Category Archives: experience

Body and Tech: My Year in Quantified Self

Though I’m a qual, I started quantifying my self a year ago.

Not Even Started Yet

This post is long. You’ve been warned.

This post is about my experience with the Quantified Self (QuantSelf). As such, it may sound quite enthusiastic, as my perspective on my own selfquantification is optimistic. I do have several issues with the Quantified Self notion generally and with the technology associated with selfquantification. Those issues will have to wait until a future blogpost.

While I realize QuantSelf is broader than fitness/wellness/health tracking, my own selfquantification experience focuses on working with my body to improve my health. My future posts on the Quantified Self would probably address the rest more specifically.

You might notice that I frequently link to the DC Rainmaker site, which is a remarkably invaluable source of information and insight about a number of things related to fitness and fitness technology. Honestly, I don’t know how this guy does it. He’s a one-man shop for everything related to sports and fitness gadgets.

Though many QuantSelf devices are already available on the market, very few of them are available in Quebec. On occasion, I think about getting one shipped to someone I know in the US and then manage to pick it up in person, get a friend to bring it to Montreal, or get it reshipped. If there were such a thing as the ideal QuantSelf device, for me, I might do so.

(The title of this post refers to the song Body and Soul, and I perceive something of a broader shift in the mind/body dualism, even leading to post- and transhumanism. But this post is more about my own self.)

Quaint Quant

I can be quite skeptical of quantitative data. Not that quants aren’t adept at telling us very convincing things. But numbers tend to hide many issues, when used improperly. People who are well-versed in quantitative analysis can do fascinating things, leading to genuine insight. But many other people use numbers as a way to “prove” diverse things, sometimes remaining oblivious to methodological and epistemological issues with quantification.

Still, I have been accumulating fairly large amounts of quantitative data about my self. Especially about somatic dimensions of my self.

Started with this a while ago, but it’s really in January 2013 that my Quantified Self ways took prominence in my life.

Start Counting

It all started with the Wahoo Fitness fisica key and soft heartrate strap. Bought those years ago (April 2011), after thinking about it for months (December 2010).

Had tried different exercise/workout/fitness regimens over the years, but kept getting worried about possible negative effects. For instance, some of the exercises I’d try in a gym would quickly send my heart racing to the top of my healthy range. Though, in the past, I had been in a more decent shape than people might have surmised, I was in bad enough shape at that point that it was better for me to exercise caution while exercising.

At least, that’s the summary of what happened which might make sense to a number of people. Though I was severely overweight for most of my life, I had long periods of time during which I was able to run up long flights of stairs without getting out of breath. This has changed in the past several years, along with other health issues. The other health issues are much more draining and they may not be related to weight, but weight is the part on which people tend to focus, because it’s so visible. For instance, doctors who meet me for a few minutes, only once, will spend more time talking about weight than a legitimate health concern I have. It’s easy for me to lose weight, but I wanted to do it in the best possible way. Cavalier attitudes are discouraging.

Habits, Old and New

Something I like about my (in this case not-so-sorry) self is that I can effortlessly train myself into new habits. I’m exactly the opposite of someone who’d get hooked on almost anything. I never smoked or took drugs, so I’ve never had to kick one of those trickiest of habits. But I often stop drinking coffee or alcohol with no issue whatsoever. Case in point: I’m fairly well-known as a coffee geek yet I drank less than two full cups of coffee during the last two months.

Getting new habits is as easy for me as kicking new ones. Not that it’s perfect, of course. I occasionally forget to bring down the lid on the toilet seat. But if I put my mind to something, I can usually undertake it. Willpower, intrinsic motivation, and selfdiscipline are among my strengths.

My health is a significant part of this. What I started a year ago is an exercise and fitness habit that I’ve been able to maintain and might keep up for a while, if I decide to do so.

Part of it is a Pilates-infused yoga habit that I brought to my life last January and which became a daily routine in February or March. As is the case with other things in my life, I was able to add this routine to my life after getting encouragement from experts. In this case, yoga and Pilates instructors. Though it may be less impressive than other things I’ve done, this routine has clearly had a tremendous impact on my life.

Spoiler alert: I also took on a workout schedule with an exercise bike. Biked 2015 miles between January 16, 2013 and January 15, 2014.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So Close, Yet So Far

Flashback to March, 2011. Long before I really got into QuantSelf.

At the time, I had the motivation to get back into shape, but I had to find a way to do it safely. The fact that I didn’t have access to a family physician played a part in that.

So I got the Wahoo key, a dongle which allows an iOS device to connect to ANT+ equipment, such as heartrate straps (including the one I bought at the same time as the key). Which means that I was able to track my heartrate during exercise using my iPod touch and iPad (I later got an iPhone).

Used that setup on occasion. Including at the gym. Worked fairly well as a way to keep track of my workouts, but I had some difficulty fitting gym workouts in my schedule. Not only does it take a lot of time to go to a gym (even one connected to my office by a tunnel), but my other health issues made it very difficult to do any kind of exercise for several hours after any meal. In fact, those other health issues made most exercise very unpleasant. I understand the notion of pushing your limits, getting out of your comfort zone. I’m fine with some types of discomfort and I don’t feel the need to prove to anyone that I can push my limits. But the kind of discomfort I’m talking about was more discouraging than anything else. For one thing, I wasn’t feeling anything pleasant at any point during or after exercising.

So, although I had some equipment to keep track of my workouts, I wasn’t working out on that regular a basis.

I know, typical, right? But that’s before I really started in QuantSelf.

Baby Steps

In the meantime (November, 2011), I got a Jawbone UP wristband. First generation.

That device was my first real foray into “Quantified Self”, as it’s normally understood. It allowed me to track my steps and my sleep. Something about this felt good. Turns out that, under normal circumstances, my stepcount can be fairly decent, which is in itself encouraging. And connecting to this type of data had the effect of helping me notice some correlations between my activity and my energy levels. There have been times when I’ve felt like I hadn’t walked much and then noticed that I had been fairly active. And vice-versa. I wasn’t getting into such data that intensely, but I had started accumulating some data on my steps.

Gotta start somewhere.

Sleepwalking

My sleep was more interesting, as I was noticing some difficult nights. An encouraging thing, to me, is that it usually doesn’t take me much time to get to sleep (about 10 minutes, according to the UP). Neat stuff, but not earth-shattering.

Obviously, the UP stopped working. Got refunded, and all, but it was still “a bummer”. My experience with the first generation UP had given me a taste of QuantSelf, but the whole thing was inconclusive.

Feeling Pressure

Fastforward to late December, 2012 and early January, 2013. The holiday break was a very difficult time for me, physically. I was getting all sorts of issues, compounding one another. One of them was a series of intense headaches. I had been getting those on occasion since Summer, 2011. By late 2012, my headaches were becoming more frequent and longer-lasting. On occasion, physicians at walk-in clinics had told me that my headaches probably had to do with blood pressure and they had encouraged me to take my pressure at the pharmacy, once in a while. While my pressure had been normal-to-optimal (110/80) for a large part of my life, it was becoming clear that my blood pressure had increased and was occasionally getting into more dangerous territory. So I eventually decided to buy a bloodpressure monitor.

Which became my first selfquantification method. Since my bloodpressure monitor is a basic no-frills model, it doesn’t sync to anything or send data anywhere. But I started manually tracking my bloodpressure by taking pictures and putting the data in a spreadsheet. Because the monitor often gives me different readings (especially depending on which arm I got them from), I would input lowest and highest readings from each arm in my spreadsheet.

Tensio

My first bloodpressure reading, that first evening (January 3, 2013), was enough of a concern that a nurse at Quebec’s phone health consultation service recommended that I consult with a physician at yet another walk-in clinic. (Can you tell not having a family physician was an issue? I eventually got one, but that’s another post.) Not that it was an emergency, but it was a good idea to take this seriously.

So, on January 4, 2013, I went to meet Dr. Anthony Rizzuto, a general practitioner at a walk-in clinic in my neighbourhood.

Getting Attention

At the clinic, I was diagnosed with hypertension (high bloodpressure). Though that health issue was less troublesome to me than the rest, it got me the attention of that physician who gave me exactly the right kind of support. Thanks to that doctor, a bit of medication, and all sorts of efforts on my part, that issue was soon under control and I’m clearly out of the woods on this one. I’ve documented the whole thing in my previous blogpost. Summary version of that post (it’s in French, after all): more than extrinsic motivation, the right kind of encouragement can make all the difference in the world. (In all honesty, I already had all the intrinsic motivation I needed. No worries there!)

Really, that bloodpressure issue wasn’t that big of a deal. Sure, it got me a bit worried, especially about risks of getting a stroke. But I had been more worried and discouraged by other health issues, so that bloodpressure issue wasn’t the main thing. The fact that hypertension got me medical attention is the best part, though. Some things I was unable to do on my own. I needed encouragement, of course, but I also needed professional advice. More specifically, I felt that I needed a green light. A license to exercise.

Y’know how, in the US especially, “they” keep saying that you should “consult a physician” before doing strenuous exercise? Y’know, the fine print on exercise programs, fitness tools, and the like? Though I don’t live in the US anymore and we don’t have the same litigation culture here, I took that admonition to heart. So I was hesitant to take on a full fitness/training/exercise routine before I could consult with a physician. I didn’t have a family doctor, so it was difficult.

But, a year ago, I got the medical attention I needed. Since we’re not in the US, questions about the possibility to undertake exercise are met with some surprise. Still, I was able to get “approval” on doing more exercise. In fact, exercise was part of a solution to the hypertension issue which had brought this (minimal level of) medical attention to my case.

So I got exactly what I needed. A nod from a licensed medical practitioner. “Go ahead.”

Weight, Weight! Don’t Tell Me![1]

Something I got soon after visiting the clinic was a scale. More specifically, I got a Conair WW54C Weight Watchers Body Analysis Digital Precision Scale. I would weigh myself everyday (more than once a day, in fact) and write down the measures for total weight, body water percentage, and body fat percentage. As with the bloodpressure monitor, I was doing this by hand, since my scale wasn’t connected in any way to another device or to a network.

Weighing My Options

I eventually bought a second scale, a Starfrit iFit. That one is even more basic than the Weight Watchers scale, as it doesn’t do any “body analysis” beyond weight. But having two scales makes me much more confident about the readings I get. For reasons I don’t fully understand, I keep getting significant discrepancies in my readings. On a given scale, I would weigh myself three times and keep the average. The delta between the highest and lowest readings on that same scale would often be 200g or half a pound. The delta between the two scales can be as much as 500g or over one pound. Unfortunately, these discrepancies aren’t regular: it’s not that one scale is offset from the other by a certain amount. One day, the Weight Watchers has the highest readings and the Starfrit has the highest readings. I try to position myself the same way on each scale every time and I think both of them are on as flat a surface as I can get. But I keep getting different readings. I was writing down averages from both scales in my spreadsheet. As I often weighed myself more than once a day and would get a total of six readings every time, that was a significant amount of time spent on getting the most basic of data.

Food for Thought

At the same time, I started tracking my calories intake. I had done so in the past, including with the USDA National Nutrient Database on PalmOS devices (along with the Eat Watch app from the Hacker’s Diet). Things have improved quite a bit since that time. Not that tracking calories has become effortless, far from it. It’s still a chore, an ordeal, a pain in the neck, and possibly a relatively bad idea. Still, it’s now easier to input food items in a database which provides extensive nutritional data on most items. Because these databases are partly crowdsourced, it’s possible to add values for items which are specific to Canada, for instance. It’s also become easier to get nutritional values for diverse items online, including meals at restaurant chains. Though I don’t tend to eat at chain restaurants, tracking my calories encouraged me to do so, however insidiously.

But I digress.

Nutritional data also became part of my QuantSelf spreadsheet. Along with data from my bloodpressure monitor and body composition scale, I would copy nutritional values (protein, fat, sodium, carbohydrates…) from a database. At one point, I even started calculating my estimated and actual weightloss in that spreadsheet. Before doing so, I needed to know my calories expenditure.

Zipping

One of the first things I got besides the bloodpressure monitor and scale(s) was a fitbit Zip. Two months earlier (November, 2012), I had bought a fitbit One. But I lost it. The Zip was less expensive and, though it lacks some of the One’s features (tracking elevation, for instance), it was good enough for my needs at the time.

In fact, I prefer the Zip over the One, mostly because it uses a coin battery, so it doesn’t need to be recharged. I’ve been carrying it for a year and my fitbit profile has some useful data about my activity. Sure, it’s just a “glorified pedometer”. But the glorification is welcomed, as regular synchronization over Bluetooth is very useful a feature. My Zip isn’t a big deal, for me. It’s as much of a part of my life as my glasses, though I wear it more often (including during my sleep, though it doesn’t track sleep data).

Stepping UP

I also bought a new Jawbone UP. Yep, despite issues I had with the first generation one. Unfortunately, the UP isn’t really that much more reliable now than it was at the time. But they keep replacing it. A couple or weeks ago, my UP stopped working and I got a replacement. I think it’s the fifth one.

Despite its unreliability, I really like the UP for its sleeptracking and “gentle waking” features. If it hadn’t been for the UP, I probably wouldn’t have realized the importance of sleep as deeply as I have. In other words, the encouragement to sleep more is something I didn’t realize I needed. Plus, it’s really neat to wake up to a gentle buzz, at an appropriate point in my sleep cycle. I probably wouldn’t have gotten the UP just for this, but it’s something I miss every time my UP stops working. And there’s been several of those times.

My favourite among UP’s features is one they added, through firmware, after a while (though it might have been in the current UP from the start). It’s the ability to take “smart naps”. Meaning that I can set an alarm to wake me up after a certain time or after I’ve slept a certain amount of time. The way I set it up, I can take a 20 minute nap and I’ll be awaken by the UP after a maximum of 35 minutes. Without this alarm, I’d oversleep and likely feel more messed up after the nap than before. The alarm is also reassuring in that it makes the nap fit neatly my schedule. I don’t nap everyday, but naps are one of these underrated things I feel could be discussed more. Especially when it comes to heavy work sessions such as writing reports or grading papers. My life might shift radically in the near future and it’s quite possible that naps will be erased from my workweek indefinitely. But chances are that my workweek will also become much more manageable once I stop freelancing.

The UP also notifies me when I’ve been inactive for a certain duration (say, 45 minutes). It only does so a few times a month, on average, because I don’t tend to be that inactive. Exceptions are during long stretches of writing, so it’s a useful reminder to take a break. In fact, the UP just buzzed while I was writing this post so I should go and do my routine.

(It’s fun to write on my iPad while working out. Although, I tend to remain in the aerobic/endurance or even in the fitness/fatburning zone. I should still reach mile 2100 during this workout.)

Contrary to the fitbit Zip, the UP does require a charge on a regular basis. In fact, it seems that the battery is a large part of the reliability issue. So, after a while, I got into the habit of plugging my UP to the wall during my daily yoga/Pilates routine. My routine usually takes over half an hour and the UP is usually charged after 20 minutes.

Back UP

It may seem strange to have two activity trackers with complete feature overlap (there’s nothing the fitbit Zip does that the Jawbone UP doesn’t do). I probably wouldn’t have planned it this way, had I been able to get a Jawbone UP right at first. If I were to do it now, I might get a different device from either fitbit or Jawbone (the Nike+ FuelBand is offputting, to me).

I do find it useful to have two activity trackers. For one thing, the UP is unreliable enough that the Zip is useful as a backup. The Zip also stopped working once, so there’s been six periods of time during the past year during which I only had one fitness tracker. Having two trackers means that there’s no hiatus in my tracking, which has a significant impact in the routine aspect of selfquantification. Chances are slim that I would have completely given up on QuantSelf during such a hiatus. But I would probably have been less encouraged by selfquantification had I been forced to depend on one device.

Having two devices also helps me get a more accurate picture of my activities. Though the Zip and UP allegedly track the same steps, there’s usually some discrepancy between the two, as is fairly common among activity trackers. For some reasons, the discrepancy has actually decreased after a few months (and after I adapted my UP usage to my workout). But it’s useful to have two sources of data points.

Especially when I do an actual workout.

Been Working Out, Haven’t You?

In January, last year, I also bought an exercise bike, for use in my apartment. I know, sounds like a cliché, right? Getting an exercise bike after New Year? Well, it wasn’t a New Year’s resolution but, had it been one, I could be proud to say I kept it (my hypothetical resolution; I know, weird structure; you get what I mean, right?).

Right away, I started doing bike workouts on a very regular basis. From three to five times a week, during most weeks. Contrary to going to a gym, exercising at home is easy to fit in my freelancing schedule. I almost always work out before breakfast, so there’s no digestion issue involved. Since I’m by myself, it means I feel no pressure or judgment from others, a very significant factor in my case. Though I’m an extrovert’s extrovert (86 percentile), gyms are really offputting, to me. Because of my bodyshape, age, and overall appearance, I really feel like I don’t “fit”. It does depend on the gym, and I had a fairly good time at UMoncton’s Ceps back in 2003. But ConU’s gym wasn’t a place where I enjoyed working out.

My home workouts have become a fun part of my week. Not that the effort level is low, but I often do different things while working out, including listen to podcasts and music, reading, and even writing. As many people know, music can be very encouraging during a workout. So can a podcast, as it takes your attention elsewhere and you might accomplish more than you thought, during a podcast. Same thing with reading and writing, and I wrote part of this post while working out.

Sure, I could do most of this in a gym. The convenience factor at home is just too high, though. I can have as many things as I want by my sides, on a table and on a chair, so I just have to reach out when I need any of them. Apart from headphones, a music playing device, and a towel (all things I’d have at a gym) I typically have the following items with me when I do a home workout:

  • Travel mug full of tea
  • Stainless steel water bottle full of herbal tea (proper tea is theft)
  • Britta bottle full of water (I do drink a lot of fluid while working out)
  • three mobile devices (iPhone, iPad, Nexus 7)
  • Small weights,
  • Reading glasses
  • Squeeze balls

Wouldn’t be so easy to bring all of that to a gym. Not to mention that I can wear whatever I want, listen to whatever I want, and make whatever noise I want (I occasionally yell beats to music, as it’s fun and encouraging). I know some athletic people prefer gym workouts over home ones. I’m not athletic. And I know what I prefer.

On Track

Since this post is nominally about QuantSelf, how do I track my workouts, you ask? Well, it turns out that my Zip and UP do help me track them out, though in different ways. To get the UP to track my bike workouts, I have to put it around one of my pedals, a trick which took me a while to figure out.

2014-01-22 18.38.24

The Zip tracks my workouts from its usual position but it often counts way fewer “steps” than the UP does. So that’s one level of tracking. My workouts are part of my stepcounts for the days during which I do them.

Putting My Heart into IT

More importantly, though, my bike workouts have made my heartrate strap very useful. By pairing the strap with Digifit’s iBiker app, I get continuous heartrate monitoring, with full heartrate chart, notifications about “zones” (such as “fat burning”, “aerobic”, and “anaerobic”), and a recovery mode which lets me know how quickly my heartrate decreases after the workout. (I could also control the music app, but I tend to listen to Rdio instead.) The main reason I chose iBiker is that it works natively on the iPad. Early on, I decided I’d use my iPad to track my workouts because the battery lasts longer than on an iPhone or iPod touch, and the large display accommodates more information. The charts iBiker produces are quite neat and all the data can be synced to Digifit’s cloud service, which also syncs with my account on the fitbit cloud service (notice how everything has a cloud service?).

20140103-162048.jpg

Heartrate monitoring is close to essential, for workouts. Sure, it’d be possible to do exercise without it. But the difference it makes is more significant than one might imagine. It’s one of those things that one may only grok after trying it. Since I’m able to monitor my heartrate in realtime, I’m able to pace myself, to manage my exertion. By looking at the chart in realtime, I can tell how long I’ve spent at which intensity level and can decide to remain in a “zone” for as long as I want. Continuous feedback means that I can experiment with adjustment to the workout’s effort level, by pedaling faster or increasing tension. It’s also encouraging to notice that I need increasing intensity levels to reach higher heartrates, since my physical condition has been improving tremendously over the past year. I really value any encouragement I can get.

Now, I know it’s possible to get continuous heartrate monitoring on gym equipment. But I’ve noticed in the past that this monitoring wasn’t that reliable as I would often lose the heartrate signal, probably because of perspiration. On equipment I’ve tried, it wasn’t possible to see a graphical representation of my heartrate through the whole workout so, although I knew my current heartrate, I couldn’t really tell how long I was maintaining it. Not to mention that it wasn’t possible to sync that data to anything. Even though some of that equipment can allegedly be used with a special key to transfer data to a computer, that key wasn’t available.

It’d also be possible to do continuous heartrate monitoring with a “fitness watch”. A big issue with most of these is that data cannot be transferred to another device. Several of the new “wearable devices” do add this functionality. But these devices are quite expensive and, as far as I can see in most in-depth reviews, not necessarily that reliable. Besides, their displays are so small that it’d be impossible to get as complete a heartrate chart as the one I get on iBiker. I got pretty excited about the Neptune Pine, though, and I feel sad I had to cancel my pledge at the very last minute (for financial reasons). Sounds like it can become a rather neat device.

As should be obvious, by now, the bike I got (Marcy Recumbent Mag Cycle ME–709 from Impex) is a no-frills one. It was among the least expensive exercise bikes I’ve seen but it was also one with high ratings on Amazon. It’s as basic as you can get and I’ve been looking into upgrading. But other exercise bikes aren’t that significantly improved over this one. I don’t currently have enough money to buy a highend bike, but money isn’t the only issue. What I’d really like to get is exercise equipment which can be paired with another device, especially a tablet. Have yet to see an exercise bike, rower, treadmill, or elliptical which does. At any price. Sure, I could eventually find ways to hack things together to get more communication between my devices, but that’d be a lot of work for little results. For instance, it might be possible to find a cadence sensor which works on an exercise bike (or tweak one to make it work), thereby giving some indication of pace/speed and distance. However, I doubt that there’s exercise equipment which would allow a tablet to control tension/strength/difficulty. It’d be so neat if it were available. Obviously, it’s far from a requirement. But none of the QuantSelf stuff is required to have a good time while exercising.

Off the Bike

I use iBiker and my heartrate monitor during other activities besides bike workouts. Despite its name, iBiker supports several activity types (including walking and hiking) and has a category for “Other” activities. I occasionally use iBiker on my iPhone when I go on a walk for fitness reasons. Brisk walks do seem to help me in my fitness regime, but I tend to focus on bike workouts instead. I already walk a fair bit and much of that walking is relatively intense, so I feel less of a need to do it as an exercise, these days. And I rarely have my heartrate strap with me when I decide to take a walk. At some point, I had bought a Garmin footpod and kept installing it on shoes I was wearing. I did use it on occasion, including during a trip to Europe (June–July, 2012). It tends to require a bit of time to successfully pair with a mobile app, but it works as advertised. Yet, I haven’t really been quantifying my walks in the same way, so it hasn’t been as useful as I had wished.

More frequently, I use iBiker and my heartrate strap during my yoga/Pilates routine. “Do you really get your heart running fast enough to make it worthwhile”, you ask? No, but that’s kind of the point. Apart from a few peaks, my heartrate charts during such a routine tends to remain in Zone 0, or “Warmup/Cooldown”. The peaks are interesting because they correspond to a few moves and poses which do feel a bit harder (such as pushups or even the plank pose). That, to me, is valuable information and I kind of wish I could see which moves and poses I’ve done for how long using some QuantSelf tool. I even thought about filming myself, but I would then need to label each pose or move by hand, something I’d be very unlikely to do more than once or twice. It sounds like the Atlas might be used in such a way, as it’s supposed to recognize different activities, including custom ones. Not only is it not available, yet, but it’s so targeted at the high performance fitness training niche that I don’t think it could work for me.

One thing I’ve noticed from my iBiker-tracked routine is that my resting heartrate has gone down very significantly. As with my recovery and the amount of effort necessary to increase my heartrate, I interpret this as a positive sign. With other indicators, I could get a fuller picture of my routine’s effectiveness. I mean, I feel its tremendous effectiveness in diverse ways, including sensations I’d have a hard time explaining (such as an “opening of the lungs” and a capacity to kill discomfort in three breaths). The increase in my flexibility is something I could almost measure. But I don’t really have tools to fully quantify my yoga routine. That might be a good thing.

Another situation in which I’ve worn my heartrate strap is… while sleeping. Again, the idea here is clearly not to measure how many calories I burn or to monitor how “strenuous” sleeping can be as an exercise. But it’s interesting to pair the sleep data from my UP with some data from my heart during sleep. Even there, the decrease in my heartrate is quite significant, which signals to me a large improvement in the quality of my sleep. Last summer (July, 2013), I tracked a night during which my average heartrate was actually within Zone 1. More recently (November, 2013), my sleeping heartrate was below my resting heartrate, as it should be.

Using the Wahoo key on those occasions can be quite inconvenient. When I was using it to track my brisk walks, I would frequently lose signal, as the dongle was disconnecting from my iPad or iPhone. For some reason, I would also lose signal while sleeping (though the dongle would remain unmoved).

So I eventually bought a Blue HR, from Wahoo, to replace the key+strap combination. Instead of ANT+, the Blue HR uses Bluetooth LE to connect directly with a phone or tablet, without any need for a dongle. I bought it in part because of the frequent disconnections with the Wahoo key. I rarely had those problems during bike exercises, but I thought having a more reliable signal might encourage me to track my activities. I also thought I might be able to pair the Blue HR with a version of iBiker running on my Nexus 7 (first generation). It doesn’t seem to work and I think the Nexus 7 doesn’t support Bluetooth LE. I was also able to hand down my ANT+ setup (Wahoo key, heartrate strap, and footpod) to someone who might find it useful as a way to track walks. We’ll see how that goes.

‘Figures!

Going back to my QuantSelf spreadsheet. iBiker, Zip, and UP all output counts of burnt calories. Since Digifit iBiker syncs with my fitbit account, I’ve been using the fitbit number.

Inputting that number in the spreadsheet meant that I was able to measure how many extra calories I had burnt as compared to calories I had ingested. That number then allowed me to evaluate how much weight I had lost on a given day. For a while, my average was around 135g, but I had stretches of quicker weightloss (to the point that I was almost scolded by a doctor after losing too much weight in too little time). Something which struck me is that, despite the imprecision of so many things in that spreadsheet, the evaluated weightloss and actual loss of weight were remarkably similar. Not that there was perfect synchronization between the two, as it takes a bit of time to see the results of burning more calories. But I was able to predict my weight with surprising accuracy, and pinpoint patterns in some of the discrepancies. There was a kind of cycle by which the actual number would trail the predicted one, for a few days. My guess is that it had to do with something like water retention and I tried adjusting from the lowest figure (when I seem to be the least hydrated) and the highest one (when I seem to retain the most water in my body).

Obsessed, Much?

ObsessiveSpreadsheet

As is clear to almost anyone, this was getting rather obsessive. Which is the reason I’ve used the past tense with many of these statements. I basically don’t use my QuantSelf spreadsheet, anymore. One reason is that (in March, 2013) I was advised by a healthcare professional (a nutrition specialist) to stop counting my calories intake and focus on eating until I’m satiated while ramping up my exercise, a bit (in intensity, while decreasing frequency). It was probably good advice, but it did have a somewhat discouraging effect. I agree that the whole process had become excessive and that it wasn’t really sustainable. But what replaced it was, for a while, not that useful. It’s only in November, 2013 that a nutritionist/dietician was able to give me useful advice to complement what I had been given. My current approach is much better than any other approach I’ve used, in large part because it allows me to control some of my digestive issues.

So stopping the calories-focused monitoring was a great idea. I eventually stopped updating most columns in my spreadsheet.

What I kept writing down was the set of readings from my two “dumb” scales.

Scaling Up

Abandoning my spreadsheet didn’t imply that I had stopped selfquantifying.

In fact, I stepped up my QuantSelf a bit, about a month ago (December, 2013) by getting a Withings WS–50 Smart Body Analyzer. That WiFi-enabled scale is practically the prototype of QuantSelf and Internet of Things devices. More than I had imagined, it’s “just the thing I needed” in my selfquantified life.

The main advantage it has over my Weight Watchers scale is that it syncs data with my Withings cloud service account. That’s significant because the automated data collection saves me from my obsessive spreadsheet while letting me learn about my weightloss progression. Bingo!

Sure, I could do the same thing by hand, adding my scale readings to any of my other accounts. Not only would it be a chore to do so, but it’d encourage me to dig too deep in those figures. I learnt a lot during my obsessive phase, but I don’t need to go back to that mode. There are many approaches in between that excessive data collection and letting Withings do the work. I don’t even need to explore those intermediary approaches.

There are other things to like about the Withings scale. One is Position Control™, which does seem to increase the accuracy of the measurements. Its weight-tracking graphs (app and Web) are quite reassuring, as they show clear trends, between disparate datapoints. WithingsWeightKg WithingsLeanMassPercent

This Withings scale also measures heartrate, something I find less useful given my usage of a continuous heartrate monitor. Finally, it has sensors for air temperature and CO2 levels, which are features I’d expect in a (pre-Google) Nest product.

Though it does measure body fat percentage, the Withings Smart Body Analyzer doesn’t measure water percentage or bone mass, contrary to my low-end Weight Watchers body composition scale. Funnily enough, it’s around the time I got the Withings that I finally started gaining enough muscle mass to be able to notice the shift on the Weight Watchers. Prior to that, including during my excessive phase, my body fat and body water percentages added up to a very stable number. I would occasionally notice fluctuations of ~0.1%, but no downward trend. I did notice trends in my overall condition when the body water percentage was a bit higher, but it never went very high. Since late November or early December, those percentages started changing for the first time. My body fat percentage decreased by almost 2%, my body water percentage increased by more than 1%, and the total of the two decreased by 0.6%. Since these percentages are now stable and I have other indicators going in the same direction, I think this improvement in fat vs. water is real and my muscle mass did start to increase a bit (contrary to what a friend said can happen with people our age). It may not sound like much but I’ll take whatever encouragement I get, especially in such a short amount of time.

The Ideal QuantSelf Device

On his The Talk Show podcast, Gruber has been dismissing the craze in QuantSelf and fitness devices, qualifying them as a solved problem. I know what he means, but I gather his experience differs from mine.

I feel we’re in the “Rio Volt era” of the QuantSelf story.

The Rio Volt was one of the first CD players which could read MP3 files. I got one, at the time, and it was a significant piece of my music listening experience. I started ripping many of my CDs and creating fairly large compilations that I could bring with me as I traveled. I had a carrying case for the Volt and about 12 CDs, which means that I could carry about 8GB of music (or about 140 hours at the 128kbps bitrate which was so common at the time). Quite a bit less than my whole CD collection (about 150GB), but a whole lot more than what I was used to. As I was traveling and moving frequently, at the time, the Volt helped me get into rather… excessive music listening habits. Maybe not excessive compared to a contemporary teenager in terms of time, but music listening had become quite important to me, at a time when I wasn’t playing music as frequently as before.

There have been many other music players before, during, and after the Rio Volt. The one which really changed things was probably… the Microsoft Zune? Nah, just kidding. The iRiver players were much cooler (I had an iRiver H–120 which I used as a really neat fieldrecording device). Some people might argue that things really took a turn when Apple released the iPod. Dunno about that, I’m no Apple fanboi.

Regardless of which MP3-playing device was most prominent, it’s probably clear to most people that music players have changed a lot since the days of the Creative Nomad and the Rio Volt. Some of these changes could possibly have been predicted, at the time. But I’m convinced that very few people understood the implications of those changes.

Current QuantSelf devices don’t appear very crude. And they’re certainly quite diverse. CES2014 was the site of a number of announcements, demos, and releases having to do with QuantSelf, fitness, Internet of Things, and wearable devices (unsurprisingly, DC Rainmaker has a useful two-part roundup). But despite my interest in some of these devices, I really don’t think we’ve reached the real breakthrough with those devices.

In terms of fitness/wellness/health devices, specifically, I sometimes daydream about features or featuresets. For instance, I really wish a given device would combine the key features of some existing devices, as in the case of body water measurements and the Withings Smart Body Analyzer. A “killer feature”, for me, would be strapless continuous 24/7 heartrate monitoring which could be standalone (keeping the data without transmitting it) yet able to sync data with other devices for display and analysis, and which would work at rest as well as during workouts, underwater as well as in dry contexts.

Some devices (including the Basis B1 and Mio Alpha) seem to come close to this, but they all have little flaws, imperfections, tradeoffs. At an engineering level, it should be an interesting problem so I fully expect that we’ll at least see an incremental evolution from the current state of the market. Some devices measure body temperature and perspiration. These can be useful indicators of activity level and might help one gain insight about other aspects of the physical self. I happen to perspire profusely, so I’d be interested in that kind of data. As is often the case, unexpected usage of such tools could prove very innovative.

How about a device which does some blood analysis, making it easier to gain data on nutrients or cholesterol levels? I often think about the risks of selfdiagnosis and selfmedication. Those issues, related to QuantSelf, will probably come in a future post.

I also daydream about something deeper, though more imprecise. More than a featureset or a “killer feature”, I’m thinking about the potential for QuantSelf as a whole. Yes, I also think about many tricky issues around selfquantification. But I perceive something interesting going on with some of these devices. Some affordances of Quantified Self technology. Including the connections this technology can have with other technologies and domains, including tablets and smartphones, patient-focused medicine, Internet of Things, prosumption, “wearable hubs”, crowdsourced research, 3D printing, postindustrialization, and technological appropriation. These are my issues, in the sense that they’re things about which I care and think. I don’t necessarily mean issues as problems or worries, but things which either give me pause or get me to discuss with others.

Much of this will come in later posts, I guess. Including a series of issues I have with self-quantification, expanded from some of the things I’ve alluded to, here.

Walkthrough

These lines are separated from many of the preceding ones (I don’t write linearly) by a relatively brisk walk from a café to my place. Even without any QuantSelf device, I have quite a bit of data about this walk. For instance, I know it took me 40 minutes because I checked the time before and after. According to Google Maps, it’s between 4,1km and 4,2km from that café to my place, depending on which path one might take (I took an alternative route, but it’s probably close to the Google Maps directions, in terms of distance). It’s also supposed to be a 50 minute walk, so I feel fairly good about my pace (encouraging!). I also know it’s –20°C, outside (–28°C with windchill, according to one source). I could probably get some data about elevation, which might be interesting (I’d say about half of that walk was going up).

With two of my QuantSelf devices (UP and Zip), I get even more data. For instance, I can tell how many steps I took (it looks like it’s close to 5k, but I could get a more precise figure). I also realize the intensity of this activity, as both devices show that I started at a moderate pace followed by an intense pace for most of the duration. These devices also include this walk in measuring calories burnt (2.1Mcal according to UP, 2.7Mcal according to Zip), distance walked (11.2km according to Zip, 12.3km according to UP), active minutes (117’ Zip, 149’ UP), and stepcount (16.4k UP, 15.7k Zip). Not too shabby, considering that it’s still early evening as I write these lines.

2014-01-21 18.47.54 2014-01-21 18.47.48 2014-01-21 18.46.47

Since I didn’t have my heartrate monitor on me and didn’t specifically track this activity, there’s a fair bit of data I don’t have. For instance, I don’t know which part was most strenuous. And I don’t know how quickly I recovered. If I don’t note it down, it’s difficult to compare this activity to other activities. I might remember more or less which streets I took, but I’d need to map it myself. These are all things I could have gotten from a fitness app coupled with my heartrate monitor.

As is the case with cameras, the best QuantSelf device is the one you have with you.

I’m glad I have data about this walk. Chances are I would have taken public transit had it not been for my QuantSelf devices. There weren’t that many people walking across the Mont-Royal park, by this weather.

Would I get fitter more efficiently if I had the ideal tool for selfquantification? I doubt it.

Besides, I’m not in that much of a hurry.


  1. Don’t like my puns? Well, it’s my blogpost and I’ll cry if I want to.  ↩

Twenty Years Online

This month marks the 20th anniversary of my first Internet account. I don’t remember the exact date but I know it was in late summer 1993, right before what became known as “Eternal September”. The Internet wasn’t new, but it still wasn’t on most people’s proverbial “radars”.

Had heard one of my professors, Kevin Tuite, talk about the Internet as a system through which people from all over the World were communicating. Among the examples Tuite gave of possibilities offered by the ‘Net were conversations among people from former Soviet Republics, during this period of broad transitions. As a specialist of Svaneti, in present-day Georgia, Kevin was particularly interested in these conversations.

During that fated Summer of ‘93, I was getting ready to begin the last year of my B.Sc. in anthropology, specializing in linguistic anthropology and ethnomusicology. As I had done during previous summers, I was working BOH at a French restaurant. But, in my free time, I was exploring a brand new world.

In retrospect, it might not be a complete coincidence that my then-girlfriend of four years left me during that Fall 1993 semester.

It started with a local BBS, WAJU (“We Are Joining You”). I’m not exactly sure when I got started, but I remember being on WAJU in July. Had first been lent a 300 baud modem but I quickly switched to a 2400 baud one. My current ISP plan is 15Mbps, literally 50,000 times faster than my original connection.

By August 1993, thanks to the aforementioned Kevin Tuite, I was able to get an account on UdeM’s ERE network, meant for teaching and research (it stood for «Environnement de recherche et d’enseignement»). That network was running on SGI machines which weren’t really meant to handle large numbers of external connections. But it worked for my purpose of processing email (through Pine), Usenet newsgroups, FTP downloads (sometimes through Archie), IRC sessions, individual chats (though Talk), Gopher sites, and other things via Telnet. As much as possible, I did all of these things from campus, through one of the computer rooms, which offered amazingly fast connections (especially compared to my 2.4kbps modem). I spent enough time in those computer rooms that I still remember a distinct smell from them.

However, at some point during that period, I was able to hack a PPP connection going through my ERE account. In fact, I ended up helping some other people (including a few professors) do the same. It then meant we could use native applications to access the ’Net from home and, eventually, browse the Web graphically.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

By the time I got online, NCSA Mosaic hadn’t been released. In fact, it took a little while before I even heard of the “World Wide Web”. I seem to remember that I only started browsing the Web in 1994. At the same time, I’m pretty sure one of my most online-savvy friends (likely Alex Burton or Martin Dupras) had told me about the Web as soon as version 1.0 of Mosaic was out, or even before.

The Web was a huge improvement, to be sure. But it was neither the beginning nor the end of the ‘Net, for those of us who had been there a little while. Yes, even a few months. Keep in mind that, at the time, there weren’t that many sites, on the Web. Sure, most universities had a Web presence and many people with accounts on university networks had opportunities to create homepages. But there’s a reason there could be Web directories (strongly associated with Yahoo!, now, but quite common at the time). Pages were “static” and there wasn’t much which was “social” on the Web, at the time.

But the ’Net as a whole was very social. At least, for the budding ethnographer that I was, the rest of the ‘Net was a much more interesting context for observation than the Web. Especially newsgroups and mailinglists.

Especially since the ‘Net was going through one of its first demographic explosions. Some AOLers were flooding the ‘Net. Perhaps more importantly, newbie bashing was peaking and comments against AOL or other inexperienced “Netizens” were frequently heard. I personally heard a lot more from people complaining about AOL than from anyone accessing the ’Net through AOL.

Something about the influx which was clear, though, is that the “democratization” was being accompanied by commercialization. A culture of open sharing was being replaced by corporate culture. Free culture was being preempted by a culture of advertising. The first .com domains were almost a novelty, in a ‘Net full of country-specific domains along with lots of .edu, .net, .org, .gov, and even .mil servers.

The ‘Net wasn’t yet about “paying for content”. That would come a few years later, when media properties pushed “user-generated content” into its own category (instead of representing most of what was available online). The ‘Net of the mid-1990s was about gaining as much attention as possible. We’re still in that mode, of course. But the contrast was striking. Casual conversations were in danger of getting drowned by megaphones. The billboard overtook the café. With the shift, a strong sense of antagonism emerged. The sense of belonging to a community of early adopters increased with the sense of being attacked by old “media types”. People less interested in sharing knowledge and more interested in conveying their own corporate messages. Not that individuals had been agenda-free until that point. But there was a big difference between geeks arguing about strongly-held opinions and “brands” being pushed onto the scene.

Early on, the thing I thought the Internet would most likely disrupt was journalism. I had a problem with journalism so, when I saw how the ‘Net could provide increased access to information, I was sure it’d imply a reappropriation of news by people themselves, with everything this means in the spread of critical thinking skills. Some of this has happened, to an extent. But media consolidation had probably a more critical role to play in journalism’s current crisis than online communication. Although, I like to think of these things as complex systems of interrelated trends and tendencies instead of straightforward causal scenarios.

In such a situation, the ‘Net becoming more like a set of conventional mass media channels was bad news. More specifically, the logic of “getting your corporate message across” was quite offputting to a crowd used to more casual (though often heated and loud) conversations. What comes to mind is a large agora with thousands of people having thousands of separate conversations being taken over by a massive PA system. Regardless of the content of the message being broadcast by this PA system, the effect is beyond annoying.

Through all of this, I distinctly remember mid-April, 1994. At that time, the Internet changed.  One might say it never recovered.

At that time, two unscrupulous lawyers sent the first commercial spam on Usenet newsgroups. They apparently made a rather large sum of money from their action but, more importantly, they ended the “Netiquette” era. From this point on, a conflict has emerged between those who use and those who abuse the ‘Net. Yes, strong words. But I sincerely think they’re fitting. Spammers are like Internet’s cancer. They may “serve a function” and may inspire awe. Mostly, though, they’re “cells gone rogue”. Not that I’m saying the ‘Net was free of disease before this “Green Card lottery” moment. For one thing, it’s possible (though unlikely) that flamewars were somewhat more virulent then than they are now. It’s just that the list of known online woes expanded quickly with the addition of cancer-like diseases. From annoying Usenet spam, we went rather rapidly to all sorts of malevolent large-scale actions. Whatever we end up doing online, we carry the shadow of such actions.

Despite how it may sound, my stance isn’t primarily moral. It’s really about a shift from a “conversational” mode to a “mass media” one. Spammers exploited Usenet by using it as a “mass media” channel, at a time when most people online were using it as a large set of “many-to-many” channels.

The distinction between Usenet spam and legitimate advertising may be extremely important, to a very large number of people. But the gates spammers opened were the same ones advertisers have been using ever since.

My nostalgia of the early Internet has a lot to do with this shift. I know we gained a lot, in the meantime. I enjoy many benefits from the “democratization” of the ‘Net. I wouldn’t trade the current online services and tools for those I was using in August, 1993. But I do long for a cancer-free Internet.

Yoga and Community in Contemporary North America

Last night, Matthew Remski’s chapter on yoga “culture” served as the basis for a conversation on yoga and communities. Roseanne Harvey had invited some panelists and like-minded people to join her at Andrew Gordon Middleton’s and Michael O’Brien’s Studio Flow Space in Verdun.

After the conversation, I started reading Remski’s chapter in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice, the collected essays that Roseanne has edited with Carol Horton.

Several things transpired from this conversation and, though I’m still a yoga newbie, I thought I’d post a few thoughts.

Most important, to me, is the realization that yoga may be antithetical to community development. Remski’s chapter made some of this painfully clear and I had such a feeling of recognition while reading the first part of this chapter that I almost clapped. (It’d have been weird, since I was in the métro.)

Yoga, like transcendentalism, focuses on individualism. As Margaret Fuller with transcendentalism, I find something unsatisfying in this. While I can understand the value of therapeutic self-centredness, I can only handle it for short periods of time. As an extrovert, I need some level of social interaction, especially if I can help others. Navigating either Nietzsche or Thoreau, I quickly feel trapped in a limited world.

Which brings me to Catholicism. The topic ended up being a significant piece of the backdrop to last night’s conversation. Though I wasn’t baptized (and, therefore, not officially a member of the Catholic community), I was raised in a quickly-secularizing Catholic context (Québécois society during the Quiet Revolution). Culturally, I associate more directly with the Catholic Play Ethic (or with the Sensual Ethic) than with what Weber called the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE). Sounds like Remski may be in a similar situation. And so were some participants in last night’s conversation. Not that no Catholic subscribes to PWE or that all Protestants are caught in it. But it’s remarkable how “key scenarios” may differ along such lines. I’d rather have a picnic with Manet (or Monet) or a food fight with Gwen Stefani and the band than a success story written by Horatio Alger. Just don’t get me started about the difference between Fellini and Bergman.

What does this have to do with yoga? Precious little. Yoga is about self-improvement and introspection… until it becomes about interdependence, intersubjectivity, and projecting the mind outside the self. Only then does yoga reach a sense of community. But this sense of community isn’t local, social, cultural, spatial. It’s sense of universal community of mind, beyond such pesky little things as families, cities, countries, and social movements. In “loving kindness” meditation, the shift from individuals to the Whole Earth doesn’t sound very gradual. Sure, “the community” can be there as a target for meditation. But the difference in kind between a neighbourhood community and, say, the community of spirit between humans and locusts affords little discussion, in such a context.

Playing the social scientist during yesterday’s convo, I couldn’t help but point out two key features of communities, from a social science perspective: sense of belonging and interdependency. Though they apply to any community, they may be especially useful in the yoga context. I don’t know enough about yoga to be sure about this, but comments made after I mentioned these two dimensions did sound like they resonated with my simple description.

Interdependency is a recent addition to my definition of community. A student in my “Cyberspace Sociology” course added it as a key feature, and it really helps to bring things in focus. One aspect of this dimension is that community isn’t necessarily something we choose. We may choose some of our neighbours but we may be affected by many community members who’d otherwise have “nothing to do with us”. Also, given issues surrounding our natural environment, the ecological principles behind communities are easy to describe: we can “do our part” but the system can still be dysfunctional if some people don’t. As both victims of climate change and perpetrators of pollution which takes part in it, we can perceive the implications of being dependent on one another. Not to mention that interdependence is an important concept in yoga.

The sense of belonging part may afford more unpacking. Sure, hippies have reappropriated “kumbaya” as the mushy version of belonging. That one fits in the “community of spirits” model. In anthropology, we tend to focus on the “community of experience” model (if not on the “community of practise” one). To do so, some of us refer to Victor Turner’s communitas, based on the liminal phase in initiation rituals. Through this concept, we identify a space for intense relationships among equals, typical of people subjected to a difficult experience together. The concept also involves a separation from the rest of the social system.

By extension, we can think about the divisive nature of social identity: if there’s an us, there’s also a them. Quite frequently, this them is a particular group, with which the community entertains a rivalry. Montreal may be Quebec City’s “Other”, even though Montrealers care very little about the “national capital”. Fans of the Maple Leafs may also perceive Montreal as the other, although I’ve heard more anti-Boston sentiment in my youth than anything about Toronto.

Yoga’s communities are peculiar. It sounds like it may be possible to create a sense of belonging through yoga retreats and other occasions for shared experiences. Yet the embedded hierarchy of many yoga instruction models may shift the communitas away from “practice”. Bonding works remarkably well when people have a common foe (an initiator causing harm would be an appropriate figure, here). However authoritative they may be, yoga instructors may not desire this type of antagonism.

Though (as was clear from last night’s discussion) some yoga studios enter in direct competition as businesses, yoga communities may not be ideal places for impassioned rivalries. The “slippery slope” from opposition between groups and outright conflict may make peace-loving yoginis and yogis think twice about this type of chants and cheers.

Which isn’t to say that the yoga world lacks distinction. In fact, yoga sociology has a lot to explore. From the outside, the internal structure of the North American yogasphere is fascinating. But that structure, it sounds like, rarely made explicit. It also sounds like it’s inward-looking, to a fairly large extent. The yogasphere includes all sorts of yoga practitioners, but it’s focused on yoga teachers and other experts, not necessarily on the local embedding of yoga practice. Yoga studios, in this model, are like havens of peace in a fastpaced world. The them group comprises a large number of people who don’t get yoga.

Personally, I’m more interested in how communities can appropriate yoga. Yes, it involves the adaptation of yoga practice, which implies some level of inauthenticity. Thanks to the association between yoga and New Age (a drone under 21st Century Yoga), yoga specialists may shy away from this type of reappropriation. Yet, empowering communities through yoga-inspired practice could be a worthy cause for yogactivists.

Yoga needs space. A key theme during yesterday’s discussion was space: studio rent, overhead, location, sense of place, neighbourhoods as markets… In North American cities, yoga doesn’t own much space, and that’s the crux of the problem.

This is where we can go back to Catholicism, where Remski started his essay on yoga “culture”. It was an underlying theme through the discussion. (Funnily enough, the conversation was structured by a key figure who invited four “evangelists” and we were eight “disciples”.)

The Catholic Church does own space. In fact, a large part of the “business model” for the Catholic clergy relates to real estate. As many of these properties are being sold, there may be opportunities for community ownership of prime space. In fact, I’m a research associate for a community organization involved in a community-based project surrounding the reappropriation of a church. Wasn’t thinking about yoga in that space, but I’m sure some other people have been. Last summer, Yoga en rouge was happening (led by Audrey Béliveau) in Parc Molson, next door to that church. And it’s clearly a grassroots community affair.

I’m not (officially) Catholic and I’m a n00b to yoga. I’m finally grokking the difficulties to develop community membership through yoga. So I’ll continue doing my yoga practice at home, by myself, away from other people’s gaze. Still feels good.

Energized by Bret Victor

Just watched Bret Victor’s powerful video:

Inventing on Principle | CUSEC

Simply put, watching it was a lifechanging moment, for me.

In some ways, Victor’s talk was deeply philosophical, though it’s easy to assess it as a demonstration about software engineering. It was delivered (here in Montreal) at a software engineering conference and Victor masterfully adapted his talk to a software engineering audience.

But, more than Hofstadter “philosophy book, disguised as a book of entertainment, disguised as a book of instruction” (that I consider to be a computer science book disguised as semi-academic nonfiction), Victor’s talk is a call to action disguised as a talk on software engineering. It makes a profound philosophical statement using software engineering as a launching point. In other words, it may have had more of an impact on me (as an ethnographer and a teacher, but also as a human being) than it may have had on software engineers who were present.

Quite a feat for something which seems to have had a significant impact on some software engineers.

This impact relates to how I got to Bret Victor’s presentation…

I follow John Gruber’s Daring Fireball blog. On Monday, he had a short link post about Bret Victor:

Astoundingly insightful and inspiring essay by Bret Victor. One of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve read in a long time.

That insightful essay is on Learnable Programming.

Its starting point is a response to Khan Academy’s use of his work. In that sense, it’s a levelheaded but rather negative review of what the Khan folks did. As such, I associate it with critiques from science teachers. For instance:

Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos | Action-Reaction

Started reading that post but context was missing, for me. Wasn’t able to really hang on to it. I then decided to look at that post in which Victor was cited.

John Resig – Redefining the Introduction to Computer Science

Victor’s impact on software engineering is clear in that post, as Resig describes a shift in his thinking after watching Victor’s thought. But the shift was based on a few elements of Victor’s talk, not on the main ideas behind it. At least, that’s what I get after watching Victor’s presentation.

Of course, I may be wrong. In fact, my reaction to Victor’s talk may be based on all sorts of other things. Maybe I’m putting into it all sorts of things which weren’t there originally. If so, that’s a sign of something powerful.

And, again, watching it was a powerful moment.

I know… that sounds big. But it’s one of those triggering moments, I feel, when things are connecting in interesting ways. In fact, I’m comparing it to another lifechanging moment I had four years ago and which became the basis of my “Happiness Anniversary”.

What happened that time is a larger set of things, but one specific point connects that date with Victor’s presentation. Four years ago, I participated in a CTLS workshop by Janette Barrington called “Writing a Personally Meaningful Teaching Philosophy Statement”. That workshop was based in part on the Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI), which is where the connection with Bret Victor starts.

Here are the five perspectives identified by Daniel D. Pratt and John B. Collins (summary):

  • Transmission: Effective teaching requires a substantial commitment to the content or subject matter.
  • Apprenticeship: Effective teaching is a process of socializing students into new behavioral norms and ways of working.
  • Developmental: Effective teaching must be planned and conducted “from the learner’s point of view”.
  • Nurturing: Effective teaching assumes that long-term, hard, persistent effort to achieve comes from the heart, as well as the head.
  • Social Reform: Effective teaching seeks to change society in substantive ways.

(Unsurprisingly, my highest scores were for developmental and nurturing, followed by social reform. Transmission and apprenticeship were quite low, for me.)

During the workshop, participants were teamed up according to these results. I don’t remember the exact details, but the mix of perspectives in our four-person team was optimal. We were so compatible with each other that we went to the “performing” stage of Tuckman’s classical model in no time. Haven’t heard from any of the three women with whom I was working, but it was a powerful moment for me.

Something I’ve noticed within our team is the importance of “social reform”. Though I teach social sciences, I’m no activist, but I find myself to be quite compatible with activists. In a way, my nurturing/developmental perspective is in complementarity with activism. I do wish to enable people, regardless of their goals. And these goals are often guided by deep principles that I tend to associate with activism.

Something else I’ve noticed had to do with engineers. If I remember correctly, there was a team made up of engineering teachers. They also appeared to be quite effective in their approach. But they were also quite distinct from our team. This has nothing to do with stereotypes and I fully realize that these same individuals may be quite different from one another in other contexts. But, at least in this context, they had a common perspective which, I would say, was furthest away from social reform and much closer to transmission.

Victor’s talk is doing the reverse, with software engineering. Through his presentation, Bret Victor encouraged engineers to think about the worldchanging potential of their work instead of emphasizing mere transmission of information (e.g., how to do a binary search). Given the talk’s influence on some software engineers, I’d say that it was quite effective. Not on everyone, and I’m sure there are engineers who dismiss Bret Victor in whichever way. But I find something there.

And much of it has to do with complementarity. Victor insists in his talk that it’s not about forcing people to “follow his lead”. It’s about allowing these people to understand that their lives and work can have a strong basis in deep principles. Having spent a bit of time with RMS, a few years ago, I can feel the effects of such lives and work.

So, how did Bret Victor change my life? In some ways, it’s too early to tell. I’ve watched this video and started reaching out about it, including in a long email to people I think might be interested. That email served as a basis for this post.

But there are some things I’m noticing already, which is why I call the experience lifechanging:

  • I’m finding ways to connect different parts of my life. I teach social science to people with diverse orientations to learning, often with an emphasis on problem-solving. Victor gives me a way to link problem-solving and social reform, making it easier for me to accomplish my goals of enabling people’s own goals.
  • While I’m no activist, my goals probably do relate to a core principle, which I haven’t really articulated, yet. Enabling others to action, or tummeling, gets very close to it.
  • For quite a while, now, I’ve been thinking about the role of public intellectuals. It’s something of a common theme on this blog, and I’ve been thinking about it in new ways, lately. Victor’s presentation is an exquisite (!) example of what I think a public intellectual can do.
  • More personally, this talk made me realize that I’m not so blasé after all. Lately, I’ve had times during which I couldn’t get stimulation. In fact, watching Apple’s iPad mini keynote left me with a definitive meh feeling, as if the “reality distortion field” had been turned off. Bret Victor’s CUSEC talk had more of an effect on me than did any Apple keynote, including celebrated ones by Steve Jobs.

I now feel a sense of purpose.

What else can I ask from 54″ of my time?

Some German Movies I Liked

I remember a discussion I had as a kid, about German culture. A normal kind of conversation, in my family. As Francophones of Québécois and Swiss origins, our perspectives on Germany were quite skewed. And that’s probably why it was fun to discuss these things, casually. I was probably ten years-old so this happened almost thirty years ago.

As far as I can remember, much of our discussion had to do with stereotypes. But I remember saying something as if it were common-knowledge yet clearly wasn’t: that Germans were “known” for great movies.

At the time, I probably hadn’t seen many German movies. Even today, I can’t really say that I’ve watched a lot of German movies. At the time, I was probably reacting from having watched or even heard of a single German movie. Come to think of it, it may even have been based on an Austrian movie I had seen something about. In other words, my statement wasn’t based on a true appreciation but on a vague impression which surprised those with whom I shared it.

Since that time, I seem to have developed an appreciation for German movies. Again, not that I’ve seen so many of them. But those I’ve watched I usually enjoyed.

Several of them came back through my mind as I was playing TRAUMA. Not that the game directly referred to any of these movies. But the game’s visuals did trigger my reminiscence.

So, a very short list of some German movies I’ve enjoyed.

  1. Lola rennt (Run Lola Run)
  2. Im Juli (In July)
  3. Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire)
  4. Erleuchtung garantiert (Enlightenment Guaranteed)
  5. Bella Martha (Mostly Martha)

Yup, just five films. Of course, I could list many more French or Québécois movies I’ve liked. Thing is, I can hardly remember another German movie. In other words, it feels as though I have never watched a German movie that I didn’t enjoy. And there are some movies I haven”t seen but that I’d probably enjoy, such as Good Bye Lenin!

Not that there’s anything specific about German movies. As a kid, I probably believed in a sort of “national character” but my training in anthropology got it out of me before I watched most of these movies. But it doesn’t mean that there’s nothing common between those movies. Or that I’m not constructing my own “reading” of German movies on these few examples.

For one thing, it’s quite likely that German movies which are released outside of Germany have some specific features. Chances are, there are plenty of movies in Germany which never get released outside and these may differ quite a lot from what I recognize a German movie to be. After all, I’m not including in my short list the variety of movies in which Germans were involved through coproduction. And all of these movies are about some place in Germany, the same way stereotypical Irish songs (those created in North America) have to do with places in Ireland.

So I end up with a skewed, fragmentary, and artificial view of German movies from just a few examples. What’s funny about it is that, based on my experience with TRAUMA (as well as with a few German TV shows), my bias continues to affect my perception of other German productions.

Had I not been trained in anthropology, I might not perceive the severe limits of my views on German culture. In fact, because German Romanticism has been so important in the history of my discipline, my limited experience of filmic Germany clashes with different encounters with the complexities behind German identity and cultural awareness.

Maybe it just means that I should go spend a little while in Germany. I hear they have good beer. ;-)

Syllabus Display Screenshot

Using WordPress as a Syllabus Database: Learning is Fun

(More screenshots in a previous post on this blog.)

Worked on a WordPress project all night, the night before last. Was able to put together a preliminary version of a syllabus database that I’ve been meaning to build for an academic association with which I’m working.

There are some remaining bugs to solve but, I must say, I’m rather pleased with the results so far. In fact, I’ve been able to solve the most obvious bugs rather quickly, last night.

More importantly, I’ve learnt a lot. And I think I can build a lot of things on top of that learning experience.

Part of the inspiration comes from Kyle Jones’s blogpost about a “staff directory”. In addition, Justin Tadlock has had a large (and positive) impact on my learning process, either through his WordPress-related blogposts about custom post types and his work on the Hybrid Theme (especially through the amazing support forums). Not to mention WordCamp Montrealofficial documentationplugin pagestutorials, and a lot of forum- and blogposts about diverse things surrounding WordPress (including CSS).

I got a lot of indirect help and I wouldn’t have been able to go very far in my project without that help. But, basically, it’s been a learning experience for me as an individual. I’m sure more skilled people would have been able to whip this up in no time.

Thing is, it’s been fun. Close to Csíkszentmihályi’s notion of “flow”. (Philippe’s a friend of mine who did research on flow and videogames. He’s the one who first introduced me to “flow”, in this sense.)

So, how did I achieve this? Well, through both plugins and theme files.

To create this database, I’ve originally been using three plugins from More Plugins: More Fields, More Taxonomies, and More Types. Had also done so in my previous attempt at a content database. At the time, these plugins helped me in several ways. But, with the current WordPress release (3.2.1), the current versions of these plugins (2.0.5.2, 1.0.1, and 1.1.1b1, respectively) are a bit buggy.

In fact, I ended up coding my custom taxonomies “from scratch”, after running into apparent problems with the More Taxonomies plugin. Eventually did the same thing with my “Syllabus” post type, replacing More Types. Wasn’t very difficult and it solved some rather tricky bugs.

Naïvely, I thought that the plugins’ export function would actually create that code, so I’d be able to put it in my own files and get rid of that plugin. But it’s not the case. Doh! Unfortunately, the support forums don’t seem so helpful either, with many questions left unanswered. So I wouldn’t really recommend these plugins apart from their pedagogical value.

The plugins were useful in helping me get around some “conceptual” issues, but it seems safer and more practical to code things from scratch, at least with taxonomies and custom post types. For “custom metaboxes”, I’m not sure I’ll have as easy a time replacing More Fields as I did replacing More Taxonomies and More Types. (More Fields helps create custom fields in the post editing interface.)

Besides the More Plugins, I’m only using two other plugins: Jonathan Christopher’s Attachments and the very versatile google doc embedder (gde) by Kevin Davis.

Attachments provides an easy way to attach files to a post and, importantly, its plugin page provides usable notes about implementation which greatly helped me in my learning process. I think I could code in some of that plugin’s functionality, now that I get a better idea of how WordPress attachments work. But it seems not to be too buggy so I’ll probably keep it.

As its name does not imply, gde can embed any file from a rather large array of file types: Adobe Reader (PDF), Microsoft Office (doc/docx, ppt/pptx/pps, xsl/xslx), and iWork Pages, along with multipage image files (tiff, Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, SVG, EPS/PS…). The file format support comes from Google Docs Viewer (hence the plugin name).

In fact, I just realized that GDV supports zip and RAR archives. Had heard (from Gina Trapani) of that archive support in Gmail but didn’t realize it applied to GDV. Tried displaying a zip file through gde, last night, and it didn’t work. Posted something about this on the plugin’s forum and “k3davis” already fixed this, mentioning me in the 2.2 release notes.

Allowing the display of archives might be very useful, in this case. It’s fairly easily to get people to put files in a zip archive and upload it. In fact, several mail clients do all of this automatically, so there’s probably a way to get documents through emailed zip files and display the content along with the syllabus.

So, a cool plugin became cooler.

Syllabus Database (archive)

GDE Error: Unable to load profile settings

As it so happens, gde is already installed on the academic site for which I’m building this very same syllabus database. In that case, I’ve been using gde to embed PDF files (for instance, in this page providing web enhancements page for an article in the association’s journal). So I knew it could be useful in terms of displaying course outlines and such, within individual pages of the syllabus database.

What I wasn’t sure I could do is programmatically embed files added to a syllabus page. In other words, I knew I could display these files using some shortcode on appropriate files’ URLs (including those of attached files). What I wasn’t sure how to do (and had a hard time figuring out) is how to send these URLs from a field in the database: I knew how to manually enter the code, but I didn’t know how to automatically display the results of the code when a link is entered in the right place.

The reason this matters is that I would like “normal human beings” (i.e., noncoders and, mostly, nongeeks) to enter the relevant information for their syllabi. One of WordPress’s advantages is the fact that, despite its power, it’s very easy to get nongeeks to do neat things with it. I’d like the syllabus database to be this type of neat thing.

The Attachmentsplugin helps, but still isn’t completely ideal. It does allow for drag-and-drop upload and it does provide a minimalist interface for attaching uploaded files to blogposts.

First Attach Button (Screenshot)

Screenshot of First “Attach” Button

In the first case, it’s just a matter of clicking the Attach button and dropping a file in the appropriate field. In the second case, it’s a matter of clicking another Attachbutton.

Second Attach Button (Screenshot)

Screenshot of the Second “Attach” Button

The problem is between these two Attach buttons.

File Uploaded Screenshot

Screenshot of the Uploaded File

The part of the process between uploading the file and finding the Attach button takes several nonobvious  steps. After the file has been uploaded, the most obvious buttons are Insert into Post and Save all changes, neither of which sounds particularly useful in this context. But Save all changes is the one which should be clicked.

To get to the second Attach button, I first need to go to the Media Library a second time. Recently uploaded images are showing.

Images Only Screenshot

Screenshot of the Media Library Only Showing Images

For other types of files, I then click All Types, which shows a reverse chronological list of all recently uploaded files (older files can be found through the Search Media field). I then click on the Show link associated with a given file (most likely, the most recent upload, which is the first in the list).

Second Attach Button (Screenshot)

Screenshot of the second “Attach” Button

Then, finally, the final Attach button shows up.

Clicking it, the file is attached to the current post, which was the reason behind the whole process. Thanks to both gde and Attachments, that file is then displayed along with the rest of the syllabus entry.

It only takes a matter of seconds to minutes, to attach a file (depending on filesize, connection speed, etc.). Not that long. And the media library can be very useful in many ways. But I just imagine myself explaining the process to instructors and other people submitting syllabi for inclusion the the database.

Far from ideal.

A much easier process is the one of adding files by pasting a file URL in a field. Which is exactly what I’ve added as a possibility for a syllabus’s main document (say, the PDF version of the syllabus).

Course Data Screenshot

Screenshot of the Course Data Box

Passing that URL to gde, I can automatically display the document in the document page, as I’m doing with attachments from the media library.  The problem with this, obviously, is that it requires a public URL for the document. The very same “media library” can be used to upload documents. In fact, copying the URL from an uploaded file is easier than finding the “Attach” button as explained previously. But it makes the upload a separate process on the main site. A process which can be taught fairly easily, but a process which isn’t immediately obvious.

I might make use of a DropBox account for just this kind of situation. It’s also a separate process, but it’s one which may be easier for some people.

In the end, I’ll have to see with users what makes the most sense for them.

In the past, I’ve used plugins like  Contact Form 7 (CF7), by Takayuki Miyoshi, and Fast Secure Contact Form (FSCF)  by Mike Challis to try and implement something similar. A major advantage is that they allow for submissions by users who aren’t logged in. This might be a dealmaking feature for either FSCF or CF7, as I don’t necessarily want to create accounts for everyone who might submit a syllabus. Had issues with user registration, in the past. Like attachments, onboarding remains an issue for a lot of people. Also, thanks to yet other plugins like Michael Simpson’s Contact Form to Database (CFDB), it should be possible to make form submissions into pending items in the syllabus database. I’ll be looking into this.

Another solution might be Gravity Forms. Unlike the plugins I’ve mentioned so far, it’s a commercial product. But it sounds like it might offer some rather neat features which may make syllabus submission a much more interesting process. However, it’s meant for a very different use case, which has more to do with “lead data management” and other business-focused usage. I could innovate through its use. But there might be more appropriate solutions.

As is often the case with WordPress, the “There’s a plugin for that” motto can lead to innovation.  Even documenting the process (by blogging it) can be a source of neat ideas.

A set of ideas I’ve had, for this syllabus database, came from looking into the Pods CMS Framework for WordPress. Had heard about Pods CMS through the WordCast Conversations podcast. For several reasons, it sent me on an idea spree and, for days, I was taking copious notes about what could be done. Not only about this syllabus database but about a full “learning object repository” built on top of WordPress. The reason I want to use WordPress is that, not only am I a “fanboi” of Automattic (the organization behind WordPress) but I readily plead guilty to using WordPress as a Golden Hammer. There are multiple ways to build a learning object repository. (Somehow, I’m convinced that some of my Web developing friends that Ruby on Rails is the ideal solution.) But I’ve got many of my more interesting ideas through looking into Pods CMS, a framework for WordPress and I don’t know the first thing about RoR.

Overall, Pods CMS sounds like a neat approach. Its pros and cons make it sound like an interesting alternative to WordPress’s custom post types for certain projects, as well as a significant shift from the main ways WordPress is used. During WordCamp Montreal, people I asked about it were wary of Pods. I eventually thought I would wait for version 2.0 to come out before investing significant effort in it.

In the meantime, what I’ve built is a useful base knowledge of how to use WordPress as a content database.

Can’t wait to finish adding features and fixing bugs, so I can release it to the academic organization. I’m sure they’ll enjoy it.

Even if they don’t ever use it, I’ve gained a lot of practical insight into how to do such things. It may be obvious to others but it does wonders to my satisfaction levels.

I’m truly in flow!

Intimacy, Network Effect, Hype

Is “intimacy” a mere correlate of the network effect?

Can we use the network effect to explain what has been happening with Quora?

Is the Quora hype related to network effect?

I really don’t feel a need to justify my dislike of Quora. Oh, sure, I can explain it. At length. Even on Quora itself. And elsewhere. But I tend to sense some defensiveness on the part of Quora fans.

[Speaking of fans, I have blogposts on fanboism laying in my head, waiting to be hatched. Maybe this will be part of it.]

But the important point, to me, isn’t about whether or not I like Quora. It’s about what makes Quora so divisive. There are people who dislike it and there are some who defend it.

Originally, I was only hearing from contacts and friends who just looooved Quora. So I was having a “Ionesco moment”: why is it that seemingly “everyone” who uses it loves Quora when, to me, it represents such a move in the wrong direction? Is there something huge I’m missing? Or has that world gone crazy?

It was a surreal experience.

And while I’m all for surrealism, I get this strange feeling when I’m so unable to understand a situation. It’s partly a motivation for delving into the issue (I’m surely not the only ethnographer to get this). But it’s also unsettling.

And, for Quora at least, this phase seems to be over. I now think I have a good idea as to what makes for such a difference in people’s experiences with Quora.

It has to do with the network effect.

I’m sure some Quora fanbois will disagree, but it’s now such a clear picture in my mind that it gets me into the next phase. Which has little to do with Quora itself.

The “network effect” is the kind of notion which is so commonplace that few people bother explaining it outside of introductory courses (same thing with “group forming” in social psychology and sociology, or preferential marriage patterns in cultural anthropology). What someone might call (perhaps dismissively): “textbook stuff.”

I’m completely convinced that there’s a huge amount of research on the network effect, but I’m also guessing few people looking it up. And I’m accusing people, here. Ever since I first heard of it (in 1993, or so), I’ve rarely looked at explanations of it and I actually don’t care about the textbook version of the concept. And I won’t “look it up.” I’m more interested in diverse usage patterns related to the concept (I’m a linguistic anthropologist).

So, the version I first heard (at a time when the Internet was off most people’s radar) was something like: “in networked technology, you need critical mass for the tools to become truly useful. For instance, the telephone has no use if you’re the only one with one and it has only very limited use if you can only call a single person.” Simple to the point of being simplistic, but a useful reminder.

Over the years, I’ve heard and read diverse versions of that same concept, usually in more sophisticated form, but usually revolving around the same basic idea that there’s a positive effect associated with broader usage of some networked technology.

I’m sure specialists have explored every single implication of this core idea, but I’m not situating myself as a specialist of technological networks. I’m into social networks, which may or may not be associated with technology (however defined). There are social equivalents of the “network effect” and I know some people are passionate about those. But I find that it’s quite limiting to focus so exclusively on quantitative aspects of social networks. What’s so special about networks, in a social science perspective, isn’t scale. Social scientists are used to working with social groups at any scale and we’re quite aware of what might happen at different scales. But networks are fascinating because of different features they may have. We may gain a lot when we think of social networks as acephalous, boundless, fluid, nameless, indexical, and impactful. [I was actually lecturing about some of this in my "Intro to soci" course, yesterday...]

So, from my perspective, “network effect” is an interesting concept when talking about networked technology, in part because it relates to the social part of those networks (innovation happens mainly through technological adoption, not through mere “invention”). But it’s not really the kind of notion I’d visit regularly.

This case is somewhat different. I’m perceiving something rather obvious (and which is probably discussed extensively in research fields which have to do with networked technology) but which strikes me as missing from some discussions of social networking systems online. In a way, it’s so obvious that it’s kind of difficult to explain.

But what’s coming up in my mind has to do with a specific notion of “intimacy.” It’s actually something which has been on my mind for a while and it might still need to “bake” a bit longer before it can be shared properly. But, like other University of the Streets participants, I perceive the importance of sharing “half-baked thoughts.”

And, right now, I’m thinking of an anecdotal context which may get the point across.

Given my attendance policy, there are class meetings during which a rather large proportion of the class is missing. I tend to call this an “intimate setting,” though I’m aware that it may have different connotations to different people. From what I can observe, people in class get the point. The classroom setting is indeed changing significantly and it has to do with being more “intimate.”

Not that we’re necessarily closer to one another physically or intellectually. It needs not be a “bonding experience” for the situation to be interesting. And it doesn’t have much to do with “absolute numbers” (a classroom with 60 people is relatively intimate when the usual attendance is close to 100; a classroom with 30 people feels almost overwhelming when only 10 people were showing up previously). But there’s some interesting phenomenon going on when there are fewer people than usual, in a classroom.

Part of this phenomenon may relate to motivation. In some ways, one might expect that those who are attending at that point are the “most dedicated students” in the class. This might be a fairly reasonable assumption in the context of a snowstorm but it might not work so well in other contexts (say, when the incentive to “come to class” relates to extrinsic motivation). So, what’s interesting about the “intimate setting” isn’t necessarily that it brings together “better people.” It’s that something special goes on.

What’s going on, with the “intimate classroom,” can vary quite a bit. But there’s still “something special” about it. Even when it’s not a bonding experience, it’s still a shared experience. While “communities of practice” are fascinating, this is where I tend to care more about “communities of experience.” And, again, it doesn’t have much to do with scale and it may have relatively little to do with proximity (physical or intellectual). But it does have to do with cognition and communication. What is special with the “intimate classroom” has to do with shared assumptions.

Going back to Quora…

While an online service with any kind of network effect is still relatively new, there’s something related to the “intimate setting” going on. In other words, it seems like the initial phase of the network effect is the “intimacy” phase: the service has a “large enough userbase” to be useful (so, it’s achieved a first type of critical mass) but it’s still not so “large” as to be overwhelming.

During that phase, the service may feel to people like a very welcoming place. Everyone can be on a “first-name basis. ” High-status users mingle with others as if there weren’t any hierarchy. In this sense, it’s a bit like the liminal phase of a rite of passage, during which communitas is achieved.

This phase is a bit like the Golden Age for an online service with a significant “social dimension.” It’s the kind of time which may make people “wax nostalgic about the good ole days,” once it’s over. It’s the time before the BYT comes around.

Sure, there’s a network effect at stake.  You don’t achieve much of a “sense of belonging” by yourself. But, yet again, it’s not really a question of scale. You can feel a strong bond in a dyad and a team of three people can perform quite well. On the other hand, the cases about which I’m thinking are orders of magnitude beyond the so-called “Dunbar number” which seems to obsess so many people (outside of anthro, at least).

Here’s where it might get somewhat controversial (though similar things have been said about Quora): I’d argue that part of this “intimacy effect” has to do with a sense of “exclusivity.” I don’t mean this as the way people talk about “elitism” (though, again, there does seem to be explicit elitism involved in Quora’s case). It’s more about being part of a “select group of people.” About “being there at the time.” It can get very elitist, snobbish, and self-serving very fast. But it’s still about shared experiences and, more specifically, about the perceived boundedness of communities of experience.

We all know about early adopters, of course. And, as part of my interest in geek culture, I keep advocating for more social awareness in any approach to the adoption part of social media tools. But what I mean here isn’t about a “personality type” or about the “attributes of individual actors.” In fact, this is exactly a point at which the study of social networks starts deviating from traditional approaches to sociology. It’s about the special type of social group the “initial userbase” of such a service may represent.

From a broad perspective (as outsiders, say, or using the comparativist’s “etic perspective”), that userbase is likely to be rather homogeneous. Depending on the enrollment procedure for the service, the structure of the group may be a skewed version of an existing network structure. In other words, it’s quite likely that, during that phase, most of the people involved were already connected through other means. In Quora’s case, given the service’s pushy overeagerness on using Twitter and Facebook for recruitment, it sounds quite likely that many of the people who joined Quora could already be tied through either Twitter or Facebook.

Anecdotally, it’s certainly been my experience that the overwhelming majority of people who “follow me on Quora” have been part of my first degree on some social media tool in the recent past. In fact, one of my main reactions as I’ve been getting those notifications of Quora followers was: “here are people with whom I’ve been connected but with whom I haven’t had significant relationships.” In some cases, I was actually surprised that these people would “follow” me while it appeared like they actually weren’t interested in having any kind of meaningful interactions. To put it bluntly, it sometimes appeared as if people who had been “snubbing” me were suddenly interested in something about me. But that was just in the case of a few people I had unsuccessfully tried to engage in meaningful interactions and had given up thinking that we might not be that compatible as interlocutors. Overall, I was mostly surprised at seeing the quick uptake in my follower list, which doesn’t tend to correlate with meaningful interaction, in my experience.

Now that I understand more about the unthinking way new Quora users are adding people to their networks, my surprise has transformed into an additional annoyance with the service. In a way, it’s a repeat of the time (what was it? 2007?) when Facebook applications got their big push and we kept receiving those “app invites” because some “social media mar-ke-tors” had thought it wise to force people to “invite five friends to use the service.” To Facebook’s credit (more on this later, I hope), these pushy and thoughtless “invitations” are a thing of the past…on those services where people learnt a few lessons about social networks.

Perhaps interestingly, I’ve had a very similar experience with Scribd, at about the same time. I was receiving what seemed like a steady flow of notifications about people from my first degree online network connecting with me on Scribd, whether or not they had ever engaged in a meaningful interaction with me. As with Quora, my initial surprise quickly morphed into annoyance. I wasn’t using any service much and these meaningless connections made it much less likely that I would ever use these services to get in touch with new and interesting people. If most of the people who are connecting with me on Quora and Scribd are already in my first degree and if they tend to be people I have limited interactions, why would I use these services to expand the range of people with whom I want to have meaningful interactions? They’re already within range and they haven’t been very communicative (for whatever reason, I don’t actually assume they were consciously snubbing me). Investing in Quora for “networking purposes” seemed like a futile effort, for me.

Perhaps because I have a specific approach to “networking.”

In my networking activities, I don’t focus on either “quantity” or “quality” of the people involved. I seriously, genuinely, honestly find something worthwhile in anyone with whom I can eventually connect, so the “quality of the individuals” argument doesn’t work with me. And I’m seriously, genuinely, honestly not trying to sell myself on a large market, so the “quantity” issue is one which has almost no effect on me. Besides, I already have what I consider to be an amazing social network online, in terms of quality of interactions. Sure, people with whom I interact are simply amazing. Sure, the size of my first degree network on some services is “well above average.” But these things wouldn’t matter at all if I weren’t able to have meaningful interactions in these contexts. And, as it turns out, I’m lucky enough to be able to have very meaningful interactions in a large range of contexts, both offline and on. Part of it has to do with the fact that I’m teaching addict. Part of it has to do with the fact that I’m a papillon social (social butterfly). It may even have to do with a stage in my life, at which I still care about meeting new people but I don’t really need new people in my circle. Part of it makes me much less selective than most other people (I like to have new acquaintances) and part of it makes me more selective (I don’t need new “friends”). If it didn’t sound condescending, I’d say it has to do with maturity. But it’s not about my own maturity as a human being. It’s about the maturity of my first-degree network.

There are other people who are in an expansionist phase. For whatever reason (marketing and job searches are the best-known ones, but they’re really not the only ones), some people need to get more contacts and/or contacts with people who have some specific characteristics. For instance, there are social activists out there who need to connect to key decision-makers because they have a strong message to carry. And there are people who were isolated from most other people around them because of stigmatization who just need to meet non-judgmental people. These, to me, are fine goals for someone to expand her or his first-degree network.

Some of it may have to do with introversion. While extraversion is a “dominant trait” of mine, I care deeply about people who consider themselves introverts, even when they start using it as a divisive label. In fact, that’s part of the reason I think it’d be neat to hold a ShyCamp. There’s a whole lot of room for human connection without having to rely on devices of outgoingness.

So, there are people who may benefit from expansion of their first-degree network. In this context, the “network effect” matters in a specific way. And if I think about “network maturity” in this case, there’s no evaluation involved, contrary to what it may seem like.

As you may have noticed, I keep insisting on the fact that we’re talking about “first-degree network.” Part of the reason is that I was lecturing about a few key network concepts just yesterday so, getting people to understand the difference between “the network as a whole” (especially on an online service) and “a given person’s first-degree network” is important to me. But another part relates back to what I’m getting to realize about Quora and Scribd: the process of connecting through an online service may have as much to do with collapsing some degrees of separation than with “being part of the same network.” To use Granovetter’s well-known terms, it’s about transforming “weak ties” into “strong” ones.

And I specifically don’t mean it as a “quality of interaction.” What is at stake, on Quora and Scribd, seems to have little to do with creating stronger bonds. But they may want to create closer links, in terms of network topography. In a way, it’s a bit like getting introduced on LinkedIn (and it corresponds to what biz-minded people mean by “networking”): you care about having “access” to that person, but you don’t necessarily care about her or him, personally.

There’s some sense in using such an approach on “utilitarian networks” like professional or Q&A ones (LinkedIn does both). But there are diverse ways to implement this approach and, to me, Quora and Scribd do it in a way which is very precisely counterproductive. The way LinkedIn does it is context-appropriate. So is the way Academia.edu does it. In both of these cases, the “transaction cost” of connecting with someone is commensurate with the degree of interaction which is possible. On Scribd and Quora, they almost force you to connect with “people you already know” and the “degree of interaction” which is imposed on users is disproportionately high (especially in Quora’s case, where a contact of yours can annoy you by asking you personally to answer a specific question). In this sense, joining Quora is a bit closer to being conscripted in a war while registering on Academia.edu is just a tiny bit more like getting into a country club. The analogies are tenuous but they probably get the point across. Especially since I get the strong impression that the “intimacy phase” has a lot to do with the “country club mentality.”

See, the social context in which these services gain much traction (relatively tech-savvy Anglophones in North America and Europe) assign very negative connotations to social exclusion but people keep being fascinating by the affordances of “select clubs” in terms of social capital. In other words, people may be very vocal as to how nasty it would be if some people had exclusive access to some influential people yet there’s what I perceive as an obsession with influence among the same people. As a caricature: “The ‘human rights’ movement leveled the playing field and we should never ever go back to those dark days of Old Boys’ Clubs and Secret Societies. As soon as I become the most influential person on the planet, I’ll make sure that people who think like me get the benefits they deserve.”

This is where the notion of elitism, as applied specifically to Quora but possibly expanding to other services, makes the most sense. “Oh, no, Quora is meant for everyone. It’s Democratic! See? I can connect with very influential people. But, isn’t it sad that these plebeians are coming to Quora without a proper knowledge of  the only right way to ask questions and without proper introduction by people I can trust? I hate these n00bz! Even worse, there are people now on the service who are trying to get social capital by promoting themselves. The nerve on these people, to invade my own dedicated private sphere where I was able to connect with the ‘movers and shakers’ of the industry.” No wonder Quora is so journalistic.

But I’d argue that there’s a part of this which is a confusion between first-degree networks and connection. Before Quora, the same people were indeed connected to these “influential people,” who allegedly make Quora such a unique system. After all, they were already online and I’m quite sure that most of them weren’t more than three or four degrees of separation from Quora’s initial userbase. But access to these people was difficult because connections were indirect. “Mr. Y Z, the CEO of Company X was already in my network, since there were employees of Company X who were connected through Twitter to people who follow me. But I couldn’t just coldcall CEO Z to ask him a question, since CEOs are out of reach, in their caves. Quora changed everything because Y responded to a question by someone ‘totally unconnected to him’ so it’s clear, now, that I have direct access to my good ol’ friend Y’s inner thoughts and doubts.”

As RMS might say, this type of connection is a “seductive mirage.” Because, I would argue, not much has changed in terms of access and whatever did change was already happening all over this social context.

At the risk of sounding dismissive, again, I’d say that part of what people find so alluring in Quora is “simply” an epiphany about the Small World phenomenon. With all sorts of fallacies caught in there. Another caricature: “What? It takes only three contacts for me to send something from rural Idaho to the head honcho at some Silicon Valley firm? This is the first time something like this happens, in the History of the Whole Wide World!”

Actually, I do feel quite bad about these caricatures. Some of those who are so passionate about Quora, among my contacts, have been very aware of many things happening online since the early 1990s. But I have to be honest in how I receive some comments about Quora and much of it sounds like a sudden realization of something which I thought was a given.

The fact that I feel so bad about these characterizations relates to the fact that, contrary to what I had planned to do, I’m not linking to specific comments about Quora. Not that I don’t want people to read about this but I don’t want anyone to feel targeted. I respect everyone and my characterizations aren’t judgmental. They’re impressionistic and, again, caricatures.

Speaking of what I had planned, beginning this post… I actually wanted to talk less about Quora specifically and more about other issues. Sounds like I’m currently getting sidetracked, and it’s kind of sad. But it’s ok. The show must go on.

So, other services…

While I had a similar experiences with Scribd and Quora about getting notifications of new connections from people with whom I haven’t had meaningful interactions, I’ve had a very different experience on many (probably most) other services.

An example I like is Foursquare. “Friendship requests” I get on Foursquare are mostly from: people with whom I’ve had relatively significant interactions in the past, people who were already significant parts of my second-degree network, or people I had never heard of. Sure, there are some people with whom I had tried to establish connections, including some who seem to reluctantly follow me on Quora. But the proportion of these is rather minimal and, for me, the stakes in accepting a friend request on Foursquare are quite low since it’s mostly about sharing data I already share publicly. Instead of being able to solicit my response to a specific question, the main thing my Foursquare “friends” can do that others can’t is give me recommendations, tips, and “notifications of their presence.” These are all things I might actually enjoy, so there’s nothing annoying about it. Sure, like any online service with a network component, these days, there are some “friend requests” which are more about self-promotion. But those are usually easy to avoid and, even if I get fooled by a “social media mar-ke-tor,” the most this person may do to me is give usrecommendation about “some random place.” Again, easy to avoid. So, the “social network” dimension of Foursquare seems appropriate, to me. Not ideal, but pretty decent.

I never really liked the “game” aspect and while I did play around with getting badges and mayorships in my first few weeks, it never felt like the point of Foursquare, to me. As Foursquare eventually became mainstream in Montreal and I was asked by a journalist about my approach to Foursquare, I was exactly in the phase when I was least interested in the game aspect and wished we could talk a whole lot more about the other dimensions of the phenomenon.

And I realize that, as I’m saying this, I may sound to some as exactly those who are bemoaning the shift out of the initial userbase of some cherished service. But there are significant differences. Note that I’m not complaining about the transition in the userbase. In the Foursquare context, “the more the merrier.” I was actually glad that Foursquare was becoming mainstream as it was easier to explain to people, it became more connected with things business owners might do, and generally had more impact. What gave me pause, at the time, is the journalistic hype surrounding Foursquare which seemed to be missing some key points about social networks online. Besides, I was never annoyed by this hype or by Foursquare itself. I simply thought that it was sad that the focus would be on a dimension of the service which was already present on not only Dodgeball and other location-based services but, pretty much, all over the place. I was critical of the seemingly unthinking way people approached Foursquare but the service itself was never that big a deal for me, either way.

And I pretty much have the same attitude toward any tool. I happen to have my favourites, which either tend to fit neatly in my “workflow” or otherwise have some neat feature I enjoy. But I’m very wary of hype and backlash. Especially now. It gets old very fast and it’s been going for quite a while.

Maybe I should just move away from the “tech world.” It’s the context for such hype and buzz machine that it almost makes me angry. [I very rarely get angry.] Why do I care so much? You can say it’s accumulation, over the years. Because I still care about social media and I really do want to know what people are saying about social media tools. I just wish discussion of these tools weren’t soooo “superlative”…

Obviously, I digress. But this is what I like to do on my blog and it has a cathartic effect. I actually do feel better now, thank you.

And I can talk about some other things I wanted to mention. I won’t spend much time on them because this is long enough (both as a blogpost and as a blogging session). But I want to set a few placeholders, for further discussion.

One such placeholder is about some pet theories I have about what worked well with certain services. Which is exactly the kind of thing “social media entrepreneurs” and journalists are so interested in, but end up talking about the same dimensions.

Let’s take Twitter, for instance. Sure, sure, there’s been a lot of talk about what made Twitter a success and probably-everybody knows that it got started as a side-project at Odeo, and blah, blah, blah. Many people also realize that there were other microblogging services around as Twitter got traction. And I’m sure some people use Twitter as a “textbook case” of “network effect” (however they define that effect). I even mention the celebrity dimensions of the “Twitter phenomenon” in class (my students aren’t easily starstruck by Bieber and Gaga) and I understand why journalists are so taken by Twitter’s ”broadcast” mission. But something which has been discussed relatively rarely is the level of responsiveness by Twitter developers, over the years, to people’s actual use of the service. Again, we all know that “@-replies,” “hashtags,” and “retweets” were all emerging usage patterns that Twitter eventually integrated. And some discussion has taken place when Twitter changed it’s core prompt to reflect the fact that the way people were using it had changed. But there’s relatively little discussion as to what this process implies in terms of “developing philosophy.” As people are still talking about being “proactive” (ugh!) with users, and crude measurements of popularity keep being sold and bandied about, a large part of the tremendous potential for responsiveness (through social media or otherwise) is left untapped. People prefer to hype a new service which is “likely to have Twitter-like success because it has the features users have said they wanted in the survey we sell.” Instead of talking about the “get satisfaction” effect in responsiveness. Not that “consumers” now have “more power than ever before.” But responsive developers who refrain from imposing their views (Quora, again) tend to have a more positive impact, socially, than those which are merely trying to expand their userbase.

Which leads me to talk about Facebook. I could talk for hours on end about Facebook, but I almost feel afraid to do so. At this point, Facebook is conceived in what I perceive to be such a narrow way that it seems like anything I might say would sound exceedingly strange. Given the fact that it was part one of the first waves of Web tools with explicit social components to reach mainstream adoption, it almost sounds “historical” in timeframe. But, as so many people keep saying, it’s just not that old. IMHO, part of the implication of Facebook’s relatively young age should be that we are able to discuss it as a dynamic process, instead of assigning it to a bygone era. But, whatever…

Actually, I think part of the reason there’s such lack of depth in discussing Facebook is also part of the reason it was so special: it was originally a very select service. Since, for a significant period of time, the service was only available to people with email addresses ending in “.edu,” it’s not really surprising that many of the people who keep discussing it were actually not on the service “in its formative years.” But, I would argue, the fact that it was so exclusive at first (something which is often repeated but which seems to be understood in a very theoretical sense) contributed quite significantly to its success. Of course, similar claims have been made but, I’d say that my own claim is deeper than others.

[Bang! I really don't tend to make claims so, much of this blogpost sounds to me as if it were coming from somebody else...]

Ok, I don’t mean it so strongly. But there’s something I think neat about the Facebook of 2005, the one I joined. So I’d like to discuss it. Hence the placeholder.

And, in this placeholder, I’d fit: the ideas about responsiveness mentioned with Twitter, the stepwise approach adopted by Facebook (which, to me, was the real key to its eventual success), the notion of intimacy which is the true core of this blogpost, the notion of hype/counterhype linked to journalistic approaches, a key distinction between privacy and intimacy, some non-ranting (but still rambling) discussion as to what Google is missing in its “social” projects, anecdotes about “sequential network effects” on Facebook as the service reached new “populations,” some personal comments about what I get out of Facebook even though I almost never spent any significant amount of time on it, some musings as to the possibility that there are online services which have reached maturity and may remain stable in the foreseeable future, a few digressions about fanboism or about the lack of sophistication in the social network models used in online services, and maybe a bit of fun at the expense of “social media expert marketors”…

But that’ll be for another time.

Cheers!