay Spinuzzi at

Also submit three letters of recommendation via U.S. Mail to:

Clay Spinuzzi, Search Committee Chair

Department of Rhetoric & Writing
1 University Station B5500
The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, TX 78712-0200

Position funding is pending budgetary approval. A background check will be conducted on successful candidate. The University of Texas at Austin is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.

Google Docs continues to add functionality

Today it added support for tables of contents and dictionaries. These were available in the past through Javascript hacks, but are now officially supported.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Automating location-based mobile tasks

This article on HeyCosmo got me thinking. From the article:
To capitalize on the growing mobile market, a company called HeyCosmo is launching two new location-based service designed for use on both the web and the phone. The first service, HeyCosmo Concierge, wants to help you save time on everyday tasks like making dinner reservations or finding an affordable contractor. The second, HeyCosmo Blaster, is a social event planning tool.
HeyCosmo's software goes about these tasks the wrong way, in my opinion, by essentially pushing people into phone trees:
The easiest example of this would be making dinner reservations. Instead of you calling restaurants one-by-one in order to find an 8:00 PM seating for a party of five, you could use HeyCosmo Concierge to do the dialing for you. With an automated, but customizable, message, its robo-dialer immediately contacts all the restaurants in your area (and this can be narrowed down by cuisine, too) and asks the recipient of the call to press (1) for yes, we can accommodate you, (2) no, we cannot accommodate you, etc. in response to the initial recorded greeting and question. The particular questions and how they are phrased can be specified by you. You can also record your own voice if desired. At the end of the messages, an ad will play, which is how the service makes money.
This is of course the wrong way to solve the problem. People hate phone trees and automated calls. Putting these two together is a terrible idea. It's the opposite of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. It's the Reese's from Hell. I predict that concierges will become adept at hanging up on such calls.

However, something like this could work quite well if HelloCosmo Concierge talked with an automated service on the restaurant's end. Push it from the restaurant's side, peg the pricing structure to the number of connections, and find a way to incentivize customers' use. Unfortunately, restaurants won't have an incentive to help customers comparison-shop.

Thinking about how HelloCosmo tries to automate location-based mobile tasks leads me to thinking about the problem more generally. Currently, the web-based task management system Remember the Milk allows you to associate tasks with locations. For instance, if you want to "remember the milk," you might put "get milk" as a task and associate it with a grocery store location. However, you still have to supply the trigger: you have to check the location to see what tasks are available. That's because your computing device is not currently location-aware.

It will not always be so. More mobile phones have GPS, and are being used increasingly as primary computing devices. Remember the Milk has an iPhone-based application, for instance. The next logical step is for the application to proactively sample your location and push tasks that you could perform at the location. You won't be able to forget the milk if your phone reminds you every time you get within 50 yards of the grocery store, for instance. Or to take another example, you might associate a task with another person ("get that loaned book back from Lauren") and your phone will remind you next time Lauren is in your office.

We're starting to see the beginnings of this sort of leverage going on with the iPhone, although it's slowed by Apple's walled garden approach. I predict an explosion of such capabilities with Android, although I worry that Android will not be fully baked at the time it ships. Either way, I imagine that a year from now, this post will seem quaint.


Here's a fascinating example of how a New York Times article on the Olympics was translated and, er, copyedited for the Beijing Evening News.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Twitter for the Enterprise

Yammer, which launched today at TC50, is being billed as "Twitter for companies."
Yammer is an enterprise version of Twitter. If Twitter asks: “What Are You Doing?”, Yammer asks: “What Are You Working On?”
I expect to see a lot more like this.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Twitter dispatching "at" the RNC

Nancy Scola, who wrote yesterday about mobile media coordination of protests at RNC2008, has a follow-up interview with one fellow who acted as a dispatcher. The RNC took place in Minneapolis-St.Paul; the "dispatcher" worked from Tempe and had never been to the Twin Cities. Among the things he did: "appending the hash tag #RNC08 to untagged protest-related tweets so that they would pop-up on the C-SPAN RNC ’08 Convention Hub."

ATTW 2009 call for papers is out

And it looks really interesting.

ATTW 2009 : : Beyond Work? Technical Communication in Professional,
Community, & Social Networks

12th Annual ATTW Conference
March 11th, 2009
San Francisco, CA

Traditionally, teachers and researchers of technical writing have concentrated on writing in workplace settings. And rightly so. But the spread of information technology into all areas of social life means that, increasingly, technical communication practices and genres arise and collide in social spheres other than the workplace. Combine this trend with an increasingly mobile work environment in which people are working from home or from the neighborhood coffee shop rather than an office or shop floor, and an increasingly global workforce that spans multiple time zones, and you have the basis for dramatic shifts in the contexts, practices, genres, and purposes of technical writing. Some may see a threat to our identity, while others may see opportunities for work to have broader cultural and economic relevance.
More at the link.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Mobile technologies enable networked protests at RNC convention

Some notes from the field, courtesy Nancy Scola of TechPresident. Many more possibilities have opened for spontaneous organization since the Seattle WTF protests in 1997 were coordinated by mobile phones.

Friday, August 29, 2008

More Android apps

There's a list of Android apps floating around that reminds me of those thousands of open source projects on SourceForge: niche apps that appeal to geeks, with unpredictable overlaps and mediocre logos and bad names. But then there's this great list of "10 Android Apps We Will Actually Use." They look outstanding, and should really change the way people see phones.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Frolicking on the Internet

Omar Gallaga, a technology writer for the Austin American-Statesman's and avid Twitter user, prints a letter he received from a reader. The letter excoriates him and others for using social networking sites instead of working, lauds Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur, and suggests that time spent online is time spent away from volunteering and making the country better.

Gallaga welcomes readers to post their comments online, and promises to "print out the responses and mail them back to her." Want to mount a counterargument?

More on Enkin, the Android killer app

AndroidGuys blogged yesterday about Enkin, an Android application that overlays data on Google Maps and Street View. Today, Wikinomics has a demo. They explain it pretty well:
Using the camera and screen, with labels injected, the Android powered mobile device becomes something of a magical lense [sic] that can be used to provide us with digital information about the world, overlayed on the world itself, as intermediated by the device. So far the Enkin guys have set this up to work with locations that have been tagged in their map view, but imagine the possibilities if it could integrate with all of the Geodata that’s tagged in Google Earth. You could also integrate this with social mobility services, and set your name to public, then strangers on the street could take a look at you through their phone and see your name floating above your head like in a videogame. Businesses could also geotag deals that they are running, and you’d set your Enkin-enabled device in “deal hunter live mode” where you’d see overlays on businesses including distance and deal. The list goes on and the possibilities are great.
No kidding, the possibilities are great. Enkin has the promise of fundamentally changing location-based services. The "magic lens" metaphor is a good one, since theoretically you could select one or more frames to overlay on the world. For instance,
  • if you're visiting a city as a tourist, you might select a frame that has pretagged tourist attractions
  • if you're there strictly for a conference, you might instead select (or create) a custom frame with only the conference buildings
  • if you're more interested in a historical tour, you could load that frame
  • if you're working on infrastructure, you could see metadata on streets and bridges, or normally invisible features such as underground cables. Imagine being able to tap into a database of traffic accidents to instantly spot dangerous intersections, or being able to detect cables so that you don't snap them with your backhoe when starting a construction project.
But forget these sideshows, because the real killer app will be when you cross Enkin with a location-based social networking system like, well, Google's Jaiku.
  • if you're at a conference, and you want to see where your acquaintances are, you can scan the building and look for concentrations of friends
  • if you're coworking, you can find out which coffee shop has your collaborators
  • if you're on campus trying to find a colleague's office, you can look through your "magic lens"
Jaiku is currently being migrated to Google App Engine and should relaunch soon. Coincidentally, the first Android phone will probably be presold from T-Mobile in September and delivered in mid-October. I expect the Jaiku relaunch will include the ability to pull data from your Android phone's GPS chip.