Thursday, December 01, 2011

Transparency in Commenting: An Unintended Experiment with Google Docs

I've been requiring students to turn projects in via Google Docs for a couple of years now, for at least three reasons:

  • It's online, so students don't have to worry about forgetting their homework at home and I don't have to worry about carrying around a stack of papers when I grade.
  • Docs are private by default, but easy to share with specific collaborators. So students can post online without having to worry that their papers will be seen by unintended readers.
  • It has a lot of collaborative functions, so students can easily collaborate and peer-review.
GDocs isn't the only tool that will do these things - I could have students use a closed wiki, Zoho Write, or various other tools. But GDocs is easy to use, imports MS Word fairly well, and looks enough like Word that I don't have to provide much of a tutorial. And now that UT has gone with Google Apps for students, the barrier for entry has been lowered. 

Finally, Google also keeps improving GDocs' functionality, so I find new capabilities in the suite each semester. 

But I have traditionally used GDocs as a read-only platform when I grade: I typically read the project, then type up comments in a separate window. That way there's no danger that students will see my comments before I post the grades. (The grades, of course, are posted in the university's secure system, never in a form stored on an outside server such as GDocs or email.)

Here was my reasoning for not embedding comments in the document:
  • Students might log in, see the comments, and get paranoid.
  • Students might actually try to edit the document while I'm working on it.
  • I might make a comment that I later realize is based on a poor reading of the paper. Sure, I could delete it later, but students would still see some of the backstage work that I prefer to keep hidden.
But in one of my courses this semester - Principles of Technical Writing - I decided to go ahead and comment inside the documents as I went. The rewards seemed too high not to do so. GDocs' new commenting system allowed me to highlight individual characters or phrases, then comment easily in the margins, and it also allowed me to post replies to my own comments. I had seen my students use this system well in their peer reviews, and I saw the real benefits for the fine-grained commenting I needed to do on their proposals. 

But there was a little thing I forgot about the new commenting system until halfway through the first paper. Every time you make a comment, by default, it emails the document's owner. Not only was there a chance that students would see my comments in practice, it was assured. When I realized that, I had a moment of panic, then realized the damage was done. I shrugged, put a comment at the top of the page to the effect of "I'll fill in overall comments once I'm done grading," then graded the others in the same way.

Students loved it.

I was quite surprised, actually. I thought that the many emailed comments, some positive, some critical, would make students paranoid. But they reported - both at the time and today, at the end of the semester - that they appreciated seeing the grading work going on. From their perspective, here are some of the advantages:
  • They knew when I had gotten to their paper.
  • They had a good idea of how their paper was shaping up, just by looking at the comments.
  • Many were busy enough with other classes - apparently they take other classes too - that they deferred reading the emailed comments until they had time. So they weren't becoming more tense with each email.
  • By the time I wrote up the overall comments, they had a good idea what I was going to say.
Later in the semester, when I was having them turn in minor revisions every class period, they were also impressed by how quickly I got to their papers and how quickly I could comment them (an unexpected boost to my ethos). 

Talking over this experience with the students, I realized that more than anything, they appreciated the transparency. They are used to professors black-boxing the commenting process, but that doesn't mean they can't handle a more transparent process. They actually prefer it. And that makes total sense: They're used to seeing short messages (think texting, Twitter, Facebook) and they're mature enough to understand that the overall comment and grade are inductively realized through this process that I accidentally made transparent. 

In the end, my students recommended that I continue commenting this way. And I believe I will.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Join me at SIGDOC 2012

Consider joining me at the 2012 ACM Special Interest Group on Design of Communication conference, which will be held in Seattle, Washington, October 3-5, 2012.

We're looking for research and technical papers, experience reports, and posters. Deadline for submission is June 1, so get started now! Don't hesitate to contact me with questions, and please do get the word out to colleagues and grad students.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Reading :: The Sling and the Stone

The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century
By Col. Thomas X. Hammes

If you're looking for an overview of fourth-generation warfare - networked, dispersed, focused on persuading decision-makers, essentially politics (and rhetoric) through other means - this 2006 book is a very good start. It has flaws, which I'll discuss in a moment, but these are overshadowed by the insights Hammes brings to the table.

Those who have been reading my blog over the last few years may be familiar with the term "fourth-generation warfare" (4GW) primarily through the works of John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt (although they tend not to use the term for reasons I'll discuss in a moment). Hammes describes 4GW in this way:
Fourth-generation warfare (4GW) uses all available networks - political, economic, social and military - to convince the enemy's political decision makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit. It is an evolved form of insurgency. Still rooted in the fundamental precept that superior political will, when properly employed, can defeat greater economic and military power, 4GW makes use of society's networks to carry on its fight. Unlike previous generations of warfare, it does not attempt to win by defeating the enemy's military forces. Instead, via the networks, it directly attacks the minds of enemy decision makers to destroy the enemy's political will. Fourth-generation wars are lengthy - measured in decades rather than months or years. (p.2)
And a page later:
There is nothing mysterious about 4GW. Like all wars, it seeks to change the enemy's political position. Like all wars, it uses available weapons systems to achieve that end. Like all wars, it reflects the society it is part of. Like all previous generations of war, it has evolved in consonance with society as a whole. It evolves because practical people solved specific problems related to their fights against much more powerful enemies. ... Mao started this form of war ... (p.3)
Fourth-generation warfare is grounded in Alvin and Heidi Toffler's book War and Anti-War, which applies their wave theory of history to war (see Hammes p.10).  In this theory, different innovations (agriculture, industry, information) led to fundamental changes in social organization, and each form corresponded to a form (or generation) of warfare. (For more fine-grained examinations of the relationship between societal organization and warfare, see Bobbitt's books The Shield of Achilles and Terror and Consent and Max Boot's War Made New.) In Hammes' reckoning, the generations of warfare looked like this:

  • 1GW: From the invention of gunpowder in the feudal era, through the transition to nation-states, peaking during the Napoleonic wars. (Ch.2)
  • 2GW: From Waterloo to World War I, enabled by more taxes, more wealth to tax, more industrialization, better transportation systems, and more patriotism. (Ch.2)
  • 3GW: From the end of World War I, when the social contract had been dramatically altered; maturing in 1940 with the Blitzkrieg, which became the prototype for later doctrines such as the US' AirLand Battle (Ch.3). 3G warfare continues to guide the strategy and doctrine of nation-state warfare, although it is giving way to other approaches.
But, Hammes argues in Chapter 4, society has changed considerably since World War II. Changes include:
  • International organizations that infringe on national sovereignty, e.g., the UN (p.33)
  • The rise of regional organizations that  infringe on national sovereignty, e.g., the WTO (p.34)
  • An increase in the number and diversity of nations (p.34)
  • The number of stateless actors, including transnational actors (Greenpeace, al Qaeda) and subnational actors (the Kurds, the IRA) (p.35)
  • International financial markets (p.35)
  • The sharp growth of the information sector, which produces "wealth-generating assets [that] are easily moved - and are often part of geographically distributed networks in their day-to-day operations" (p.38)
Hammes summarizes: "Warfare is coming to parallel this model" (p.38). And he notes that this warfare often involves unrest, leading to "the severe breakdown of order within many ... postcolonial 'nations'" - the scare quotes denote how artificial the nations' boundaries are - resulting in "much earlier social organizations - tribal, clan, or gang" (pp.41-42). (Note the parallel with Ronfeldt's TIMN concept, also based on the Tofflers' wave theory of history, in which different organizational forms are concatenated but can decompose over time.) In sum, Hammes says, the Industrial-Age hierarchy is giving way to the Information-Age network, not just in societal and economic organization, but also in warfare (p.42).

Over the next few chapters, Hammes identifies 4GW's birth in Mao's insurgency (Ch.5), then examines its  development in Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap's model in Vietnam (Ch.6), then via Nicuragua's Sandanistas (Ch.7) and the Palestinian Intifada (Ch.8). Hammes examines each of these in detail, making his admiration clear for how the leaders of each phase developed 4GW (strategically, tactically, and operationally - he doesn't evaluate their objectives themselves). A critical turning point is in Chapter 9, when hardline Palestinians led by Arafat "squandered" the gains of the Intifada and turned to clumsy conventional warfare. This clumsy move was exploited by hardline Israelis, who themselves began to expertly use 4GW tactics to provoke Palestinians to open defiance and violence (p.119). These tactics gave the Israeli hardliners the upper hand in the public relations battle - and as Hammes points out, 4GW is about messaging (p.128). Israel learned to excel at 4GW, using its insurgency-derived tactics in the service of the nation-state.

In Chapter 20, Hammes begins to discuss al Qaeda, particularly its focus on messaging. For instance, one "critical aspect of al-Qaeda's image among Muslims" is that "he [bin Laden] is careful to fulfill the requirement to declare his intent before attacking" (p.146), ensuring that AQ doesn't just appear to be appropriating others' attacks. From there, Hammes moves to Afghanistan in Ch.11, particularly examining the conglomeration of anti-governmental forces (AGFs), including AQ, the Taliban, smugglers, drug dealers, foreign powers, Pashtuns, and other tribal leaders. "The AGF is a true networked, 4GW enemy and will display all the resilience characteristics of such enemies" (p.166). He doesn't use the term interessement, but that's what came to mind for me. 

Chapter 12 brings us to Iraq's anti-coalition forces (ACFs), which represents a similarly interessed group of different associations. "Each [member of the ACF] fights for its own goals. The goals of each group may be at odds with others," he says (p.179), sounding much like Ronfeldt's description of the networked organizations that supported the Zapatistas.

These different cases bring us to Ch.13, where Hammes discusses the disadvantages that the US faces due to changes in technology. Although we are accustomed to thinking in terms of the advantages we gain in warfare, Hammes (sounding like Robb) argues that IT has actually eroded our lead because 4GW enemies can match and exceed our capabilities more easily, using continuous innovation with off-the-shelf tools and commercial networks. "New technology favors a new generation of war," he warns (p.192). Although the US' "systems are the most powerful, most capable, most technically advanced in the world," those systems don't give us an inherent advantage because of "our current organization and the changing threat we face" (p.192). The US military's organization is outdated and hierarchical, he says (p.192), while our assets are outclassed by the commercial assets available to enemies (p.194). Indeed, enemies "are free to exploit the full range of commercially available information technology" (p.195). More importantly, "today's terrorists are organized as networks rather than hierarchies" (p.196). 

In the next few chapters, Hammes attempts to answer the question: What do we do about it? "The future is flexibility," he argues in Ch.17, the final chapter. Among other things, he suggests using network theory to better examine 4GW networks and identify key leaders (who won't be major nodes, but will communicate with them). (Notice that network theory is different from networked organizations, although the two are often confused.)

Okay, that's the summary. Now a brief critique. Although Hammes does an excellent job describing 4GW, the wave theory of history - at least in this implementation - is a bit too deterministic and rigid. John Arquilla speaks out about this general tendency in his recent book Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits, in which he argues that "The generational concept is simply inaccurate": irregular, networked, decentralized warfare has been around a long time and has often been synthesized with dominant forms of warfare. Similarly, Arquilla's longtime writing partner David Ronfeldt - although he certainly subscribes to the Tofflers' wave theory of history - emphasizes that the organizational form of the network is the "first and forever form," perhaps newly emergent, but not representative of a historical stage. [correction 12.5.2011 - Ronfeldt writes to correct me: he called Tribes the "first and forever form." Mea culpa.] Ronfeldt similarly describes other organizational forms as being synthesized together (Tribes, Institutions, Markets, and Networks = TIMN) rather than each form giving way to the next. 

That criticism is more important in terms of theory than in practice, however, Although I disagree with Hammes about the notion of emergent historical stages leading to generations of warfare, I admire the depth and breadth of his examination of 4GW. It's an excellent book, informative, gripping, and well worth your time. Those of you who study rhetoric, as I do, may also find ways to apply it to other domains. Take a look.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Reading :: On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods

On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods
By Bruno Latour

I really enjoy most of Latour's work, but I strongly prefer his case study-based work, which seems more grounded and richly illustrative, to his more philosophical work. Alas, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods is in the latter category. What's more, two of its three chapters represent extended but essentially warmed-over versions of work that Latour has already discussed in Pandora's Hope and Iconoclash. Latour has done some work to pull these chapters together, partly by overlaying religious references throughout (for instance, he says that his second chapter is about the Second Commandment and his third chapter is written as a sermon). But I wanted more out of the book.

One thing that Latour does do here, though, is to examine and defend religion in a more vigorous way. Specifically, he wants to stop seeing religion as contending with, or indeed even speaking about, the same things that science does. Here's a passage from his sermon in Chapter 3:
I have to note at the beginning that I am not trying to produce a critique of religion. That truth is in question in science and religion is not, for me, in question. Contrary to what some of you, who might know my work on science (mostly by hearsay), might be led to believe, I am interested mainly in the practical conditions of truth-telling and not in debunking religion, after having disputed the claims of science (so it is said). If it were already necessary to take science seriously, without giving it some sort of "social explanation," such a stand is even more necessary for religion: debunkers and iconoclasts simply would miss the point. Rather, my problem concerns how to become attuned to the right conditions of felicity of those different types of "truth-generators." (p.100)
That is, he wants to examine religion just as he has examined science: not in terms of how it reveals Reality but in terms of how it makes truth-claims. He attempts to do this not by talking about religion but rather by talking "religiously," that is, "by demonstrating it in vivo" through his sermonic argument (p.101). Unfortunately, although I am sympathetic to Latour's general argument, the sermon left me cold; it seemed quite similar to Latour's other arguments.

As a side note, I should note that Latour takes a few sideswipes at Durkheim throughout, most specifically leveling the same critique that I did in my recent review, the critique that Durkheim has overgeneralized the experiences of specific tribes as a developmental stage for all religion. This is vintage Latour.

If you're very interested in a Latourean take on religion, this book might be a good read for you, specifically because it draws together some of his previous work in a religious context. But although I find religion endlessly fascinating, I felt underwhelmed. See what you think.

Reading :: The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life
By Emile Durkheim

(The above link goes to a different version of the book: mine is the 1915 version, reprinted by Free Press in 1965.)

Partly through this book, I tweeted that I wish I had read this book first, before Levi-Strauss' The Savage Mind. There, Levi-Strauss criticizes the notion of totem, which is Durkheim's starting point in his study of religion. In fact, I should have probably read Frazer's The Golden Bough before Durkheim, since Durkheim's book is in great part a critique of Frazer's position that totemism is magic, not religion.

In any case, Durkheim provides a meticulous and detailed discussion of elementary religion - that is to say, totemism as practiced in Australian and North American tribes - and argues that religion started with these elementary forms before developing into the more structured, personified forms we know today. He asserts that
before all, rites are means by which the social group reaffirms itself periodically. From this, we may be able to reconstruct hypothetically the way in which the totemic cult should have arisen originally. Men who find themselves united, partially by bonds of blood, but still more by a community of interest and tradition, assemble and become conscious of their moral unity. For the reasons we have set forth, they are led to represent this unity in the form of a very special kind of consubstantiality: they think of themselves as participating in the nature of some determined animal. Under these circumstances, there is only one way for them to affirm their collective existence: this is to affirm that they are like the animals of this species, and to do so not only in the silence of their own thoughts, but by material acts. ... the imitative rites appear as the first form of the cult. (p.432)
Durkheim makes this argument while maintaining respect for all forms of religious life. But I wonder about his argument, which rests on the assumption that tribal peoples represent a universal stage of development and thus their beliefs are a snapshot of the beliefs at that stage of development. Did the peoples living in, say, Crete or Okinawa or Ireland also go through these selfsame levels of development and evolve their own religions in the same way? Unfortunately, Durkheim provides only a few examples of how Western religions may have developed from cults.

Nevertheless, the book is a tour de force in examining totemism in Australian tribes specifically. Durkheim carefully and sedulously examines each aspect of totemism, relating all of them to his central thesis. If religion or tribal dynamics are interesting to you, certainly take a look at this classic.

Reading :: Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Innovation and Entrepreneurship
By Peter F. Drucker

This book is one of Drucker's classics. Unfortunately, I had a hard time maintaining interest - perhaps because I'm not an entrepreneur, but also perhaps because it's not sparkling prose. Nevertheless, it's a classic for a reason - Drucker packs a lot of information in here.

For instance, here's Drucker's pithy explanation of what an entrepreneur does: "the entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity" (p.28). Indeed, "entrepreneurs, by definition, shift resources from areas of low productivity and yield to areas of higher productivity and yield" (p.28). Entrepreneurs must innovate systematically, and that means "monitoring seven sources for innovative opportunity" (p.35). The first four are symptoms of change within the enterprise:

  • the unexpected
  • the incongruity
  • innovation based on process need
  • changes in industry structure or market structure (p.35)
The last three "involve changes outside the enterprise or industry":
  • demographics
  • changes in perception, mood, and meaning
  • new knowledge (p.35)
In the rest of the book, Drucker examines each of these points in turn, in great detail. He cautions us to always expect and look for change so that we can get ahead of it. Specifically, he says that every three years, we should put everything on trial - "every single product, process, technology, market, distributive channel, not to mention every single internal staff activity" (p.151). Essentially, he says, don't become comfortable in routine. Don't ossify. 

And this is an important point. Although Drucker is talking to the enterprise, he says that 
'Planning' as the term is commonly understood is actually incompatible with an entrepreneurial society and economy. Innovation does indeed need to be purposeful and entrepreneurship has to be managed. But innovation, almost by definition, has to be decentralized, ad hoc, autonomous, specific, and micro-economic. It had better start small, tentative, flexible. (p.255)
 Sage words. If you're interested in innovation and entrepreneurship, read this book.

Reading :: The Lean Startup

The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses
By Eric Ries

Eric Ries had a problem. As cofounder and CTO of IMVU, a Silicon Valley startup, he knew what his customers wanted: to connect instant messaging with virtual reality avatars.

Initially, the idea was to create avatars you could use to interact virtually with your friends. Your friends might be on different IM networks such as AIM, Yahoo Messenger, or iChat – which might sit on your desktop like separate spigots at a soda fountain. But IMVU would interoperate with all of them, serving as a sort of universal service for connecting your friends across all of these networks.

Users hated it. Adoption at first was incredibly low.

In fact, in IMVU’s in-house tests, users enjoyed creating avatars and using them to chat with strangers. They enjoyed meeting new people anonymously. But they did NOT want to tie together their IM networks, and they certainly did not want to allow these strangers in their AIM buddy lists. They were strangers!

Ries says that he and the others at IMVU had a hard time accepting this. He kept dismissing what the test users were saying, assuming that they simply didn’t represent IMVU’s market. But every new batch of test users said the same thing. Meanwhile, IMVU’s usage stats remained essentially flat.

Ries had seen his product as a way to help old friends interact in new ways in the same place. That’s what would make the service sticky. But the test users consistently told him they didn’t want that. They wanted a way to create virtual identities and use them to meet new friends who also had virtual identities. In essence, he wanted a clubhouse and they wanted a costume party. The two objectives implied different products, different services, different marketing strategies – in fact, they implied that IMVU would have to pivot.

As Ries makes clear, they could very well have ignored this issues and consequently failed in the marketplace, chasing after nonexistent users. But instead they decided to pivot. They wrote off the sunk costs in the first option, including a considerable amount of interoperability code that Ries had written himself. And they reformed their strategy.

But they didn’t capitulate – they synthesized their vision with what the customers would accept. That synthesis involved changing the product, of course, but also the process and internal structure of the company. Ries instituted a set of continual feedback metrics to better regulate this synthesis, building a product and service that helped users discover needs they didn’t know they had. As Ries put it:
We adopted the view that our job was to find a synthesis between our vision and what customers would accept; it wasn’t to capitulate to what customers thought they wanted or to tell customers what they ought to want. (Reis 2011, p.50)
It worked. The flat growth became steep growth. And Ries developed a set of techniques for establishing continuous feedback and improvement in startups. These include qualitative and quantitative measures, but also guidance on when and how to pivot. It's a fascinating book: fascinating as in well written and interesting to read, but also fascinating as in sparking ideas for innovating quickly and interpreting feedback on a fast cycle. If you're involved in startups, software development, or other fast-paced innovation, read it.

Reading :: What Technology Wants

What Technology Wants
By Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly, cofounder of Wired, wrote this 2010 book as a meditation on how technology has developed and how it might develop autonomously. He coins the term technium to delineate what he's examining:
The technium exists beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. It includes intangibles like software, law, and philosophical concepts. And most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology invention, and more self-enhancing connections. (pp.11-12) 
"Technium" is thus a very broad term, essentially covering civilization from the first use of language onward. That breadth allows Kelly to argue that
after 10,000 years of slow evolution and 200 years of incredible intricate exfoliation, the technium is maturing into its own thing. Its sustaining network of self-reinforcing processes and parts have given it a noticeable measure of autonomy. It may have once been as simple as an old computer program, merely parroting what we told it, but now it is more like a very complex organism that often follows its own urges. (pp.12-13)
The Latour fans out there may warm to the notion that Kelly is embracing a form of symmetry, seeing nonhumans in the same way that he sees humans. But that's not Kelly's viewpoint. This is not an ontological text.

Rather, Kelly is actually arguing that the technium - in which we are important but minority partners - is evolving as an organism (not as an actor-network). He makes his argument by starting with homo sapiens's discovery of language (Ch.2) and moving on through various stages of technology. Based on this discussion, he proposes that evolution's triad of vectors - functional (adaptive), structural (inevitable), and historical (contingent) (p.123) - is matched by a triad of vectors for technological evolution: intentional (open), structural (inevitable), and historical (contingent) (p.183). Indeed, he strongly argues that inventions seem to be inevitable at certain periods, and selects a number of examples of inventions that appeared at different points on the globe at roughly the same time. (The examples don't include what I would consider to be the most important and germane one, writing, which was invented only three times in the world's history, at very different times.)

Kelly, then, makes a very insistent argument for a teleological understanding of technological change, one in which we will be surpassed by and (Kelly hopes) integrated with our technological creations. It strongly reminds me of Kurzweil's book The Age of Spiritual Machines.

Unfortunately, I don't think the book's argument holds together well. At many points - such as Kelly's argument that technological inventions pop up at roughly the same time across the globe - evidence is thin and seems cherry-picked. We don't get to see many counterarguments or concessions. Since Kelly's claim is extraordinary, we might expect some extraordinary proof, including a better explanation of why technological change could occur similarly in very different places under very different conditions - and neither the strong proof nor the strong explanation are forthcoming. Due to these issues, I can recommend What Technology Wants as an interesting, engaging, and thought-provoking read, but I can't say that it lives up to its claims.

Monday, November 21, 2011

(someday I will blog again)

I see that it's been over a month since I blogged last, and even longer since I blogged a book review. This makes me sad. But I've fallen behind because (a) I've been reading books that don't relate as deeply into my core scholarship, so I haven't felt so compelled to write about them and (b) I've been even busier than usual.

As a result, I have about 5-6 books that I need to review. (That's not all I've read, just all I plan to review.)  Those include a book I finished this summer. Hopefully I'll get to these over the break.

MA in activity theory

A remarkable opportunity. From Yrjo Engestrom:
Dear Colleagues,
The next round of selection of students for our Master's Degree Program in Adult Education and Developmental Work Research (entirely conducted in English) starts today, the 21st of November. The application period will end on the 31st of January, 2012. For those who are not familiar with the Finnish education system, we would like to emphasize that high quality university training in this country is free of charge (there are no tuitions) for all students, including those coming from abroad. 
The Master's Degree Program in Adult Education and Developmental Work Research is based on cultural-historical activity theory and trains competent developers and interventionists in workplaces, organizations and other communities. The program selects 12 students every second year to ensure close individual supervision and collaboration in a compact academic community. 
The program was launced in 2006 and is based on the 20-year tradition of developmental work research conducted in the Center for Research on Activity, Development and Learning CRADLE at the Institute of  Behavioural Sciences (IBS) of University of Helsinki. This is an interventionist research approach rooted in the legacy of Vygotsky and Leont'ev and internationally recognized as an innovative framework to study work and learning. During their studies students are typically involved in research and development projects conducted in the CRADLE and in its partner organizations. 
Please circulate this call and encourage students to apply. 
For more information, see: and 
With kind regards, 
Yrjö Engeström      Reijo Miettinen     Annalisa Sannino     Anne Vierros

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

CFP: Connexions Issue 1

If you're an academic interested in professional communication, especially in an international context, I encourage you to consider this CFP for Connexions.


The first issue of connexions • international professional communication journal | revista de comunicação profissional internacional aims at examining the field from your point of view on
  • the past, present, and foreseeable future of the practice, research, and teaching of international professional communication, in local, national, international, and global contexts,
  • and/or
  • how the practice, research, and teaching of international professional communication has reacted to changes in context, and acted upon its contexts, in different parts of the world.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Reading :: Street Corner Society

Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian SlumBy William Foote Whyte

My family has been considered white since before I was born - probably since about 1960. But it was not always so. When my parents decided to get married in the mid-1950s, my father's family called my mother "the white woman" (she is of Northern European extract). Her family similarly didn't consider an Italian-American to be white.

I thought about this bit of family history when I read the classic ethnography Street Corner Society, set in the Italian slum of "Cornerville" (in reality a neighborhood in Boston) in 1937-1938. These Italian-Americans were decidedly not considered "white" by others or by themselves. Furthermore, they formed more fine-grained strata within the community. As Whyte describes it, this slum was populated by an older generation of Italian immigrants ("greasers") and their American-born children, who are "strongly attached to their parents, and yet they look down on them" (p.xviii). These immigrant families came from various regions in Italy, with the lowest-rank region being Sicily. (The name Spinuzzi is Sicilian.)

At the height of the Depression, these young Italian-Americans had trouble finding work, so they spent much time hanging around on corners - in gangs at younger ages, but as they grew older, in informal groups or more formal societies.

Whyte took advantage of a fellowship by living in Cornerville and spending most of his waking time with these men, who were in their late 20s. The result is a classic sociological ethnography that, despite its flaws, holds great insights.

First, the insights. Whyte, a careful student of human interactions, begins to detect patterns of status and mutual obligations in the groups, clubs, and societies he frequents. For instance, Doc, his main informant was the leader of The Nortons. As leader, he had to meet heavier obligations than lower-rank, less capable members. In fact, Doc, though he had no job, often spent his free money on helping lower-status members.

But leadership does have its privileges. To his surprise, Whyte realizes that the men's bowling scores closely track the men's current rank in the group - to the extent that a low-ranking member who is an excellent bowler in other contexts would bowl poorly against higher-ranking members, apparently despite himself. Furthermore, someone who loses status bowls progressively worse against lower-ranking members.

Whyte studies a drama club, a social club, a local political club, and (from a distance) racketeering, and sees these sorts of rank relations throughout. But in each context he gains fresh insights. For instance, in racketeering, he realizes that in Cornerville, "the primary function of the police department is not the enforcement of the law but the regulation of illegal activities" (p.138).

In politics, Whyte draws out some of the ethnic tensions in Cornerville's relations with the rest of the city. For instance, one Cornerville man tries to persuade another to vote for his preferred candidate, who is also Italian-American: "Why not give a Wop a chance?" (p.161). Elsewhere, an Irish-American politician complains to Whyte that "the Italians will always vote for one of their own," even if they claim they will vote for another candidate: "The Italian people are very undependable," and hard to hold to account because "You can't tell one Italian from another" (p.195). Indeed, Whyte concludes elsewhere that "the Italians are looked upon by upper-class people as among the least desirable of the immigrant peoples" (p.273).

No wonder that, as Whyte relates in his retrospective appendix, Saul Alinsky loved the book (p.358).

This version of the book, the 50th anniversary version, has three appendices. The first is a retrospective in which Whyte discusses the book's reception and impact, its criticisms, and a bit of his methodology. He also reveals the real name of the community he studied and the names of his informants, who had all passed away by that point, and he describes discussions he had had with them about the book. These are all interesting, but raise some important questions about Whyte's work.

Recall that Whyte studied Cornerville as a junior fellow at Harvard, before beginning his PhD work. He quickly fell in with his main informant, Doc, the 29-year-old leader of the Nortons. Doc was by his accounts upright and honest, but also very savvy about maintaining leadership. Doc also, Whyte reveals, read and commented on every line of Whyte's manuscript.

Doc doesn't come off as a completely strong leader in the manuscript, which frankly describes some of his failures and loss of rank. But he generally comes off better than, say, Chick, an aspiring politician who is his main rival. Revealingly, Whyte describes a talk he had with Chick years after the book's publication. Chick is unhappy with his portrayal, and tells Whyte that Doc vocally agreed with him the last time the two had talked. Whyte is startled at first, but realizes that of course Doc would say that: he has to deal with Chick and probably doesn't want to admit that he knew about the portrayal beforehand.

A less charitable interpretation is that Doc steered Whyte's account to damage his rival, while maintaining deniability.

Nevertheless, Whyte's book is really exceptional. The references are very thin - something that apparently caused controversy on Whyte's dissertation committee - but the study is well told and well textured. Despite my less charitable interpretation, no one really comes off very badly in the story, even the racketeers. I highly recommend it.

Reading :: The Penguin and the Leviathan

The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-InterestBy Yochai Benkler

Yochai Benkler's previous book, The Wealth of Networks, was an academic book about how peer production works. This one is a popular book that explores the related question of how peer production and similar cooperative enterprises can work, since they seem to contradict the seemingly natural impulse of self-interest. As Benkler points out, this assumption of rational self-interest underpins so many things that we take for granted: in economics, rational choice theory; in law, harsh punishments; in business, top-down hierarchies; in government, the Leviathan. Yet, Benkler argues, cooperation is deeply ingrained in us and can serve to revolutionize all of these areas.

Benkler's examples are familiar to anyone who has read others' books in this vein, such as The Starfish and the Spider and What's Mine is Yours. (I confess that I thought: again with Linux, Zipcar, and Toyota? Surely there are other examples.) But Benkler covers new ground by delving into the nature/culture debate, describing evolutionary as well as cultural roots of cooperation; psychological and social influences; empathy; fairness; and morals. That is, Benkler follows themes of cooperation through several disciplines.

The result is a fine popular contribution. But in covering so many disciplines, Benkler spreads his argument too thin. For instance, he touches on the nature-nurture debate that stretched through the entire 20th century, but doesn't engage in it deeply except to summarily conclude that both are influences. Similarly, his discussion of psychological and social influences hinge on the notion of Goffman's work with frame, but he doesn't do much with that notion besides demonstrating that when people see the same task within competing frames, they perceive it differently. In these, and in the other chapters, Benkler takes relatively narrow conversations happening within a given discipline and characterizes these conversations as what those disciplines have discovered about cooperation. Obviously he has to gloss if he's going to apply all of these disciplines to one topic in one book - but that's a very thin gloss. I would have preferred much more hedging and, well, framing.

However, Benkler does manage to counteract so many of the obvious yet flawed objections to peer production, objections predicated on a view of humanity as simply selfish or self-interested. If you deal with people who roll their eyes at the notion of open source software or who caution you not to look at Wikipedia because "anyone could write anything there," this might be the right book to give them.

Reading :: Patterns of Culture

Patterns of Culture
By Ruth Benedict

Ruth Benedict's 1934 classic Patterns of Culture deserves a more detailed review than this one, but unfortunately I don't have that review in me right now. It's an interesting book, strongly taking the side of culture in the nature-vs.-culture debate that raged throughout the 1930s: "Culture is not a biologically transmitted complex," she argues (p.14), particularly for human beings, who are marvelously plastic. But cultures do have larger tendencies, larger patterns, that show up in individual actions and gestures (p.79).

Indeed, Benedict argues, we can think of cultures as broadly Dionysian (seeking to annihilate bounds and limits and "break through into another order of experience" through excess, pp.78-79) and Apollonian (seeking to reinforce and follow bounds, p.79). She illustrates these two sorts of cultures with extended discussions of the Pueblos of New Mexico, the Dobu of New Guinea, and the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island. All of these accounts are fascinating.

"The three cultures ... are not merely heterogeneous assortments of acts and beliefs," she asserts in Chapter VII. "They have each certain goals toward which their behaviour is directed and which their institutions further" (p.223). She adds that these cultures are essentially incommensurable (p.223).

But, she adds, "it would be absurd to cut every culture down to the Procrustean bed of some catchword characterization" (p.228). "Facile generalizations about the integration of culture are most dangerous in field-work. ... None of the people we have discussed in this volume were studied in the field with any preconception of a consistent type of behaviour which that culture illustrated" (p.229). Indeed, the discussed characterizations are not types, she says, but rather "each one is an empirical characterization, and probably is not duplicated in its entirety anywhere else in the world" (p.238).

Benedict goes on at some length in this vein in Ch. VII. That's a relief, since that's what I took her project to be up to this point in the book. But the number of times she goes over this point makes me wonder if that's the reaction she originally received when she shopped around the manuscript. I would have liked it better if she had been able to integrate this clear point much more thoroughly earlier in the book, especially in pp.78-79 and throughout the three cases, so that we didn't receive this impression at the outset.

In any case, the book is certainly worth reading as an anthropological classic. But in terms of careful explication and analysis, I was not entirely impressed.

Reading :: Victim Advocacy in the Courtroom

Victim Advocacy in the Courtroom: Persuasive Practices in Domestic Violence and Child Protection Cases
By Mary Lay Schuster and Amy D. Propen

Over the last few years, the two authors have written some important articles on domestic violence and child protection cases in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. These articles are really quite strong, describing the cloud of different advocates, volunteers, and texts that surround the courtroom in these chaotic, emotionally charged cases. And in this book, the authors summarize their three-year study of Victim Impact Statements, including interviews with judges and advocates, analysis of models and sample VISes, and courtroom observations.

The book builds on and amplifies the work of the previously published articles. Here, the authors take us on a tour of these difficult cases, introducing us to the judges, advocates, victims, and defendants; the many genres that accompany each stage of the process; the competing interests; the tangled practices; and the standards of proof used to make decisions. We feel sympathy for the victims and their families, but - and here I think the authors are to be commended - we begin to feel some sympathy even for the defendants, who may have given in to poor impulse control and now face the possibility of losing their kids forever. We also become to understand the difficult, conflicted jobs of the judge and the court-appointed special advocates, who must determine the best course of action from what are sometimes a set of unappealing alternatives. After reading this book, I began to understand how difficult and complicated such work is, how genres and practices help to structure and guide it, and how families are affected by it. If you're interested in the court system or genre studies, take a look.

Reading :: Tristes Tropiques

Tristes Tropiques
By Claude Levi-Strauss

Tristes Tropiques is Claude Levi-Strauss' memoir. It's a remarkable book for a number of reasons, not least because Levi-Strauss sees the humor and vanity in every human connection. At many points, the book made me laugh out loud - remarkable, since the book begins with Levi-Strauss fleeing Nazi-occupied France and attempting to make it through US bureaucracy with his ethnographic materials. From this scene, Levi-Strauss' previous journeys to South America are told in flashbacks, flashbacks that unfortunately never quite bring us back to the original scene. The book lacks closure, both in this large sense and in the smaller encounters he describes with Brazilian aristocrats, South American missionaries, various Native American tribes, and informants in India.

The encounters with the Native American tribes were the most interesting ones for me. Levi-Strauss describes himself as a once-idealistic, but eventually cynical and crafty, ethnologist who must use his wiles to extract information and avoid being exploited by his informants. At one point, he makes a gift of bolts of red flannel to a nomadic tribe; when he wakes up the next day, they are all covered from head to foot in flannel, men, women, children, even pets. By midday they tire of the flannel and leave it on the ground. This inspires a hatred of red flannel in him, and he trades away the rest of the bolts as soon as possible. At another point, the chief of another tribe admires his aluminum pot and offers to trade it for a large supply of (loosely speaking) beer. After Levi-Strauss refuses, the chief smiles and simply takes the pot. After encounters like these, Levi-Strauss begins using his own tricks: in one tribe, it is forbidden for outsiders to know members' names, but he realizes that he can get children to tell him each others' names by provoking fights between them.

More interesting to me was what Levi-Strauss did not cover. Levi-Strauss conducted many of these visits with his wife, but she rates only one mention in his book - when she had to be evacuated due to an injury. Up to this point, Levi-Strauss had described his visits with the tribes as if he were the only anthropologist on the expedition!

Levi-Strauss is a marvelous writer, but there's something a little too neat about his interpretations. For instance, he notes that the face tattoos in one tribe are similar to the arrangement of huts in another tribe, and he postulates that the tattoos are a subconscious yearning for the other tribe's arrangements. At other points, he makes similar leaps.

Toward the end of the book, rather than returning to the opening scene, Levi-Strauss compares and discusses religions. At one point, which is perhaps more shocking in 2011 than it was in 1955, Levi-Strauss claims that religions have devolved into more and more controlling forms, with their early pinnacle being Buddhism and their late nadir being Islam. The book ends with the sort of contemplation about the future of mankind that was fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s.

Overall, the book was highly interesting and entertaining. It gave me new insights into Levi-Strauss, provided more context into his anthropological work, but didn't necessarily give me a lot of faith in his methods. Nevertheless, it's a terrific read. Pick it up and take a look.

Reading :: Linked

By Albert-Laszlo Barabasi

A while back, Mark Zachry, who knew of my interest in networks, recommended that I read this book. It's a popular book that overviews "the new science of networks," which is to say, network analysis. Needless to say, it's fascinating.

Network analysis shouldn't be confused with networked organizations (e.g., Castells; Arquilla & Ronfeldt) or sociotechnical networks (e.g., Engestrom; Miettinen; Latour; Callon; see my second book). Rather, it's a way of examining how any particular type of node connects with other nodes. It has a strong mathematical component. And although it can be applied to people (as in social network analysis), it can also be applied to atoms, bits, citations, bus terminals - anything that can be conceived as a class or type, then connected to others of the same class/type.

Barabasi does a terrific job of describing how network analysis has developed as it is applied in different fields and to different problems. Along the way, he discusses concepts such as emerging clusters, hubs and connectors, small worlds, and power laws. Due to his clarity and examples, he illuminated several things for me about network analysis - and particularly its differences with, and strengths and weaknesses in comparison with, networked organizations and social network analysis.

If you're interested in networks under any of these headings, I strongly recommend this readable book.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Come see me at Lavacon

All, but especially business types: I'll be presenting soon at The LavaCon Conference on Digital Media and Content Strategies, which is November 13–16, 2011 in beautiful Austin, Texas.

And I mean beautiful: highs are usually in the 70s F in November. Great conference weather.

But Lavacon looks like a thing of beauty too. My session is "What Makes Nimble Organizations Work?" I'll be drawing from my recent case studies on nimble organizations, including a search marketing company, independent contractors, and coworkers, and discussing six characteristics that make these nimble organizations work so well.

When you register, use the referral code “spinuzzi” to receive $100 off. Hope to see you there.

Friday, September 09, 2011

So far behind...

I have at least six books on the shelf waiting to be reviewed. They'll have to wait a while longer as I clear out the projects to which I have (over)committed. That's too bad, because some of these books are terrific. Look for reviews in October.

2012 Qualitative Research Network

 If you're planning to go to the 2012 Conference on College Composition and Communication, consider checking out the Qualitative Research Network:
QRN 2012 will be held Wednesday, March 21 from 1:30 to 5:00 at the 2012 Conference on College Composition and Communication in St. Louis, Missouri.  
The QRN provides mentoring and support to qualitative researchers at all levels of experience and working in diverse areas of study within the college composition and communication community. As a pre-conference research network, the QRN is open to everyone, including those who are already presenting at the conference in other venues. 
The first hour of QRN 2012 will feature a keynote address by Paul Prior titled “Refining theory and methods through qualitative research: Tales from the field." The rest of the workshop will feature research roundtables where novice and experienced researchers will have twenty to thirty minutes to present their work-in-progress for feedback and discussion. Experienced qualitative researchers will be on hand at each table to offer suggestions and facilitate discussion.
In the CFP, they say:
We encourage submissions from those at any stage of the research process (e.g., planning,
data collecting, data analyzing, publishing). 
Please send via email a brief description (approximately 500 words) of your research proposal by October 11 to both Gwen Gorzelsky ( and Kevin Roozen (, Co-Chairs, Qualitative Research Network.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

TCQ special issue - Contemporary Research Methodologies in Technical Communication

All you long-range planners in technical communication, please consider writing a proposal for the TCQ special issue that Brian McNely, Christa Teston and I are putting together.

Proposals are due by February 15th, 2013; scheduled publication date is January, 2015.

That's a long lead time - but it means that you can start thinking about ideas now. And you can encourage your graduate students to do the same.

Questions? Please email Brian McNely (

Update: Bad link fixed.

Friday, September 02, 2011

A Ph.D. in activity theory

I just received email from Yrjo Engestrom about the Doctoral Program on Developmental Work Research and Adult Education (DWRAE) offered in Finland. If you're passionate about AT and thinking about doctoral work, it could be a fantastic opportunity.

One other thing: "Note also that our doctoral program is free of charge."
I would like to inform you about our Doctoral Program on Developmental Work Research and Adult Education (DWRAE) which is now open for applications for the class of 2012. I am asking you to spread the word about this program, especially among students who might be interested to study activity theory in a focused, ambitious and supportive context. 
This is an interdisciplinary four-year doctoral program based on cultural-historical activity theory and developmental work research methodology. Located in the Institute of Behavioural Sciences at University of Helsinki, Finland, the program has functioned since 1995 and we have produced 31 PhDs in this period. The application period for our program has started on the 22nd of August and will end on the 7th of October. Please check the web pages of the Finnish Doctoral Programme in Education and Learning (FiDPEL) for the details of the application procedure: 
Within the FiDPEL pages, you will also find the pages devoted to our own sub-program: 
In these pages, you will also find a document titled “How we work in the doctoral program”. This document will give you quite detailed information about the pedagogical principles and practical arrangements of our program. The program in entirely conducted in English. The first two years are structured around four semester-long seminars, focused on foundations of activity theory, research design and methodology, data analysis, and discussion with relevant alternative theories, respectively. Our program puts a strong emphasis on community building and collaborative work in research groups. Acivity systems and their transformations are often studied by means of formative interventions, such as the Change Laboratory. 
Please visit also the web pages of our Center for Research on Activity, Development and Learning (CRADLE): 
The CRADLE is responsible for the design and running of the Doctoral Program on Developmental Work Research and Adult Education. Therefore, it may be useful for you to read about the ongoing research in the CRADLE. 
Note also that our doctoral program is free of charge. A limited number of fully funded four-year positions are available. In addition, we regularly admit a significant number of doctoral students who obtain funding form various other sources, e.g., in the form of grants, research assistantships, or partial salary from their employers. An important Finnish source of this kind of funding is CIMO; please see the web pages on their scholarships:

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sign up for ATTW's Research Methods Workshop

This looks like a great opportunity if you're planning a research project on writing - and you want the advice of some of the best in the field. 

ATTW 2012 Research Methods WorkshopsMarch 20, 2012 12:30-4:00Scholarships Available!
The Research Methods Workshops are an initiative of the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW) aimed at providing an opportunity for those entering the profession and those less trained in research to develop more sophisticated research skills.  
This year, ATTW is sponsoring two Research Methods Workshops: 
  • Ellen Barton, Wayne State University, on Analyzing Data from Complex Institutional Contexts, and 
  • Jason Swarts, North Carolina State University, on Tracing Networks of Discourse.
 These two half-day workshops will be held in St Louis on Tuesday afternoon, March 20, 12:30-4:30.  This is the day preceding the ATTW conference (March 21) and the CCCC conference (March 21-24).
Each workshop focuses on a methodology for data analysis and is designed to help researchers with data devise and try out an analytic approach. 
Analyzing Data from Complex Institutional Contexts with Ellen Barton focuses on using research questions to select appropriate samples and develop coding schemes for data from institutions such as hospitals, universities, R&D labs, and government agencies. 
Tracing Networks of Discourse with Jason Swarts focuses on analyzing discursive activity in distributed networked settings using Actor Network Theory. 
Complete descriptions of these workshops can be found at: 
Registration for each workshop is $100.  Ten scholarships of $200 each are available to graduate students to defray the cost of the workshop and hotel.  
Participation in these workshops is awarded on a competitive basis and constitutes a place on the ATTW program.  
To apply for a place in one of these workshops, complete the application form found at and send it along with a 1-page description of your project to Applications are due October 15, 2011 and acceptances will emailed to you by Dec 1. 
Questions about these workshops can be directed to Cheryl Geisler (, Chair of the ATTW Committee on Research.

Monday, August 15, 2011

SXSWi Panel: Bizarre User Behavior and How to Explain It

For the last couple of years, I've presented at South by Southwest Interactive on aspects of loosely organized work. This year, I'm going to try something different. I've proposed a panel with Mark Zachry (University of Washington) and Bill Hart-Davidson and Liza Potts (both now at Michigan State).

The panel is called "Bizarre User Behavior and How to Explain It." In a nutshell, we'll be talking about various examples of user behavior that, at first glance, seems completely counterintuitive to interaction designers. Why does it happen? How can designers anticipate it, understand it, and work with users to better address their needs?

The four of us have some truly bizarre stories to share, and, I think, some very useful advice for designers as well. Please consider clicking through and voting for the panel!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reading :: The Savage Mind

The Savage Mind
By Claude Levi-Strauss

This summer I've been reading some of the classics of anthropology, especially ethnographies. Since I don't have a background in anthropology, I'm not going to spend a lot of time trying to unravel these books in theoretical or analytical terms. I'm just enjoying them.

But I confess I didn't enjoy this one as much. Partly that's because, rather than a coherent ethnography, it pulls from many published ethnographies to discuss the question of the supposed lack of abstract thinking in primitive cultures. Levi-Strauss attacks this notion, arguing that like science, "the thought we call primitive is founded on the demand for order" - and "sacred items ... contribute to the maintenance of order in the universe by occupying the places allocated for them" (p.10). Magic and science are parallel and independent forms of gaining knowledge (p.13).

Levi-Strauss famously introduces the notion of the bricoleur here, the craftsman or jack-of-all-trades whose "heterogeneous repertoire, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited" (p.17). According to Levi-Strauss, mythical thought is bricolage: it "builds up structured sets, not directly with other structured sets but by using the remains and debris of events" (pp.21-22).

Through the rest of the book, Levi-Strauss extends this thesis by drawing from a wide array of existing ethnographies. These examples are often interesting, but we can understand his fervent wish for a computer in the far future that can disentangle these many connections by examining the raw transcripts of field notes (on punchcards!) (p.89). Yes, I'd like that too.

I've only scratched the surface of this book, and I think that someone with an anthropology background could probably articulate its value much more than I can. But perhaps not: the reviews on the back claim that "no precis is possible" and "no outline is possible." So that lets me off the hook. I'll end by simply recommending the book - at least the first chapter if you're mildly interested, and all of it if you have intense interest in anthropology.

Reading :: The Nuer

The Nuer: A description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people
By E.E. Evans-Pritchard

The link above goes to, where you can download this book in PDF, Kindle, text, and other formats. It's OCR'd from the 1940 book, and you'll find some scan errors, but the book is generally intact and generally quite interesting. The first in a trilogy on the Nuer, an African people living in the Sudan and Ethiopia, this book is also a classic of structural-functionalism.

Unfortunately, I'm not an anthropologist and can't provide a good discussion of structural-functionalism or evaluate Evans-Pritchard's work in those terms. But I can recommend The Nuer as an intriguing and at times amusing book. Evans-Pritchard's self-deprecating discussion of methodology, for instance, reads like the trials of Job: "an adequate sociological study of the Nuer was impossible in the circumstances in which most of my work was done," he allows, professing to be amazed that the book has appeared at all.

When he visited Tribe A, they stole the game he shot to feed himself and only spoke to him to demand tobacco. Moving to Tribe B, he began to gain their confidence, only to be stymied by a Government raid. At this point he had only done three and a half months' work among the Nuer.

Later, he visited Tribe C, discovering that "Nuer are expert at sabotaging inquiry": they would visit his tent, demand tobacco, and give him the runaround when he asked questions. He dubbed the resulting condition "Nuerosis." Giving up, he moved to Tribe D, began making progress - then had to be evacuated due to malaria.

On a third trip, he had planned to study another people, but "as delay was caused by diplomatic chicanery I spent two and a half months" near the Nuer; an imminent invasion compelled him to give up on these studies and join the Nuer for another seven weeks. "My total residence among the Nuer was thus about a year," he tells us, admitting that this timespan was inadequate.

Inadequate or not, Evans-Pritchard manages to paint an intriguing portrait of the Nuer, herdsmen who love cattle more than themselves, subsist primarily on milk, millet and meat, and "strut about like lords of the Earth, which, indeed, they consider themselves to be." They "tend to define all social processes and relationships in terms of cattle. Their social idiom is a bovine idiom," he argues. This fact impacts their social structure: "since milk is considered essential, the economic unit must be larger than the simple family group." They consider it repulsive to eat most reptiles, all birds, and all eggs. (We in turn would most likely not want to sample their cheese.) Their devotion to cattle also impacts their estimation of value: a man without cattle is not considered a man, something that probably affected Evans-Pritchard's earlier inquiries since he acquired his own cattle only later.

As "lords of the earth," the Nuer do not serve each other or order each other around; their societal structure is generally decentralized and based on lineage. ("By structure we mean relations between groups of persons within a system of groups.") The tribe is segmentary, based on "complementary tendencies toward fission and fusion."

Overall, the book is fascinating. Without a stronger background in structural-functionalism, I'm certain I missed many implications of this work. But as a standalone work, it is insightful and well worth reading.

Reading :: The Great Reset

The Great Reset: How the Post-Crash Economy Will Change the Way We Live and Work
By Richard Florida

I'll make this a quick review. Florida's The Great Reset tackles the question of what's going to happen to our economy post-crash. He presents his argument in a series of very short chapters, often as short as four pages, in which he grounds his points in interesting stories and statistics. It's like visiting a tapas bar.

Essentially, Florida presents a wave version of economic development in which economic crises function as "resets" that broadly and fundamentally transform the economic order. Previous resets were the Great Depression of 1929 and the Long Depression of 1873, both of which remade the US economy through technical innovations, systems of innovations, upgrades in education, and changes in the way we live. Florida argues that before a crash, innovation slows down because the system doesn't reward them properly; a Reset changes the incentives and releases innovation.

Florida looks at a number of indices to understand what might be at the other end of this Reset, and he comes out hopeful. He believes that cities will be bigger than ever, that trends such as collaborative consumption will intensify, that fewer people will buy their homes (since home ownership makes less sense without lifelong employment), and that innovations will generate new kinds of prosperity. I hope he's right.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Seminar: Integrative reviews of literature

Saul Carliner, editor of IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, is offering a free online seminar on how to write integrative reviews of literature. If you're interested, this sounds like a great opportunity, especially for graduate students. Saul's message is below:

As you might have heard, the IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication is actively recruiting integrative reviews of the literature. 
• In a recent poll, readers of the Transactions identified these among the top three types of articles in which they have an interest. Yet a content analysis of our journal indicated that we do not publish any.
• Furthermore, integrative reviews of the literature substantially differ from literature reviews that have been published in the past because, among their many distinguishing characteristics, integrative reviews of the literature fully disclose their research methodology. 
For many, then, integrative reviews of the literature represent a new type of research article with which many scholars in technical and professional communication might not have much experience. 
To raise the level of familiarity—and help authors with the process of preparing their first such reviews for the Transactions—I have scheduled a 6-part web-based seminar to introduce this type of article. 
The seminar is intended for faculty and graduate students (especially Ph.D and advanced master’s students). It can be integrated into other course work for regularly scheduled classes. 
There is no cost to participate but participants must register in advance.
For more information, contact They can send you an outline of the seminar and answer questions.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Three Days of the Chromebook

For the last three days, I've been trying out the Samsung Chromebook, thanks to a friend who received one at Google I/O. I've been posting reviews on Google Plus, but thought I'd pull them all together here.

Day 1
I've been meaning to try out a Chromebook for a while. The idea of everything-in-a-browser seems intriguing - I pretty much do everything in the browser anyway - and I have also been interested in other features, such as
  • Eight-second boot time
  • Instant wake from sleep
  • 3G connectivity (with data caps, of course)
  • Incredible battery life
  • Elegance - I don't have to worry about installations, managing software, etc.
  • Hardware optimized for browsing
  • Relatively light, small footprint
  • Low cost (though not as low as many netbooks)
Unfortunately, the bricks-and-mortar vendor that carries them, Best Buy, doesn't have any displayed at my local store. But a friend generously loaned me the Samsung Chromebook he picked up at Google I/O.

After perhaps an hour and a half, here were my first impressions.

ChromeOS is pretty much what you expect - the browser is the interface. If you're a heavy consumer of cloud-based software, you'll be fine. Personally, I only use a few desktop applications on a regular basis - including a SQL front end, Notational Velocity (for tricky passwords), and the Mendeley desktop app (which syncs to the cloud; Mendeley has a web interface too). I also have a large number of PDFs that haven't been pushed into the cloud.

For me, then, things are pretty seamless. Once I set up the Chrome apps I usually use - Tweetdeck, Pandora - I got back into the swing of things. In particular, Google Docs - where I spend a great deal of my time - works well and responsively. Basically, the experience is just like my Macbook Pro, except the screen is much smaller.

As a side note, Google Docs is one of the main reasons I'm not interested in an iPad. The GDocs iPad implementation is entirely inadequate for my needs. So is the Android implementation. The ChromeOS "implementation" is just the web app with which you're already familiar.

The other thing about ChromeOS is booting. Eight seconds is pretty short! And accounts are handled elegantly.

The hardware is adequate but nothing to write home about.

I know that people have complained about the trackpad, the lack of a delete key (it has a backspace key instead), and various other things. None of this bothers me.

What does bother me is that the machine is a bit clunky. The Chromebook is much smaller than the 15" MBP, which seems like a behemoth now. But it's bigger than the Air in nearly all dimensions. That means a bigger screen - but the screen is not as sharp. It doesn't mean a bigger keyboard (the Air's keyboard is better designed), but it does mean greater width, length, and depth. And weight - the Chromebook is surprisingly heavy.

As many have complained, the hardware feels a bit cheap. Not as cheap as my old Toshiba netbook, but certainly not to par with either Apple device. Of course, it costs only half as much as the Air. The cheapness itself has some appeal to me, since in comparison to the Air it's a disposable device - sort of like my Kindle.

First Impressions
So what did I think at this point? I was expecting to either love or hate the Chromebook, but at this point, the jury was still out. It definitely has some potential, but I worry that the hardware will hold that potential back. At this point I liked the Air's form factor much better - but of course the Air is twice as expensive.

Day 2
During this second day, the Chromebook began to grow on me. The battery life is remarkable - after 27 hours, the battery had dropped from 97% to 19% charge. I hadn't plugged it in at all.

Granted, I hadn’t been using it nonstop, but I had been doing a lot with it: surfing, editing a paper, moving around citations on Mendeley. For the most part, the experience was almost exactly like my Macbook Pro, with a few exceptions. That’s partly because I moved most of my workflow to web applications a while ago: word processing, diagrams, spreadsheets, email, calendar, tweeting, music, etc. etc.

But some additional issues cropped up.

  • One is that I’ve discovered Mendeley, my citations manager, doesn’t appear to generate works cited pages online. In the OSX desktop app, I can highlight relevant citations, copy, then paste them in APA format into GDocs. With the web app, I can’t. Although that’s not a huge deal - I can do that when I switch back to the MBP - it’s still disappointing.
  • Another is the trackpad. People have complained online about it, and I’m beginning to see why. I’m finding that some horizontal gestures aren’t registering the first time I try them, especially when I click-and-hold (such as when I highlight a text selection).
  • Scrollbars are rather small, making them hard to grab. I might be able to make them thicker, but for now I’m using the two-finger gesture to scroll. It works okay.
  • Speakers are tinny, but I don’t really care about that.
  • I miss TextExpander on OSX.
  • Finally, I still haven’t tried setting up cloud print yet. I’m not sufficiently motivated; I’ll just print from the MBP for now. I also don’t have the dongle to connect to an external monitor.

But let’s look at some of the positives.

  • The guest login is great. You log in as a guest, so you’re not logged into your Google account and Chrome runs in private mode.
  • The file manager (Control-M) is minimal - just enough to view files. I assume you can also launch and delete them, but I haven’t tried.
  • Installing Chrome web apps is exactly the same as it is in Chrome on my MBP. Very easy. I installed Pandora and Tweetdeck with no issues.
  • Waking from sleep takes exactly the same amount of time as the Macbook Air - nearly instantaneous.
  • Although some have complained online about the Chromebook’s screen - they say it’s not visible at different angles - it seems fine to me.

Now some interesting differences.

  • On the MBP, I defrag the disk, clear the cache and trash, and do a full backup every other day. This takes a while. On the Chromebook I’ll never have to do that.
  • On the MBP, I get an alert at least once a week telling me that I need to upgrade something - printer support, some part of the OSX system that I never use, etc. On the Chromebook I’ll never have to do that either.

Bottom line, so far I’d found the Chromebook to be almost entirely workable for what I’m doing. I don’t think I could use it as my only computer - at least not until Mendeley allows me to generate works cited pages in the web application - but for most uses I honestly can’t tell the difference.

Day 3

The third day of the Chromebook test hasn’t yielded a lot of news. It continues to be a good lightweight computer that allows me to access most of my services. In fact, I’ve only opened the MBP a couple of times - once because the Chromebook was charging.

I had expected to feel a little claustrophobic because the Chromebook only gives you the browser. Where’s the shell, the desktop, the widgets? But so far I haven’t had that feeling at all. In fact, I like not having all the cruft that comes with a full desktop. It makes for a cleaner, more focused experience. In this way, ChromeOS seems almost Apple-like - it takes away some of the choices that we have come to expect, and it does this for the sake of guiding the experience and guarding the machine’s performance.

Speaking of Apple, I’ve been comparing the Chromebook to the Macbook Air in this series of reviews, but in terms of price, it’s in the same league as the iPad. Why not compare it to the iPad? Bottom line, I don’t think they’re the same class of device at all.

Yes, they both restrict your user experience sharply, and in doing so, wring better performance out of hardware that would choke on a fuller-featured OS.

But with the iPad, you mainly interact with apps whose interfaces are simplified and focused. Web browsing is also simplified, and you get the less-featured mobile apps rather than the full-featured web apps you would access on the deskop. For instance, if you try to use Google Docs on the iPad, by default you get the mobile app, which is quite underfeatured. You can click through to the full app, but it works poorly in my experience.

The iPad has a rap for being a consumption rather than a production device. I think that oversimplifies things, but there’s some truth to it: the iPad is not well set up for text production, which is the majority of what I do. The soft keyboard is not tactile and takes up valuable screen real estate (just as Android tablets do). I haven’t tried the iPad with a keyboard, but I don’t think it would solve all of the issues I worry about.

The Chromebook, on the other hand, is all about the web. So you get no local apps to speak of, but full-featured web apps. For instance, Google Docs works on the Chromebook in all its glory, as do the other web apps. Between that and the keyboard, the Chromebook is just fine for text production and serves as a substitute for desktop browsing.

This brings me to a question that seems to plague a lot of commenters, but has a very obvious answer. Why has Google produced both Android and ChromeOS? Android follows the iOS pattern, assuming low levels of text production and restricting default interaction to apps and the mobile web. ChromeOS is for accessing the full web, and therefore substituting for desktop apps. Perhaps the two sets of OSes (iOS and OSX, Android and ChromeOS) will merge at some point, but for now, the two sets are meant to cover different sorts of devices and different patterns of consumption.

So: Can the Chromebook substitute as a primary computing device? I think that even for me, it would be a bit of a stretch - although it’s close. That’s primarily because I can’t generate citations with the Mendeley web app. But I could see it working in computer labs, offices, and other settings that don’t involve complex applications.

On the other hand, it would make a great travel device. It’s lightweight, the battery life is fantastic, and the 3G option means that you wouldn’t have to rely on the vagaries of WiFi. It does everything I need in a travel or personal device. And, importantly, it’s cheap enough that I wouldn’t be devastated if it were lost or stolen. I could almost see myself buying it as a secondary, personal device for home and coffee shop use.

That “almost” is key. Although I enjoy the device, I haven’t fallen in love with it. And I am cheap enough that I don’t want to buy a mid-level computing device whose main function would be to fill in between my Macbook Pro (where I write my papers) and my Android phone (where I consume the majority of my web content). I’m not on the road enough to make another device desirable at present. But if I were, I would give a hard look at the Chromebook.