Saturday, January 26, 2008

Reading :: The Pinball Effect

The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made Carburetor Possible - and Other Journeys
by James Burke

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by James Burke's Connections series, in which he would trace causal historical connections among apparently unrelated things. The invention of X would make Y possible, leading to Z, and suddenly it would be so clear that if it weren't for water gardens, we wouldn't have the carburetor.

That sort of causal tracing is a lot of fun when you're a teenager, watching an hour-long PBS special and learning little pieces of history. So when I received Burke's The Pinball Effect for Christmas, I figured I would have just as much fun with this piece of light reading. Unfortunately, it doesn't work so well -- whether it's because I'm older and wider-read or because a book-length treatment makes the flaws more obvious, I'm not sure which. In any case, Burke emphasizes that everything is connected and that we can dig up all sorts of surprising connections between given products, ideas, and inventions. He works these connections in various ways: showing how three unrelated products emerged from the same point, demonstrating how one invention a few centuries ago led to an entirely different solution in this one, etc. etc. The problem is that after a few chapters, the game becomes pretty obvious and we begin to suspect that we can connect pretty much anything to anything else if there are enough intervening steps. The book quickly loses its ability to surprise or delight.

On the other hand, Amazon gives it four stars. Check out their reviews and, if the book sounds interesting, don't hesitate to check it out.

Blogged with Flock

Thursday, January 24, 2008

WAVE 4 is out

WAVE, one of the leading accessibility checkers, has a new beta version.

WebAIM: Blog - Introducing WAVE 4.0

Blogged with Flock

Exigence and experience

Jeff Jarvis, reporting from Davos, notices an interesting rhetorical difference between Bono and Al Gore:
Indeed, Bono is better at telling his story and making his point. Gore spent too many years trying to get sound bites on TV. For example: “The single thing that reminds us that we are all in this together is the planet.” (to which Friedman nods enthusiastically and seriously, as if this were profound). Gore hits the same points with different words again and again, not knowing which will stick so he keeps throwing. Bono, instead, tells a story.
BuzzMachine » Blog Archive » Davos08: Bono and Gore

Blogged with Flock

Monday, January 21, 2008

Israel's electric cars to be sold on the cellphone model

Israel is going to support electric cars in a big way. Necessity is the mother of all invention: Israel doesn't have significant oil production. But here's the intriguing thing about the approach: the model.
The idea, said Shai Agassi, 39, the software entrepreneur behind the new company, is to sell electric car transportation on the model of the cellphone. Purchasers get subsidized hardware — the car — and pay a monthly fee for expected mileage, like minutes on a cellphone plan, eliminating concerns about the fluctuating price of gasoline.
Israel Is Set to Promote the Use of Electric Cars - New York Times

Blogged with Flock

Packet death

My flagger sent me this NYT article on Japan's boom of novels written via text messaging. Five of the top ten books in Japan right now were written via SMS, "mostly love stories written in the short sentences characteristic of text messaging but containing little of the plotting or character development found in traditional novels." These sorts of novels have really taken off, partially because of the incredible penetration of mobile tech in Japan, partially because of mass transportation causing blocks of constrained free time, and partially because texting is unlimited:
The boom appeared to have been fueled by a development having nothing to do with culture or novels but by cellphone companies’ decision to offer unlimited transmission of packet data, like text-messaging, as part of flat monthly rates. The largest provider, Docomo, began offering this service in mid-2004.

“Their cellphone bills were easily reaching $1,000, so many people experienced what they called ‘packet death,’ and you wouldn’t hear from them for a while,” said Shigeru Matsushima, an editor who oversees the book uploading site at Starts Publishing, a leader in republishing cellphone novels.
"Packet death." I love that. And I wonder how things would change here in the US if packet data were made unlimited at no extra fee. (Currently I pay Sprint, supposedly the worst US mobile service provider, an extra monthly fee for unlimited SMS and data.)

Thumbs Race as Japan’s Best Sellers Go Cellular - New York Times

Blogged with Flock

Reading :: Writing Workplace Cultures

Writing Workplace Cultures: An Archaeology of Professional Writing
by Jim Henry

Jim Henry's book Writing Workplace Cultures, published in 2000, has been on my list of books to read for a while. Henry's book is based on 83 workplace writing ethnographies, primarily autoethnographies, conducted during seven consecutive springs by masters' students in Henry's Cultures of Professional Writing course. The students in turn served as Henry's research subjects. Relying on Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge, Henry sees these autoethnographies as "shards":
This book seeks to support researchers and writers at other sites by displaying the shards collected over seven years of research, in the hope that these shards can be compared to those of other digs and that alternative unities can take form in other settings. To support such comparisons, I extend the narratological readings of student writers above to demonstrate readings that trace discursive contours of subjectivity, as discourses shape writers' schooling, professional writing backgrounds, organizational sites of work, and workplace cultures. (p.25)
Henry demonstrates the similarities and differences across ethnographies along several different categories, using tables to compare writers' skills (p.73), writers' status (p.75), kinds of writing (p.95), multiple discourses (p.99), and so forth. Many of these have to do with the question of symbolic-analytic work, or knowledge work (p.115) -- and for that reason I wish I had read this book a couple of years ago. Henry has some interesting meditations on symbolic-analytic work, based on the many stories that his students brought back from workplaces.

So the project is a really interesting one, broad in scope, and forming a sort of meta-analysis of the 83 autoethnographies and ethnographies performed by Henry's students. As a meditation on these narratives brought back by the students, it's a good read. But it has two limitations that make me unsure how much I'll use it in my own research and teaching.

The first limitation is methodological. The range of studies -- 83 -- is great. And the focus on workplace cultures is laudable. But these 83 studies are after all performed during a regular semester by MA students who are otherwise untrained for qualitative research. Henry doesn't go into how he trained them to collect and analyze data, to code, or to triangulate; he talks only briefly about their research designs, which sound pretty unstructured. So it's unclear how rigorous the individual studies were or how deeply the analysis was affected by class discussion and other influences. Consequently, it's difficult to determine how comparable these studies are, and without a reference point for comparison, how can a meta-analysis be reliably conducted?

The second limitation is in claims. Henry does analyze the 83 narratives along a number of axes. But the metanarrative -- the grand story that should emerge from these narratives -- is elusive. Perhaps it is because Henry covers so much ground, but I had a hard time discerning a concrete takeaway from this book that was significantly different from common knowledge in workplace writing studies. Even Henry's implications chapter works over well-worn bromides such as the notion that autoethnographies have power "for heightening collective consciousness among all of us who convey fundamental philosophies about writing subjects through the very conceptualization of courses" (p.167) and "part of our work in intervening in cultural reproduction should entail our working with these writers to probe how such writerly subjectivities take form as part of a professional class" (p.168). Henry conducted an 83-study meta-analysis, something unheard-of in writing studies, and theoretically this unique study should have allowed him to generate and support claims that no one else can. I wonder if this has to do with the methodological problem: If these really were relatively untrained qualitative researchers, conducting relatively undesigned studies, working with categories generated from class discussion, perhaps new and grounded insights were simply not being generated.

Despite these limitations, Writing Workplace Cultures is still a groundbreaking book, and I would love to see something like this done with more developed studies -- dissertations, perhaps.

You heard it here first

Last week I suggested that someone take a page from the new MacBook Air commercials, develop a laptop sleeve that looks like a manila envelope, and give me part of the profits. Well, I haven't seen any profits, but apparently someone has implemented this idea. Fake Steve Jobs is not going to take this lying down.

The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs: Warning: This is not an authorized Apple product.

Blogged with Flock

The evolution of social networks

Brian McConnell gives a short history.

Social Networks, from the 80s to the 00s - GigaOM

Blogged with Flock

Nokia To Invest In Facebook?

I guess this makes sense since Jaiku is still in the Google holding pen and will remain there for who knows how long.

Nokia To Invest In Facebook?

Blogged with Flock