Category Archives: geek culture

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!

WordPress as Content Directory: Getting Somewhere

{I tend to ramble a bit. If you just want a step-by-step tutorial, you can skip to here.}

Woohoo!

I feel like I’ve reached a milestone in a project I’ve had in mind, ever since I learnt about Custom Post Types in WordPress 3.0: Using WordPress as a content directory.

The concept may not be so obvious to anyone else, but it’s very clear to me. And probably much clearer for anyone who has any level of WordPress skills (I’m still a kind of WP newbie).

Basically, I’d like to set something up through WordPress to make it easy to create, review, and publish entries in content databases. WordPress is now a Content Management System and the type of “content management” I’d like to enable has to do with something of a directory system.

Why WordPress? Almost glad you asked.

These days, several of the projects on which I work revolve around WordPress. By pure coincidence. Or because WordPress is “teh awsum.” No idea how representative my sample is. But I got to work on WordPress for (among other things): an academic association, an adult learners’ week, an institute for citizenship and social change, and some of my own learning-related projects.

There are people out there arguing about the relative value of WordPress and other Content Management Systems. Sometimes, WordPress may fall short of people’s expectations. Sometimes, the pro-WordPress rhetoric is strong enough to sound like fanboism. But the matter goes beyond marketshare, opinions, and preferences.

In my case, WordPress just happens to be a rather central part of my life, these days. To me, it’s both a question of WordPress being “the right tool for the job” and the work I end up doing being appropriate for WordPress treatment. More than a simple causality (“I use WordPress because of the projects I do” or “I do these projects because I use WordPress”), it’s a complex interaction which involves diverse tools, my skillset, my social networks, and my interests.

Of course, WordPress isn’t perfect nor is it ideal for every situation. There are cases in which it might make much more sense to use another tool (Twitter, TikiWiki, Facebook, Moodle, Tumblr, Drupal..). And there are several things I wish WordPress did more elegantly (such as integrating all dimensions in a single tool). But I frequently end up with WordPress.

Here are some things I like about WordPress:

This last one is where the choice of WordPress for content directories starts making the most sense. Not only is it easy for me to use and build on WordPress but the learning curves are such that it’s easy for me to teach WordPress to others.

A nice example is the post editing interface (same in the software and service). It’s powerful, flexible, and robust, but it’s also very easy to use. It takes a few minutes to learn and is quite sufficient to do a lot of work.

This is exactly where I’m getting to the core idea for my content directories.

I emailed the following description to the digital content editor for the academic organization for which I want to create such content directories:

You know the post editing interface? What if instead of editing posts, someone could edit other types of contents, like syllabi, calls for papers, and teaching resources? What if fields were pretty much like the form I had created for [a committee]? What if submissions could be made by people with a specific role? What if submissions could then be reviewed by other people, with another role? What if display of these items were standardised?

Not exactly sure how clear my vision was in her head, but it’s very clear for me. And it came from different things I’ve seen about custom post types in WordPress 3.0.

For instance, the following post has been quite inspiring:

I almost had a drift-off moment.

But I wasn’t able to wrap my head around all the necessary elements. I perused and read a number of things about custom post types, I tried a few things. But I always got stuck at some point.

Recently, a valuable piece of the puzzle was provided by Kyle Jones (whose blog I follow because of his work on WordPress/BuddyPress in learning, a focus I share).

Setting up a Staff Directory using WordPress Custom Post Types and Plugins | The Corkboard.

As I discussed in the comments to this post, it contained almost everything I needed to make this work. But the two problems Jones mentioned were major hurdles, for me.

After reading that post, though, I decided to investigate further. I eventually got some material which helped me a bit, but it still wasn’t sufficient. Until tonight, I kept running into obstacles which made the process quite difficult.

Then, while trying to solve a problem I was having with Jones’s code, I stumbled upon the following:

Rock-Solid WordPress 3.0 Themes using Custom Post Types | Blancer.com Tutorials and projects.

This post was useful enough that I created a shortlink for it, so I could have it on my iPad and follow along: http://bit.ly/RockSolidCustomWP

By itself, it might not have been sufficient for me to really understand the whole process. And, following that tutorial, I replaced the first bits of code with use of the neat plugins mentioned by Jones in his own tutorial: More Types, More Taxonomies, and More Fields.

I played with this a few times but I can now provide an actual tutorial. I’m now doing the whole thing “from scratch” and will write down all steps.

This is with the WordPress 3.0 blogging software installed on a Bluehost account. (The WordPress.com blogging service doesn’t support custom post types.) I use the default Twenty Ten theme as a parent theme.

Since I use WordPress Multisite, I’m creating a new test blog (in Super Admin->Sites, “Add New”). Of course, this wasn’t required, but it helps me make sure the process is reproducible.

Since I already installed the three “More Plugins” (but they’re not “network activated”) I go in the Plugins menu to activate each of them.

I can now create the new “Product” type, based on that Blancer tutorial. To do so, I go to the “More Types” Settings menu, I click on “Add New Post Type,” and I fill in the following information: post type names (singular and plural) and the thumbnail feature. Other options are set by default.

I also set the “Permalink base” in Advanced settings. Not sure it’s required but it seems to make sense.

I click on the “Save” button at the bottom of the page (forgot to do this, the last time).

I then go to the “More Fields” settings menu to create a custom box for the post editing interface.

I add the box title and change the “Use with post types” options (no use in having this in posts).

(Didn’t forget to click “save,” this time!)

I can now add the “Price” field. To do so, I need to click on the “Edit” link next to the “Product Options” box I just created and add click “Add New Field.”

I add the “Field title” and “Custom field key”:

I set the “Field type” to Number.

I also set the slug for this field.

I then go to the “More Taxonomies” settings menu to add a new product classification.

I click “Add New Taxonomy,” and fill in taxonomy names, allow permalinks, add slug, and show tag cloud.

I also specify that this taxonomy is only used for the “Product” type.

(Save!)

Now, the rest is more directly taken from the Blancer tutorial. But instead of copy-paste, I added the files directly to a Twenty Ten child theme. The files are available in this archive.

Here’s the style.css code:

/*
Theme Name: Product Directory
Theme URI: http://enkerli.com/
Description: A product directory child theme based on Kyle Jones, Blancer, and Twenty Ten
Author: Alexandre Enkerli
Version: 0.1
Template: twentyten
*/
@import url("../twentyten/style.css");

The code for functions.php:

<!--?php /**  * ProductDir functions and definitions  * @package WordPress  * @subpackage Product_Directory  * @since Product Directory 0.1  */ /*Custom Columns*/ add_filter("manage_edit-product_columns", "prod_edit_columns"); add_action("manage_posts_custom_column",  "prod_custom_columns"); function prod_edit_columns($columns){ 		$columns = array( 			"cb" =--> "<input type="\&quot;checkbox\&quot;" />",
			"title" => "Product Title",
			"description" => "Description",
			"price" => "Price",
			"catalog" => "Catalog",
		);

		return $columns;
}

function prod_custom_columns($column){
		global $post;
		switch ($column)
		{
			case "description":
				the_excerpt();
				break;
			case "price":
				$custom = get_post_custom();
				echo $custom["price"][0];
				break;
			case "catalog":
				echo get_the_term_list($post->ID, 'catalog', '', ', ','');
				break;
		}
}
?>

And the code in single-product.php:

<!--?php /**  * Template Name: Product - Single  * The Template for displaying all single products.  *  * @package WordPress  * @subpackage Product_Dir  * @since Product Directory 1.0  */ get_header(); ?-->
<div id="container">
<div id="content">
<!--?php the_post(); ?-->

<!--?php 	$custom = get_post_custom($post--->ID);
	$price = "$". $custom["price"][0];

?>
<div id="post-<?php the_ID(); ?><br />">>
<h1 class="entry-title"><!--?php the_title(); ?--> - <!--?=$price?--></h1>
<div class="entry-meta">
<div class="entry-content">
<div style="width: 30%; float: left;">
			<!--?php the_post_thumbnail( array(100,100) ); ?-->
			<!--?php the_content(); ?--></div>
<div style="width: 10%; float: right;">
			Price
<!--?=$price?--></div>
</div>
</div>
</div>
<!-- #content --></div>
<!-- #container -->

<!--?php get_footer(); ?-->

That’s it!

Well, almost..

One thing is that I have to activate my new child theme.

So, I go to the “Themes” Super Admin menu and enable the Product Directory theme (this step isn’t needed with single-site WordPress).

I then activate the theme in Appearance->Themes (in my case, on the second page).

One thing I’ve learnt the hard way is that the permalink structure may not work if I don’t go and “nudge it.” So I go to the “Permalinks” Settings menu:

And I click on “Save Changes” without changing anything. (I know, it’s counterintuitive. And it’s even possible that it could work without this step. But I spent enough time scratching my head about this one that I find it important.)

Now, I’m done. I can create new product posts by clicking on the “Add New” Products menu.

I can then fill in the product details, using the main WYSIWYG box as a description, the “price” field as a price, the “featured image” as the product image, and a taxonomy as a classification (by clicking “Add new” for any tag I want to add, and choosing a parent for some of them).

Now, in the product management interface (available in Products->Products), I can see the proper columns.

Here’s what the product page looks like:

And I’ve accomplished my mission.

The whole process can be achieved rather quickly, once you know what you’re doing. As I’ve been told (by the ever-so-helpful Justin Tadlock of Theme Hybrid fame, among other things), it’s important to get the data down first. While I agree with the statement and its implications, I needed to understand how to build these things from start to finish.

In fact, getting the data right is made relatively easy by my background as an ethnographer with a strong interest in cognitive anthropology, ethnosemantics, folk taxonomies (aka “folksonomies“), ethnography of communication, and ethnoscience. In other words, “getting the data” is part of my expertise.

The more technical aspects, however, were a bit difficult. I understood most of the principles and I could trace several puzzle pieces, but there’s a fair deal I didn’t know or hadn’t done myself. Putting together bits and pieces from diverse tutorials and posts didn’t work so well because it wasn’t always clear what went where or what had to remain unchanged in the code. I struggled with many details such as the fact that Kyle Jones’s code for custom columns wasn’t working first because it was incorrectly copied, then because I was using it on a post type which was “officially” based on pages (instead of posts). Having forgotten the part about “touching” the Permalinks settings, I was unable to get a satisfying output using Jones’s explanations (the fact that he doesn’t use titles didn’t really help me, in this specific case). So it was much harder for me to figure out how to do this than it now is for me to build content directories.

I still have some technical issues to face. Some which are near essential, such as a way to create archive templates for custom post types. Other issues have to do with features I’d like my content directories to have, such as clearly defined roles (the “More Plugins” support roles, but I still need to find out how to define them in WordPress). Yet other issues are likely to come up as I start building content directories, install them in specific contexts, teach people how to use them, observe how they’re being used and, most importantly, get feedback about their use.

But I’m past a certain point in my self-learning journey. I’ve built my confidence (an important but often dismissed component of gaining expertise and experience). I found proper resources. I understood what components were minimally necessary or required. I succeeded in implementing the system and testing it. And I’ve written enough about the whole process that things are even clearer for me.

And, who knows, I may get feedback, questions, or advice..

Actively Reading: Organic Ideas for Startups

Been using Diigo as a way to annotate online texts. In this case, I was as interested in the tone as in the text itself. At the same time, I kept thinking about things which seem to be missing from Diigo.
Organic Startup Ideas
http://www.paulgraham.com/organic.html

One thing I like about this text is its tone. There’s an honesty, an ingenuity that I find rare in this type of writing.

  • startup ideas
    • The background is important, in terms of the type of ideas about which we’re constructing something.
  • what do you wish someone would make for you?
    • My own itch has to do with Diigo, actually. There’s a lot I wish Diigo would make for me. I may be perceived as an annoyance, but I think my wishlist may lead to something bigger and possibly quite successful.
    • The difference between this question and the “scratch your own itch” principle seems significant, and this distinction may have some implications in terms of success: we’re already talking about others, not just running ideas in our own head.
  • what do you wish someone would make for you?
    • It’s somewhat different from the well-known “scratch your own itch” principle. In this difference might be located something significant. In a way, part of the potential for this version to lead to success comes from the fact that it’s already connected with others, instead of being about running ideas in your own mind.
  • grow organically
    • The core topic of the piece, put in a comparative context. The comparison isn’t the one people tend to make and one may argue about the examples used. But the concept of organic ideas is fascinating and inspiring.
  • you decide, from afar,
    • What we call, in anthropology, the “armchair” approach. Also known as “backbenching.” For this to work, you need to have a deep knowledge of the situation, which is part of the point in this piece. Nice that it’s not demonizing this position but putting it in context.
  • Apple
    was the first type
    • One might argue that it was a hybrid case. Although, it does sound like the very beginnings of Apple weren’t about “thinking from afar.”
  • class of users other than you
    • Since developers are part of a very specific “class” of people, this isn’t insignificant a way to phrase this.
  • They still rely on this principle today, incidentally.
    The iPhone is the phone Steve Jobs wants.
    • Apple tends to be perceived in a different light. According to many people, it’s the “textbook example” of a company where decisions are made without concerns for what people need. “Steve Jobs uses a top-down approach,” “They don’t even use focus groups,” “They don’t let me use their tools the way I want to use them.” But we’re not talking about the same distinction between top-down and bottom-up. Though “organic ideas” seem to imply that it’s a grassroots/bottom-up phenomenon, the core distinction isn’t about the origin of the ideas (from the “top,” in both cases) but on the reasoning behind these ideas.
  • We didn’t need this software ourselves.
    • Sounds partly like a disclaimer but this approach is quite common and “there’s nothing wrong with it.”
  • comparatively old
    • Age and life experience make for an interesting angle. It’s not that this strategy needs people of a specific age to work. It’s that there’s a connection between one’s experience and the way things may pan out.
  • There is no sharp line between the two types of ideas,
    • Those in the “engineering worldview” might go nuts, at this point. I can hear the claims of “hand waving.” But we’re talking about something complex, here, not a merely complicated problem.
  • Apple type
    • One thing to note in the three examples here: they’re all made by pairs of guys. Jobs and Woz, Gates and Allen, Page and Brin. In many cases, the formula might be that one guy (or gal, one wishes) comes up with ideas knowing that the other can implement them. Again, it’s about getting somebody else to build it for you, not about scratching your own itch.
  • Bill Gates was writing something he would use
    • Again, Gates may not be the most obvious example, since he’s mostly known for another approach. It’s not inaccurate to say he was solving his own problem, at the time, but it may not be that convincing as an example.
  • Larry and Sergey when they wrote the first versions of Google.
    • Although, the inception of the original ideas was academic in context. They weren’t solving a search problem or thinking about monetization. They were discovering the power of CitationRank.
  • generally preferable
    • Nicely relativistic.
  • It takes experience
    to predict what other people will want.
    • And possibly a lot more. Interesting that he doesn’t mention empirical data.
  • young founders
    • They sound like a fascinating group to observe. They do wonders when they open up to others, but they seem to have a tendency to impose their worldviews.
  • I’d encourage you to focus initially on organic ideas
    • Now, this advice sounds more like the “scratch your own itch” advocation. But there’s a key difference in that it’s stated as part of a broader process. It’s more of a “walk before you run” or “do your homework” piece of advice, not a “you can’t come up with good ideas if you just think about how people will use your tool.”
  • missing or broken
    • It can cover a lot, but it’s couched in terms of the typical “problem-solving” approach at the centre of the engineering worldview. Since we’re talking about developing tools, it makes sense. But there could be a broader version, admitting for dreams, inspiration, aspiration. Not necessarily of the “what would make you happy?” kind, although there’s a lot to be said about happiness and imagination. You’re brainstorming, here.
  • immediate answers
    • Which might imply that there’s a second step. If you keep asking yourself the same question, you may be able to get a very large number of ideas. The second step could be to prioritize them but I prefer “outlining” as a process: you shuffle things together and you group some ideas to get one which covers several. What’s common between your need for a simpler way to code on the Altair and your values? Why do you care so much about algorithms instead of human encoding?
  • You may need to stand outside yourself a bit to see brokenness
    • Ah, yes! “Taking a step back,” “distancing yourself,” “seeing the forest for the trees”… A core dimension of the ethnographic approach and the need for a back-and-forth between “inside” and “outside.” There’s a reflexive component in this “being an outsider to yourself.” It’s not only psychological, it’s a way to get into the social, which can lead to broader success if it’s indeed not just about scratching your own itch.
  • get used to it and take it for granted
    • That’s enculturation, to you. When you do things a certain way simply because “we’ve always done them that way,” you may not create these organic ideas. But it’s a fine way to do your work. Asking yourself important questions about what’s wrong with your situation works well in terms of getting new ideas. But, sometimes, you need to get some work done.
  • a Facebook
    • Yet another recontextualized example. Zuckerberg wasn’t trying to solve that specific brokenness, as far as we know. But Facebook became part of what it is when Zuck began scratching that itch.
  • organic startup ideas usually don’t
    seem like startup ideas at first
    • Which gets us to the pivotal importance of working with others. Per this article, VCs and “angel investors,” probably. But, in the case of some of cases cited, those we tend to forget, like Paul Allen, Narendra, and the Winklevosses.
  • end up making
    something of value to a lot of people
    • Trial and error, it’s an iterative process. So you must recognize errors quickly and not invest too much effort in a specific brokenness. Part of this requires maturity.
  • something
    other people dismiss as a toy
    • The passage on which Gruber focused and an interesting tidbit. Not that central, come to think of it. But it’s important to note that people’s dismissive attitude may be misled, that “toys” may hide tools, that it’s probably a good idea not to take all feedback to heart…
  • At this point, when someone comes to us with
    something that users like but that we could envision forum trolls
    dismissing as a toy, it makes us especially likely to invest.
  • the best source of organic ones
    • Especially to investors. Potentially self-serving… in a useful way.
  • they’re at the forefront of technology
    • That part I would dispute, actually. Unless we talk about a specific subgroup of young founders and a specific set of tools. Young founders tend to be oblivious to a large field in technology, including social tools.
  • they’re in a position to discover
    valuable types of fixable brokenness first
    • The focus on fixable brokenness makes sense if we’re thinking exclusively through the engineering worldview, but it’s at the centre of some failures like the Google Buzz launch.
  • you still have to work hard
    • Of the “inspiration shouldn’t make use forget perspiration” kind. Makes for a more thoughtful approach than the frequent “all you need to do…” claims.
  • I’d encourage anyone
    starting a startup to become one of its users, however unnatural it
    seems.
    • Not merely an argument for dogfooding. It’s deeper than that. Googloids probably use Google tools but they didn’t actually become users. They’re beta testers with a strong background in troubleshooting. Not the best way to figure out what users really want or how the tool will ultimately fail.
  • It’s hard to compete directly with open source software
    • Open Source as competition isn’t new as a concept, but it takes time to seep in.
  • there has to be some part
    you can charge for
    • The breach through which old-school “business models” enter with little attention paid to everything else. To the extent that much of the whole piece might crumble from pressure built up by the “beancounter” worldview. Good thing he acknowledges it.

Why I Need an iPad

I’m one of those who feel the iPad is the right tool for the job.

This is mostly meant as a reply to this blogthread. But it’s also more generally about my personal reaction to Apple’s iPad announcement.

Some background.

I’m an ethnographer and a teacher. I read a fair deal, write a lot of notes, and work in a variety of contexts. These days, I tend to spend a good amount of time in cafés and other public places where I like to work without being too isolated. I also commute using public transit, listen to lots of podcast, and create my own. I’m also very aural.

I’ve used a number of PDAs, over the years, from a Newton MessagePad 130 (1997) to a variety of PalmOS devices (until 2008). In fact, some people readily associated me with PDA use.

As soon as I learnt about the iPod touch, I needed one. As soon as I’ve heard about the SafariPad, I wanted one. I’ve been an intense ‘touch user since the iPhone OS 2.0 release and I’m a happy camper.

(A major reason I never bought an iPhone, apart from price, is that it requires a contract.)

In my experience, the ‘touch is the most appropriate device for all sorts of activities which are either part of an other activity (reading during a commute) or are simply too short in duration to constitute an actual “computer session.” You don’t “sit down to work at your ‘touch” the way you might sit in front of a laptop or desktop screen. This works great for “looking up stufff” or “checking email.” It also makes a lot of sense during commutes in crowded buses or metros.

In those cases, the iPod touch is almost ideal. Ubiquitous access to Internet would be nice, but that’s not a deal-breaker. Alternative text-input methods would help in some cases, but I do end up being about as fast on my ‘touch as I was with Graffiti on PalmOS.

For other tasks, I have a Mac mini. Sure, it’s limited. But it does the job. In fact, I have no intention of switching for another desktop and I even have an eMachines collecting dust (it’s too noisy to make a good server).

What I miss, though, is a laptop. I used an iBook G3 for several years and loved it. For a little while later, I was able to share a MacBook with somebody else and it was a wonderful experience. I even got to play with the OLPC XO for a few weeks. That one was not so pleasant an experience but it did give me a taste for netbooks. And it made me think about other types of iPhone-like devices. Especially in educational contexts. (As I mentioned, I’m a teacher)

I’ve been laptop-less for a while, now. And though my ‘touch replaces it in many contexts, there are still times when I’d really need a laptop. And these have to do with what I might call “mobile sessions.”

For instance: liveblogging a conference or meeting. I’ve used my ‘touch for this very purpose on a good number of occasions. But it gets rather uncomfortable, after a while, and it’s not very fast. A laptop is better for this, with a keyboard and a larger form factor. But the iPad will be even better because of lower risks of RSI. A related example: just imagine TweetDeck on iPad.

Possibly my favourite example of a context in which the iPad will be ideal: presentations. Even before learning about the prospect of getting iWork on a tablet, presentations were a context in which I really missed a laptop.

Sure, in most cases, these days, there’s a computer (usually a desktop running XP) hooked to a projector. You just need to download your presentation file from Slideshare, show it from Prezi, or transfer it through USB. No biggie.

But it’s not the extra steps which change everything. It’s the uncertainty. Even if it’s often unfounded, I usually get worried that something might just not work, along the way. The slides might not show the same way as you see it because something is missing on that computer or that computer is simply using a different version of the presentation software. In fact, that software is typically Microsoft PowerPoint which, while convenient, fits much less in my workflow than does Apple Keynote.

The other big thing about presentations is the “presenter mode,” allowing you to get more content than (or different content from) what the audience sees. In most contexts where I’ve used someone else’s computer to do a presentation, the projector was mirroring the computer’s screen, not using it as a different space. PowerPoint has this convenient “presenter view” but very rarely did I see it as an available option on “the computer in the room.” I wish I could use my ‘touch to drive presentations, which I could do if I installed software on that “computer in the room.” But it’s not something that is likely to happen, in most cases.

A MacBook solves all of these problems. and it’s an obvious use for laptops. But how, then, is the iPad better? Basically because of interface. Switching slides on a laptop isn’t hard, but it’s more awkward than we realize. Even before watching the demo of Keynote on the iPad, I could simply imagine the actual pleasure of flipping through slides using a touch interface. The fit is “natural.”

I sincerely think that Keynote on the iPad will change a number of things, for me. Including the way I teach.

Then, there’s reading.

Now, I’m not one of those people who just can’t read on a computer screen. In fact, I even grade assignments directly from the screen. But I must admit that online reading hasn’t been ideal, for me. I’ve read full books as PDF files or dedicated formats on PalmOS, but it wasn’t so much fun, in terms of the reading process. And I’ve used my ‘touch to read things through Stanza or ReadItLater. But it doesn’t work so well for longer reading sessions. Even in terms of holding the ‘touch, it’s not so obvious. And, what’s funny, even a laptop isn’t that ideal, for me, as a reading device. In a sense, this is when the keyboard “gets in the way.”

Sure, I could get a Kindle. I’m not a big fan of dedicated devices and, at least on paper, I find the Kindle a bit limited for my needs. Especially in terms of sources. I’d like to be able to use documents in a variety of formats and put them in a reading list, for extended reading sessions. No, not “curled up in bed.” But maybe lying down in a sofa without external lighting. Given my experience with the ‘touch, the iPad is very likely the ideal device for this.

Then, there’s the overall “multi-touch device” thing. People have already been quite creative with the small touchscreen on iPhones and ‘touches, I can just imagine what may be done with a larger screen. Lots has been said about differences in “screen real estate” in laptop or desktop screens. We all know it can make a big difference in terms of what you can display at the same time. In some cases, two screens isn’t even a luxury, for instance when you code and display a page at the same time (LaTeX, CSS…). Certainly, the same qualitative difference applies to multitouch devices. Probably even more so, since the display is also used for input. What Han found missing in the iPhone’s multitouch was the ability to use both hands. With the iPad, Han’s vision is finding its space.

Oh, sure, the iPad is very restricted. For instance, it’s easy to imagine how much more useful it’d be if it did support multitasking with third-party apps. And a front-facing camera is something I was expecting in the first iPhone. It would just make so much sense that a friend seems very disappointed by this lack of videoconferencing potential. But we’re probably talking about predetermined expectations, here. We’re comparing the iPad with something we had in mind.

Then, there’s the issue of the competition. Tablets have been released and some multitouch tablets have recently been announced. What makes the iPad better than these? Well, we could all get in the same OS wars as have been happening with laptops and desktops. In my case, the investment in applications, files, and expertise that I have made in a Mac ecosystem rendered my XP years relatively uncomfortable and me appreciate returning to the Mac. My iPod touch fits right in that context. Oh, sure, I could use it with a Windows machine, which is in fact what I did for the first several months. But the relationship between the iPhone OS and Mac OS X is such that using devices in those two systems is much more efficient, in terms of my own workflow, than I could get while using XP and iPhone OS. There are some technical dimensions to this, such as the integration between iCal and the iPhone OS Calendar, or even the filesystem. But I’m actually thinking more about the cognitive dimensions of recognizing some of the same interface elements. “Look and feel” isn’t just about shiny and “purty.” It’s about interactions between a human brain, a complex sensorimotor apparatus, and a machine. Things go more quickly when you don’t have to think too much about where some tools are, as you’re working.

So my reasons for wanting an iPad aren’t about being dazzled by a revolutionary device. They are about the right tool for the job.

Judging Coffee and Beer: Answer to DoubleShot Coffee Company

DoubleShot Coffee Company: More Espresso Arguments.

I’m not in the coffee biz but I do involve myself in some coffee-related things, including barista championships (sensory judge at regional and national) and numerous discussions with coffee artisans. In other words, I’m nobody important.

In a way, I “come from” the worlds of beer and coffee homebrewing. In coffee circles, I like to introduce myself as a homeroaster and blogger.

(I’m mostly an ethnographer, meaning that I do what we call “participant-observation” as both an insider and an outsider.)

There seem to be several disconnects in today’s coffee world, despite a lot of communication across the Globe. Between the huge coffee corporations and the “specialty coffee” crowd. Between coffee growers and coffee lovers. Between professional and home baristas. Even, sometimes, between baristas from different parts of the world.
None of it is very surprising. But it’s sometimes a bit sad to hear people talk past one another.

I realize nothing I say may really help. And it may all be misinterpreted. That’s all part of the way things go and I accept that.

In the world of barista champions and the so-called “Third Wave,” emotions seem particularly high. Part of it might have to do with the fact that so many people interact on a rather regular basis. Makes for a very interesting craft, in some ways. But also for rather tense moments.

About judging…
My experience isn’t that extensive. I’ve judged at the Canadian Eastern Regional BC twice and at the Canadian BC once.
Still, I did notice a few things.

One is that there can be a lot of camaraderie/collegiality among BC participants. This can have a lot of beneficial effects on the quality of coffee served in different places as well as on the quality of the café experience itself, long after the championships. A certain cohesiveness which may come from friendly competition can do a lot for the diversity of coffee scenes.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that it’s really easy to be fair, in judging using WBC regulations. It’s subjective in a very literal way since there’s tasting involved (tastebuds belong to the “subjects” of the sensory and head judges). But it simply has very little if anything to do with personal opinions, relationships, or “liking the person.” It’s remarkably easy to judge the performance, with a focus on what’s in the cup, as opposed to the person her-/himself or her/his values.

Sure, the championship setting is in many ways artificial and arbitrary. A little bit like rules for an organized sport. Or so many other contexts.

A competition like this has fairly little to do with what is likely to happen in “The Real World” (i.e., in a café). I might even say that applying a WBC-compatible in a café is likely to become a problem in many cases. A bit like working the lunch shift at a busy diner using ideas from the Iron Chef or getting into a street fight and using strict judo rules.

A while ago, I was working in French restaurants, as a «garde-manger» (assistant-chef). We often talked about (and I did meet a few) people who were just coming out of culinary institutes. In most cases, they were quite good at producing a good dish in true French cuisine style. But the consensus was that “they didn’t know how to work.”
People fresh out of culinary school didn’t really know how to handle a chaotic kitchen, order only the supplies required, pay attention to people’s tastes, adapt to differences in prices, etc. They could put up a good show and their dishes might have been exquisite. But they could also be overwhelmed with having to serve 60 customers in a regular shift or, indeed, not know what to do during a slow night. Restaurant owners weren’t that fond of hiring them, right away. They had to be “broken out” («rodés»).

Barista championships remind me of culinary institutes, in this way. Both can be useful in terms of skills, but experience is more diverse than that.

So, yes, WBC rules are probably artificial and arbitrary. But it’s easy to be remarkably consistent in applying these rules. And that should count for something. Just not for everythin.

Sure, you may get some differences between one judge and the other. But those differences aren’t that difficult to understand and I didn’t see that they tended to have to do with “preferences,” personal issues, or anything of the sort. From what I noticed while judging, you simply don’t pay attention to the same things as when you savour coffee. And that’s fine. Cupping coffee isn’t the same thing as drinking it, either.

In my (admittedly very limited) judging experience, emphasis was put on providing useful feedback. The points matter a lot, of course, but the main thing is that the points make sense in view of the comments. In a way, it’s to ensure calibration (“you say ‘excellent’ but put a ‘3,’ which one is more accurate?”) but it’s also about the goals of the judging process. The textual comments are a way to help the barista pay attention to certain things. “Constructive criticism” is one way to put it. But it’s more than that. It’s a way to get something started.

Several of the competitors I’ve seen do come to ask judges for clarifications and many of them seemed open to discussion. A few mostly wanted justification and may have felt slighted. But I mostly noticed a rather thoughtful process of debriefing.

Having said that, there are competitors who are surprised by differences between two judges’ scores. “But both shots came from the same portafilter!” “Well, yes, but if you look at the video, you’ll notice that coffee didn’t flow the same way in both cups.” There are also those who simply doubt judges, no matter what. Wonder if they respect people who drink their espresso…

Coming from the beer world, I also notice differences with beer. In the beer world, there isn’t really an equivalent to the WBC in the sense that professional beer brewers don’t typically have competitions. But amateur homebrewers do. And it’s much stricter than the WBC in terms of certification. It requires a lot of rote memorization, difficult exams (I helped proctor two), judging points, etc.

I’ve been a vocal critic of the Beer Judge Certification Program. There seems to be an idea, there, that you can make the process completely neutral and that the knowledge necessary to judge beers is solid and well-established. One problem is that this certification program focuses too much on a series of (over a hundred) “styles” which are more of a context-specific interpretation of beer diversity than a straightforward classification of possible beers.
Also, the one thing they want to avoid the most (basing their evaluation on taste preferences) still creeps in. It’s probably no coincidence that, at certain events, beers which were winning “Best of Show” tended to be big, assertive beers instead of very subtle ones. Beer judges don’t want to be human, but they may still end up acting like ones.

At the same time, while there’s a good deal of debate over beer competition results and such, there doesn’t seem to be exactly the same kind of tension as in barista championships. Homebrewers take their results to heart and they may yell at each other over their scores. But, somehow, I see much less of a fracture, “there” than “here.” Perhaps because the stakes are very low (it’s a hobby, not a livelihood). Perhaps because beer is so different from coffee. Or maybe because there isn’t a sense of “Us vs. Them”: brewers judging a competition often enter beer in that same competition (but in a separate category from the ones they judge).
Actually, the main difference may be that beer judges can literally only judge what’s in the bottle. They don’t observe the brewers practicing their craft (this happens weeks prior), they simply judge the product. In a specific condition. In many ways, it’s very unfair. But it can help brewers understand where something went wrong.

Now, I’m not saying the WBC should become like the BJCP. For one thing, it just wouldn’t work. And there’s already a lot of investment in the current WBC format. And I’m really not saying the BJCP is better than the WBC as an inspiration, since I actually prefer the WBC-style championships. But I sense that there’s something going on in the coffee world which has more to do with interpersonal relationships and “attitudes” than with what’s in the cup.

All this time, those of us who don’t make a living through coffee but still live it with passion may be left out. And we do our own things. We may listen to coffee podcasts, witness personal conflicts between café owners, hear rants about the state of the “industry,” and visit a variety of cafés.
Yet, slowly but surely, we’re making our own way through coffee. Exploring its diversity, experimenting with different brewing methods, interacting with diverse people involved, even taking trips “to origin”…

Coffee is what unites us.

Homeroasting and Coffee Geekness

I’m a coffee geek. By which I mean that I have a geeky attitude to coffee. I’m passionate about the crafts and arts of coffee making, I seek coffee-related knowledge wherever I can find it, I can talk about coffee until people’s eyes glaze over (which happens more quickly than I’d guess possible), and I even dream about coffee gadgets. I’m not a typical gadget freak, as far as geek culture goes, but coffee is one area where I may invest in some gadgetry.

Perhaps my most visible acts of coffee geekery came in the form of updates I posted through diverse platforms about my home coffee brewing experiences. Did it from February to July. These posts contained cryptic details about diverse measurements, including water temperature and index of refraction. It probably contributed to people’s awareness of my coffee geek identity, which itself has been the source of fun things like a friend bringing me back coffee from Ethiopia.

But I digress, a bit. This is both about coffee geekness in general and about homeroasting in particular.

See, I bought myself this Hearthware i-Roast 2 dedicated homeroasting device. And I’m dreaming about coffee again.

Been homeroasting since December 2002, at the time I moved to Moncton, New Brunswick and was lucky enough to get in touch with Terry Montague of Down Esst Coffee.

Though I had been wishing to homeroast for a while before that and had become an intense coffee-lover fifteen years prior to contacting him, Terry is the one who enabled me to start roasting green coffee beans at home. He procured me a popcorn popper, sourced me some quality green beans, gave me some advice. And off I was.

Homeroasting is remarkably easy. And it makes a huge difference in one’s appreciation of coffee. People in the coffee industry, especially baristas and professional roasters, tend to talk about the “channel” going from the farmer to the “consumer.” In some ways, homeroasting gets the coffee-lover a few steps closer to the farmer, both by eliminating a few intermediaries in the channel and by making coffee into much less of a commodity. Once you’ve spent some time smelling the fumes emanated by different coffee varietals and looking carefully at individual beans, you can’t help but get a deeper appreciation for the farmer’s and even the picker’s work. When you roast 150g or less at a time, every coffee bean seems much more valuable. Further, as you experiment with different beans and roast profiles, you get to experience coffee in all of its splendour.

A popcorn popper may sound like a crude way to roast coffee. And it might be. Naysayers may be right in their appraisal of poppers as a coffee roasting method. You’re restricted in different ways and it seems impossible to produce exquisite coffee. But having roasted with a popper for seven years, I can say that my poppers gave me some of my most memorable coffee experiences. Including some of the most pleasant ones, like this organic Sumatra from Theta Ridge Coffee that I roasted in my campus appartment at IUSB and brewed using my beloved Brikka.

Over the years, I’ve roasted a large variety of coffee beans. I typically buy a pound each of three or four varietals and experiment with them for a while.

Mostly because I’ve been moving around quite a bit, I’ve been buying green coffee beans from a rather large variety of places. I try to buy them locally, as much as possible (those beans have travelled far enough and I’ve had enough problems with courier companies). But I did participate in a few mail orders or got beans shipped to me for some reason or another. Sourcing green coffee beans has almost been part of my routine in those different places where I’ve been living since 2002: Moncton, Montreal, Fredericton, South Bend, Northampton, Brockton, Cambridge, and Austin. Off the top of my head, I’ve sourced beans from:

  1. Down East
  2. Toi, moi & café
  3. Brûlerie Saint-Denis
  4. Brûlerie des quatre vents
  5. Terra
  6. Theta Ridge
  7. Dean’s Beans
  8. Green Beanery
  9. Cuvée
  10. Fair Bean
  11. Sweet Maria’s
  12. Evergreen Coffee
  13. Mon café vert
  14. Café-Vrac
  15. Roastmasters
  16. Santropol

And probably a few other places, including this one place in Ethiopia where my friend Erin bought some.

So, over the years, I got beans from a rather large array of places and from a wide range of regional varietals.

I rapidly started blending freshly-roasted beans. Typically, I would start a blend by roasting three batches in a row. I would taste some as “single origin” (coffee made from a single bean varietal, usually from the same farm or estate), shortly after roasting. But, typically, I would mix my batches of freshly roasted coffee to produce a main blend. I would then add fresh batches after a few days to fine-tune the blend to satisfy my needs and enhance my “palate” (my ability to pick up different flavours and aromas).

Once the quantity of green beans in a particular bag would fall below an amount I can reasonably roast as a full batch (minimum around 100g), I would put those green beans in a pre-roast blend, typically in a specially-marked ziplock bag. Roasting this blend would usually be a way for me to add some complexity to my roasted blends.

And complexity I got. Lots of diverse flavours and aromas. Different things to “write home about.”

But I was obviously limited in what I could do with my poppers. The only real controls that I had in homeroasting, apart from blending, consisted in the bean quantity and roasting time. Ambient temperature was clearly a factor, but not one over which I was able to exercise much control. Especially since I frequently ended up roasting outside, so as to not incommodate people with fumes, noise, and chaff. The few homeroast batches which didn’t work probably failed because of low ambient temperature.

One reason I stuck with poppers for so long was that I had heard that dedicated roasters weren’t that durable. I’ve probably used three or four different hot air popcorn poppers, over the years. Eventually, they just stop working, when you use them for coffee beans. As I’d buy them at garage sales and Salvation Army stores for 3-4$, replacing them didn’t feel like such a financially difficult thing to do, though finding them could occasionally be a challenge. Money was also an issue. Though homeroasting was important for me, I wasn’t ready to pay around 200$ for an entry-level dedicated roaster. I was thinking about saving money for a Behmor 1600, which offers several advantages over other roasters. But I finally gave in and bought my i-Roast as a kind of holiday gift to myself.

One broad reason is that my financial situation has improved since I started a kind of partial professional reorientation (PPR). I have a blogpost in mind about this PPR, and I’ll probably write it soon. But this post isn’t about my PPR.

Although, the series of events which led to my purchase does relate to my PPR, somehow.

See, the beans I (indirectly) got from Roastmasters came from a friend who bought a Behmor to roast cocoa beans. The green coffee beans came with the roaster but my friend didn’t want to roast coffee in his brand new Behmor, to avoid the risk of coffee oils and flavours getting into his chocolate. My friend asked me to roast some of these beans for his housemates (he’s not that intensely into coffee, himself). When I went to drop some homeroasted coffee by the Station C co-working space where he spends some of his time, my friend was discussing a project with Duncan Moore, whom I had met a few times but with whom I had had few interactions. The three of us had what we considered a very fruitful yet very short conversation. Later on, I got to do a small but fun project with Duncan. And I decided to invest that money into coffee.

A homeroaster seemed like the most appropriate investment. The Behmor was still out of reach but the i-Roast seemed like a reasonable purchase. Especially if I could buy it used.

But I was also thinking about buying it new, as long as I could get it quickly. It took me several years to make a decision about this purchase but, once I made it, I wanted something as close to “instant gratification” as possible. In some ways, the i-Roast was my equivalent to Little Mrs Sommers‘s “pair of silk stockings.”

At the time, Mon café vert seemed like the only place where I could buy a new i-Roast. I tried several times to reach them to no avail. As I was in the Mile-End as I decided to make that purchase, I went to Caffè in Gamba, both to use the WiFi signal and to check if, by any chance, they might not have started selling roasters. They didn’t, of course, homeroasters isn’t mainstream enough. But, as I was there, I saw the Hario Ceramic Coffee Mill Skerton, a “hand-cranked” coffee grinder about which I had read some rather positive reviews.

For the past few years, I had been using a Bodum Antigua conical burr electric coffee grinder. This grinder was doing the job, but maybe because of “wear and tear,” it started taking a lot longer to grind a small amount of coffee. The grind took so long, at some points, that the grounds were warm to the touch and it seemed like the grinder’s motor was itself heating.

So I started dreaming about the Baratza Vario, a kind of prosumer electric grinder which seemed like the ideal machine for someone who uses diverse coffee making methods. The Vario is rather expensive and seemed like overkill, for my current coffee setup. But I was lusting over it and, yes, dreaming about it.

One day, maybe, I’ll be able to afford a Vario.

In the meantime, and more reasonably, I had been thinking about “Turkish-style mills.” A friend lent me a box-type manual mill at some point and I did find it produced a nice grind, but it wasn’t that convenient for me, partly because the coffee drops into a small drawer which rapidly gets full. A handmill seemed somehow more convenient and there are some generic models which are sold in different parts of the World, especially in the Arab World. So I got the impression that I might be able to find handmills locally and started looking for them all over the place, enquiring at diverse stores and asking friends who have used those mills in the past. Of course, they can be purchased online. But they end up being relatively expensive and my manual experience wasn’t so positive as to convince me to spend so much money on one.

The Skerton was another story. It was much more convenient than a box-type manual mill. And, at Gamba, it was inexpensive enough for me to purchase it on the spot. I don’t tend to do this very often so I did feel strange about such an impulse purchase. But I certainly don’t regret it.

Especially since it complements my other purchases.

So, going to the i-Roast.

Over the years, I had been looking for the i-Roast and Behmor at most of the obvious sites where one might buy used devices like these. eBay, Craig’s List, Kijiji… As a matter of fact, I had seen an i-Roast on one of these, but I was still hesitating. Not exactly sure why, but it probably had to do with the fact that these homeroasters aren’t necessarily that durable and I couldn’t see how old this particular i-Roast was.

I eventually called to find out, after taking my decision to get an i-Roast. Turns out that it’s still under warranty, is in great condition, and was being sold by a very interesting (and clearly trustworthy) alto singer who happens to sing with a friend of mine who is also a local beer homebrewer. The same day I bought the roaster, I went to the cocoa-roasting friend’s place and saw a Behmor for the first time. And I tasted some really nice homemade chocolate. And met other interesting people including a couple that I saw, again, while taking the bus after purchasing the roaster.

The series of coincidences in that whole situation impressed me in a sense of awe. Not out of some strange superstition or other folk belief. But different things are all neatly packaged in a way that most of my life isn’t. Nothing weird about this. The packaging is easy to explain and mostly comes from my own perception. The effect is still there that it all fits.

And the i-Roast 2 itself fits, too.

It’s clearly not the ultimate coffee geek’s ideal roaster. But I get the impression it could become so. In fact, one reason I hesitated to buy the i-Roast 2 is that I was wondering if Hearthware might be coming out with the i-Roast 3, in the not-so-distant future.

I’m guessing that Hearthware might be getting ready to release a new roaster. I’m using unreliable information, but it’s still an educated guess. So, apparently…

I could just imagine what the i-Roast 3 might be. As I’m likely to get, I have a number of crazy ideas.

One “killer feature” actually relates both to the differences between the i-Roast and i-Roast 2 as well as to the geek factor behind homeroasting: roast profiles as computer files. Yes, I know, it sounds crazy. And, somehow, it’s quite unlikely that Hearthware would add such a feature on an entry-level machine. But I seriously think it’d make the roaster much closer to a roasting geek’s ultimate machine.

For one thing, programming a roast profile on the i-Roast is notoriously awkward. Sure, you get used to it. But it’s clearly suboptimal. And one major improvement of the i-Roast 2 over the original i-Roast is that the original version didn’t maintain profiles if you unplugged it. The next step, in my mind, would be to have some way to transfer a profile from a computer to the roaster, say via a slot for SD cards or even a USB port.

What this would open isn’t only the convenience of saving profiles, but actually a way to share them with fellow homeroasters. Since a lot in geek culture has to do with sharing information, a neat effect could come out of shareable roast profiles. In fact, when I looked for example roast profiles, I found forum threads, guides, and incredibly elaborate experiments. Eventually, it might be possible to exchange roasting profiles relating to coffee beans from the same shipment and compare roasting. Given the well-known effects of getting a group of people using online tools to share information, this could greatly improve the state of homeroasting and even make it break out of the very small niche in which it currently sits.

Of course, there are many problems with that approach, including things as trivial as voltage differences as well as bigger issues such as noise levels:

But I’m still dreaming about such things.

In fact, I go a few steps further. A roaster which could somehow connect to a computer might also be used to track data about temperature and voltage. In my own experiments with the i-Roast 2, I’ve been logging temperatures at 15 second intervals along with information about roast profile, quantity of beans, etc. It may sound extreme but it already helped me achieve a result I wanted to achieve. And it’d be precisely the kind of information I would like to share with other homeroasters, eventually building a community of practice.

Nothing but geekness, of course. Shall the geek inherit the Earth?

Development and Quality: Reply to Agile Diary

Former WiZiQ product manager Vikrama Dhiman responded to one of my tweets with a full-blown blogpost, thereby giving support to Matt Mullenweg‘s point that microblogging goes hand-in-hand with “macroblogging.”

My tweet:

enjoys draft æsthetics yet wishes more developers would release stable products. / adopte certains produits trop rapidement.

Vikrama’s post:

Good Enough Software Does Not Mean Bad Software « Agile Diary, Agile Introduction, Agile Implementation.

My reply:

“To an engineer, good enough means perfect. With an artist, there’s no such thing as perfect.” (Alexander Calder)

Thanks a lot for your kind comments. I’m very happy that my tweet (and status update) triggered this.

A bit of context for my tweet (actually, a post from Ping.fm, meant as a status update, thereby giving support in favour of conscious duplication, «n’en déplaise aux partisans de l’action contre la duplication».)

I’ve been thinking about what I call the “draft æsthetics.” In fact, I did a podcast episode about it. My description of that episode was:

Sometimes, there is such a thing as “Good Enough.”

Though I didn’t emphasize the “sometimes” part in that podcast episode, it was an important part of what I wanted to say. In fact, my intention wasn’t to defend draft æsthetics but to note that there seems to be a tendency toward this æsthetic mode. I do situate myself within that mode in many things I do, but it really doesn’t mean that this mode should be the exclusive one used in any context.

That aforequoted tweet was thus a response to my podcast episode on draft æsthetics. “Yes, ‘good enough’ may work, sometimes. But it needs not be applied in all cases.”

As I often get into convoluted discussions with people who seem to think that I condone or defend a position because I take it for myself, the main thing I’d say there is that I’m not only a relativist but I cherish nuance. In other words, my tweet was a way to qualify the core statement I was talking about in my podcast episode (that “good enough” exists, at times). And that statement isn’t necessarily my own. I notice a pattern by which this statement seems to be held as accurate by people. I share that opinion, but it’s not a strongly held belief of mine.

Of course, I digress…

So, the tweet which motivated Vikrama had to do with my approach to “good enough.” In this case, I tend to think about writing but in view of Eric S. Raymond’s approach to “Release Early, Release Often” (RERO). So there is a connection to software development and geek culture. But I think of “good enough” in a broader sense.

Disclaimer: I am not a coder.

The Calder quote remained in my head, after it was mentioned by a colleague who had read it in a local newspaper. One reason it struck me is that I spend some time thinking about artists and engineers, especially in social terms. I spend some time hanging out with engineers but I tend to be more on the “artist” side of what I perceive to be an axis of attitudes found in some social contexts. I do get a fair deal of flack for some of my comments on this characterization and it should be clear that it isn’t meant to imply any evaluation of individuals. But, as a model, the artist and engineer distinction seems to work, for me. In a way, it seems more useful than the distinction between science and art.

An engineer friend with whom I discussed this kind of distinction was quick to point out that, to him, there’s no such thing as “good enough.” He was also quick to point out that engineers can be creative and so on. But the point isn’t to exclude engineers from artistic endeavours. It’s to describe differences in modes of thought, ways of knowing, approaches to reality. And the way these are perceived socially. We could do a simple exercise with terms like “troubleshooting” and “emotional” to be assigned to the two broad categories of “engineer” and “artist.” Chances are that clear patterns would emerge. Of course, many concepts are as important to both sides (“intelligence,” “innovation”…) and they may also be telling. But dichotomies have heuristic value.

Now, to go back to software development, the focus in Vikrama’s Agile Diary post…

What pushed me to post my status update and tweet is in fact related to software development. Contrary to what Vikrama presumes, it wasn’t about a Web application. And it wasn’t even about a single thing. But it did have to do with firmware development and with software documentation.

The first case is that of my Fonera 2.0n router. Bought it in early November and I wasn’t able to connect to its private signal using my iPod touch. I could connect to the router using the public signal, but that required frequent authentication, as annoying as with ISF. Since my iPod touch is my main WiFi device, this issue made my Fonera 2.0n experience rather frustrating.

Of course, I’ve been contacting Fon‘s tech support. As is often the case, that experience was itself quite frustrating. I was told to reset my touch’s network settings which forced me to reauthenticate my touch on a number of networks I access regularly and only solved the problem temporarily. The same tech support person (or, at least, somebody using the same name) had me repeat the same description several times in the same email message. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was also told to use third-party software which had nothing to do with my issue. All in all, your typical tech support experience.

But my tweet wasn’t really about tech support. It was about the product. Thougb I find the overall concept behind the Fonera 2.0n router very interesting, its implementation seems to me to be lacking. In fact, it reminds me of several FLOSS development projects that I’ve been observing and, to an extent, benefitting from.

This is rapidly transforming into a rant I’ve had in my “to blog” list for a while about “thinking outside the geek box.” I’ll try to resist the temptation, for now. But I can mention a blog thread which has been on my mind, in terms of this issue.

Firefox 3 is Still a Memory Hog — The NeoSmart Files.

The blogpost refers to a situation in which, according to at least some users (including the blogpost’s author), Firefox uses up more memory than it should and becomes difficult to use. The thread has several comments providing support to statements about the relatively poor performance of Firefox on people’s systems, but it also has “contributions” from an obvious troll, who keeps assigning the problem on the users’ side.

The thing about this is that it’s representative of a tricky issue in the geek world, whereby developers and users are perceived as belonging to two sides of a type of “class struggle.” Within the geek niche, users are often dismissed as “lusers.” Tech support humour includes condescending jokes about “code 6”: “the problem is 6″ from the screen.” The aforementioned Eric S. Raymond wrote a rather popular guide to asking questions in geek circles which seems surprisingly unaware of social and cultural issues, especially from someone with an anthropological background. Following that guide, one should switch their mind to that of a very effective problem-solver (i.e., the engineer frame) to ask questions “the smart way.” Not only is the onus on users, but any failure to comply with these rules may be met with this air of intellectual superiority encoded in that guide. IOW, “Troubleshoot now, ask questions later.”

Of course, many users are “guilty” of all sorts of “crimes” having to do with not reading the documentation which comes with the product or with simply not thinking about the issue with sufficient depth before contacting tech support. And as the majority of the population is on the “user” side, the situation can be described as both a form of marginalization (geek culture comes from “nerd” labels) and a matter of elitism (geek culture as self-absorbed).

This does have something to do with my Fonera 2.0n. With it, I was caught in this dynamic whereby I had to switch to the “engineer frame” in order to solve my problem. I eventually did solve my Fonera authentication problem, using a workaround mentioned in a forum post about another issue (free registration required). Turns out, the “release candidate” version of my Fonera’s firmware does solve the issue. Of course, this new firmware may cause other forms of instability and installing it required a bit of digging. But it eventually worked.

The point is that, as released, the Fonera 2.0n router is a geek toy. It’s unpolished in many ways. It’s full of promise in terms of what it may make possible, but it failed to deliver in terms of what a router should do (route a signal). In this case, I don’t consider it to be a finished product. It’s not necessarily “unstable” in the strict sense that a software engineer might use the term. In fact, I hesitated between different terms to use instead of “stable,” in that tweet, and I’m not that happy with my final choice. The Fonera 2.0n isn’t unstable. But it’s akin to an alpha version released as a finished product. That’s something we see a lot of, these days.

The main other case which prompted me to send that tweet is “CivRev for iPhone,” a game that I’ve been playing on my iPod touch.

I’ve played with different games in the Civ franchise and I even used the FLOSS version on occasion. Not only is “Civilization” a geek classic, but it does connect with some anthropological issues (usually in a problematic view: Civ’s worldview lacks anthro’s insight). And it’s the kind of game that I can easily play while listening to podcasts (I subscribe to a number of th0se).

What’s wrong with that game? Actually, not much. I can’t even say that it’s unstable, unlike some other items in the App Store. But there’s a few things which aren’t optimal in terms of documentation. Not that it’s difficult to figure out how the game works. But the game is complex enough that some documentation is quite useful. Especially since it does change between one version of the game and another. Unfortunately, the online manual isn’t particularly helpful. Oh, sure, it probably contains all the information required. But it’s not available offline, isn’t optimized for the device it’s supposed to be used with, doesn’t contain proper links between sections, isn’t directly searchable, and isn’t particularly well-written. Not to mention that it seems to only be available in English even though the game itself is available in multiple languages (I play it in French).

Nothing tragic, of course. But coupled with my Fonera experience, it contributed to both a slight sense of frustration and this whole reflection about unfinished products.

Sure, it’s not much. But it’s “good enough” to get me started.

What's So "Social" About "Social Media?" (Podcamp Montreal Topic)

It’s all good and well to label things “social media” but those of us who are social scientists need to speak up about some of the insight we can share.
If social scientists and social media peeps make no effort at talking with one another, social media will suffer and social scientists will be shut out of something important.
Actually, social media might provide one of the most useful vantage points to look at diverse social issues, these days. And participants social media could really benefit from some basic social analysis.
Let’s talk about this.

Will be participating in this year’s Podcamp Montreal. Last year’s event had a rather big impact on me. (It’s at #pcmtl08 that I “came out of the closet” as a geek!) At that time, I presented on “Social Acamedia” (Slides, Audio). Been meaning to do a slidecast but never got a round tuit.

My purpose, this year, is in a way to follow up on this blogpost of mine (from the same period) about “The Need for Social Science in Social Web/Marketing/Media.”

As it’s a BarCamp-style unconference, I’ll do this in a very casual way. I might actually not use slides or anything like that. And I guess I could use my time for a discussion, more than anything else. I’ll be missing much of the event because I’m teaching on Saturday. So my session comes in a very different context from last year’s, when I was able to participate in all sorts of things surrounding #pcmtl.

Yup. Come to think of it, a conversation makes more sense, as I’ll be getting condensed insight from what happens before. I still might start with a 15 minute spiel, but I really should spend as much time as possible just discussing these issues with people. Isabelle Lopez did a workshop-style session last year and that was quite useful.

The context for this year’s session is quite specific. I’ve been reorienting myself as an “informal ethnographer.” I eventually started my own podcast on ethnography, I’ve been doing presentations and workshops both on social media and on social analysis of online stuff, I was even able to participate in the creation of material for a graduate course about the “Social Web”…

Should be fun.

War of the Bugs: Playing with Life in the Brewery

Kept brewing and thinking about brewing, after that last post. Been meaning to discuss my approach to “brewing bugs”: the yeast and bacteria strains which are involved in some of my beers. So, it’s a kind of follow-up.

Perhaps more than a reason for me to brew, getting to have fun with these living organisms is something of an achievement. It took a while before it started paying off, but it now does.

Now, I’m no biochemist. In fact, I’m fairly far to “wet sciences” in general. What I do with these organisms is based on a very limited understanding of what goes on during fermentation. But as long as I’m having fun, that should be ok.

This blogpost is about yeast in brewing. My focus is on homebrewing but many things also apply to craft brewing or even to macrobreweries.

There’s supposed to be a saying that “brewers make wort, yeast makes beer.” Whether or not it’s an actual saying, it’s quite accurate.

“Wort” is unfermented beer. It’s a liquid containing fermentable sugars and all sorts of other compounds which will make their way into the final beer after the yeast has had its fun in it. It’s a sweet liquid which tastes pretty much like Malta (e.g. Vitamalt).

Yeast is a single-cell organism which can do a number of neat things including the fine act of converting simple sugars into alcohol and CO2. Yeast cells also do a number of other neat (and not so neat) things with the wort, including the creation of a large array of flavour compounds which can radically change the character of the beer. Among the four main ingredients in beer (water, grain, hops, and yeast), I’d say that yeast often makes the largest contribution to the finished beer’s flavour and aroma profile.

The importance of yeast in brewing has been acknowledged to different degrees in history. The well-known Reinheitsgebot “purity law” of 1516, which specifies permissible ingredients in beer, made no mention of yeast. As the story goes, it took Pasteur (and probably others) to discover the role of yeast in brewing. After this “discovery,” Pasteur and others have been active at isolating diverse yeast strains to be used in brewing. Before that time, it seems that yeast was just occurring naturally in the brewing process.

As may be apparent in my tone, I’m somewhat skeptical of the “discovery” narrative. Yeast may not have been understood very clearly before Pasteur came on the scene, but there’s some evidence showing that yeast’s contribution to brewing had been known in different places at previous points in history. It also seems likely that multiple people had the same basic insight as LP did but may not have had the evidence to support this insight. This narrative is part of the (home)brewing “shared knowledge.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There’s a lot to be said about yeast biochemistry. In fact, the most casual of brewers who spends any significant amount of time with online brewing resources has some understanding, albeit fragmentary, of diverse dimensions of biochemistry through the action of yeast. But this blogpost isn’t about yeast biochemistry.

I’m no expert and biochemistry is a field for experts. What tends to interest me more than the hard science on yeast is the kind of “folk science” brewers create around yeast. Even the most scientific of brewers occasionally talks about yeast in a way which sounds more like folk beliefs than like hard science. In ethnographic disciplines, there’s a field of “ethnoscience” which deals with this kind of “folk knowledge.” My characterization of “folk yeast science” will probably sound overly simplistic and I’m not saying that it accurately represents a common approach to yeast among brewers. It’s more in line with the tone of Horace Miner’s classic text about the Nacirema than with anything else. A caricature, maybe, but one which can provide some insight.

In this case, because it’s a post on my personal blog, it probably provides more insight about yours truly than about anybody else. So be it.

I’m probably more naïve than most. Or, at least, I try to maintain a sense of wonder, as I play with yeast. I’ve done just enough reading about biochemistry to be dangerous. Again, “the brewery is an adult’s chemistry set.”

A broad distinction in the brewer’s approach to yeast is between “pure” and “wild” yeast. Pure yeast usually comes to the brewer from a manufacturer but it originated in a well-known brewery. Wild yeast comes from the environment and should be avoided at all costs. Wild yeast infects and spoils the wort. Pure yeast is a brewer’s best friend as it’s the one which transforms sweet wort into tasty, alcoholic beer. Brewers do everything to “keep the yeast happy.” Though yeast happiness sounds like exaggeration on my part, this kind of anthropomorphic concept is clearly visible in discussions among brewers. (Certainly, “yeast health” is a common concept. It’s not anthropomorphic by itself, but it takes part in the brewer’s approach to yeast as life.) Wild yeast is the reason brewers use sanitizing agents. Pure yeast is carefully handled, preserved, “cultured.” In this context, “wild yeast” is unwanted yeast. “Pure yeast” is the desirable portion of microflora.

It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that many brewers are obsessed with the careful handling of pure yeast and the complete avoidance of wild yeast. The homebrewer’s motto, following Charlie Papazian, may be “Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Homebrew,” when brewers do worry, they often worry about keeping their yeast as pure as possible or keeping their wort as devoid of wild yeast as possible.

In the context of brewers’ folk taxonomy, wild yeast is functionally a “pest,” its impact is largely seen as negative. Pure yeast is beneficial. Terms like “bugs” or “beasties” are applied to both but, with wild yeast, their connotations and associations are negative (“nasty bugs”) while the terms are applied to pure yeast in a more playful, almost endeared tone. “Yeasties” is almost a pet name for pure yeast.

I’ve mentioned “folk taxonomy.” Here, I’m mostly thinking about cognitive anthropology. Taxonomies have been the hallmark of cognitive anthropology, as they reveal a lot about the ways people conceive of diverse parts of reality and are relatively easy to study. Eliciting categories in a folk taxonomy is a relatively simple exercise which can even lead to other interesting things in terms of ethnographic research (including, for instance, establishing rapport with local experts or providing a useful basis to understanding subtleties in the local language). I use terms like “folk” and “local” in a rather vague way. The distinction is often with “Western” or even “scientific.” Given the fact that brewing in North America has some strong underpinnings in science, it’s quite fun to think about North American homebrewers through a model which involves an opposition to “Western/scientific.” Brewers, including a large proportion of homebrewers, tend to be almost stereotypically Western and to work through (and sometimes labour under) an almost-reductionist scientific mindframe. In other words, my talking about “folk taxonomy” is almost a way to tease brewers. But it also relates to my academic interest in cultural diversity, language, worldviews, and humanism.

“Folk taxonomies” can be somewhat fluid but the concept applies mostly to classification systems which are tree-like, with “branches” coming of broader categories. The term “folksonomy” has some currency, these days, to refer to a classification structure which has some relation to folk taxonomy but which doesn’t tend to work through a very clear arborescence. In many contexts, “folksonomy” simply means “tagging,” with the notion that it’s a free-form classification, not amenable to treatment in the usual “hierarchical database” format. Examples of folksonomies often have to do with the way people classify books or other sources of information. A folksonomy is then the opposite of the classification system used in libraries or in Web directories such as the original Yahoo! site. Tags assigned to this blogpost (“Tagged: Belgian artist…”) are part of my own folksonomy for blogposts. Categories on WordPress blogs such as this ones are supposed to create more of a (folk) taxonomy. For several reasons (including the fact that tags weren’t originally available to me for this blog), I tend to use categories as more of a folksonomy, but with a bit more structure. Categories are more stable than tags. For a while, now, I’ve refrained from adding new categories (to my already overly-long list). But I do add lots of new tags.

Anyhoo…

Going back to brewers’ folk taxonomy of yeast strains…

Technically, if I’m not mistaken, the term “pure” should probably refer to the yeast culture, not to the yeast itself. But the overall concept does seem to apply to types of yeast, even if other terms are used. The terms “wild” and “pure” aren’t inappropriate. “Wild” yeast is undomesticated. “Pure” yeast strains were those strains which were selected from wild yeast strains and were isolated in laboratories.

Typically, pure yeast strains come from one of two species of the genus Saccharomyces. One species includes the “top-fermenting” yeast strains used in ales while the other species includes the “bottom-fermenting” yeast strains used in lagers. The distinction between ale and lager is relatively recent, in terms of brewing history, but it’s one which is well-known among brewers. The “ale” species is called cerevisiae (with all sorts of common misspellings) and the “lager” species has been called different names through history, to the extent that the most appropriate name (pastorianus) seems to be the object of specialized, not of common knowledge.

“Wild yeast” can be any yeast strain. In fact, the two species of pure yeast used in brewing exist as wild yeast and brewers’ “folk classification” of microorganisms often lumps bacteria in the “wild yeast” category. The distinction between bacteria and yeast appears relatively unimportant in relation to brewing.

As can be expected from my emphasis on “typically,” above, not all pure yeast strains belong to the “ale” and “lager” species. And as is often the case in research, the exceptions are where things get interesting.

One category of yeast which is indeed pure but which doesn’t belong to one of the two species is wine yeast. While brewers do occasionally use strains of wild yeast when making other beverages besides beer, wine yeast strains mostly don’t appear on the beer brewer’s radar as being important or interesting. Unlike wild yeast, it shouldn’t be avoided at all costs. Unlike pure yeast, it shouldn’t be cherished. In this sense, it could almost serve as «degré zéro» or “null” in the brewer’s yeast taxonomy.

Then, there are yeast strains which are usually considered in a negative way but which are treated as pure strains. I’m mostly thinking about two of the main species in the Brettanomyces genus, commonly referred to as “Brett.” These are winemakers’ pests, especially in the case of oak aging. Oak casks are expensive and they can be ruined by Brett infections. In beer, while Brett strains are usually classified as wild yeast, some breweries have been using Brett in fermentation to effects which are considered by some people to be rather positive while others find these flavours and aromas quite displeasing. It’s part of the brewing discourse to use “barnyard” and “horse blanket” as descriptors for some of the aroma and flavour characteristics given by Brett.

Brewers who consciously involve Brett in the fermentation process are rather uncommon. There are a few breweries in Belgium which make use of Brett, mostly in lambic beers which are fermented “spontaneously” (without the use of controlled innoculation). And there’s a (slightly) growing trend among North American home- and craft brewers toward using Brett and other bugs in brewing.

Because of these North American brewers, Brett strains are now available commercially, as “pure” strains.

Which makes for something quite interesting. Brett is now part of the “pure yeast” category, at least for some brewers. They then use Brett as they would other pure strains, taking precautions to make sure it’s not contaminated. At the same time, Brett is often used in conjunction with other yeast strains and, contrary to the large majority of beer fermentation methods, what brewers use is a complex yeast culture which includes both Saccharomyces and Brett. It may not seem that significant but it brings fermentation out of the strict “mono-yeast” model. Talking about “miscegenation” in social terms would be abusive. But it’s interesting to notice which brewers use Brett in this way. In some sense, it’s an attitude which has dimensions from both the “Belgian Artist” and “German Engineer” poles in my brewing attitude continuum.

Other brewers use Brett in a more carefree way. Since Brett-brewing is based on a complex culture, one can go all the way and mix other bugs. Because Brett has been mostly associated with lambic brewing, since the onset of “pure yeast” brewing, the complex cultures used in lambic breweries serve as the main model. In those breweries, little control can be applied to the balance between yeast strains and the concept of “pure yeast” seems quite foreign. I’ve never visited a lambic brewery (worse yet, I’ve yet to set foot in Belgium), but I get to hear and read a lot about lambic brewing. My perception might be inaccurate, but it also reflects “common knowledge” among North American brewers.

As you might guess, by now, I take part in the trend to brew carefreely. Even carelessly. Which makes me more of a MadMan than the majority of brewers.

Among both winemakers and beer brewers, Brett has the reputation to be “resilient.” Once Brett takes hold of your winery or brewery, it’s hard to get rid of it. Common knowledge about Brett includes different things about its behaviour in the fermentation process (it eats some sugars that Saccharomyces doesn’t, it takes a while to do its work…). But Brett also has a kind of “character,” in an almost-psychological sense.

Which reminds me of a comment by a pro brewer about a well-known strain of lager yeast being “wimpy,” especially in comparison with some well-known British ale yeast strains such as Ringwood. To do their work properly, lager strains tend to require more care than ale strains, for several reasons. Ringwood and some other strains are fast fermenters and tend to “take over,” leaving little room for other bugs.

Come to think of it, I should try brewing with a blend of Ringwood and Brett. It’d be interesting to see “who wins.”

Which brings me to “war.”

Now, I’m as much of a pacifist as one can be. Not only do I not tend to be bellicose and do I cherish peace, I frequently try to avoid conflict and I even believe that there’s a peaceful resolution to most situations.

Yet, one thing I enjoy about brewing is to play with conflicting yeast strains. Pitting one strain against another is my way to “wage wars.” And it’s not very violent.

I also tend to enjoy some games which involve a bit of conflict, including Diplomacy and Civilization. But I tend to play these games as peacefully as possible. Even Spymaster, which rapidly became focused on aggressions, I’ve been playing as a peace-loving, happy-go-lucky character.

But, in the brewery, I kinda like the fact that yeast cells from different strains are “fighting” one another. I don’t picture yeast cells like warriors (with tiny helmets), but I do have fun imagining the “Battle of the Yeast.”

Of course, this has more to do with competition than with conflict. But both are related, in my mind. I’m also not that much into competition and I don’t like to pit people against one another, even in friendly competition. But this is darwinian competition. True “survival of the fittest,” with everything which is implied in terms of being contextually appropriate.

So I’m playing with life, in my brewery. I’m not acting as a Creator over the yeast population, but there’s something about letting yeast cells “having at it” while exercising some level of control that could be compared to some spiritual figures.

Thinking about this also makes me think about the Life game. There are some similarities between what goes on in my wort and what Conway’s game implies. But there are also several differences, including the type of control which can be applied in either case and the fact that the interaction between yeast cells is difficult to visualize. Not to mention that yeast cells are actual, living organisms while the cellular automaton is pure simulation.

The fun I have playing with yeast cells is part of the reason I like to use Brett in my beers. The main reason, though, is that I like the taste of Brett in beer. In fact, I even like it in wine, by transfer from my taste for Brett in beer.

And then, there’s carefree brewing.

As I described above, brewers are very careful to avoid wild yeast and other unwanted bugs in their beers. Sanitizing agents are an important part of the brewer’s arsenal. Which goes well with the “German engineer” dimension of brewing. There’s an extreme position in brewing, even in homebrewing. The “full-sanitization brewery.” Apart from pure yeast, nothing should live in the wort. Actually, nothing else should live in the brewery. If it weren’t for the need to use yeast in the fermentation process, brewing could be done in a completely sterile environment. The reference for this type of brewery is the “wet science” lab. As much as possible, wort shouldn’t come in contact with air (oxidization is another reason behind this; the obsession with bugs and the distaste for oxidization often go together). It’s all about control.

There’s an obvious reason behind this. Wort is exactly the kind of thing wild yeast and other bugs really like. Apparently, slants used to culture microorganisms in labs may contain a malt-based gelatin which is fairly similar to wort. I don’t think it contains hops, but hops are an agent of preservation and could have a positive effect in such a slant.

I keep talking about “wild yeast and other bugs” and I mentioned that, in the brewer’s folk taxonomy, bacteria are equivalent to wild yeast. The distinction between yeast and bacteria matters much less in the brewery than in relation to life sciences. In the conceptual system behind brewing, bacteria is functionally equivalent to wild yeast.

Fear of bacteria and microbes is widespread, in North America. Obviously, there are many excellent medical reasons to fear a number of microorganisms. Bacteria can in fact be deadly, in the right context. Not that the mere presence of bacteria is directly linked with human death. But there’s a clear association, in a number of North American minds, between bacteria and disease.

As a North American, despite my European background, I tended to perceive bacteria in a very negative way. Even today, I react “viscerally” at the mention of bacteria. Though I know that bacteria may in fact be beneficial to human health and that the human body contains a large number of bacterial cells, I have this kind of ingrained fear of bacteria. I love cheese and yogurt, including those which are made with very complex bacterial culture. But even the mere mention of bacteria in this context requires that I think about the distinction between beneficial and dangerous bacteria. In other words, I can admit that I have an irrational fear of bacteria. I can go beyond it, but my conception of microflora is skewed.

For two years in Indiana, I was living with a doctoral student in biochemistry. Though we haven’t spent that much time talking about microorganisms, I was probably influenced by his attitude toward sanitization. What’s funny, though, is that our house wasn’t among the cleanest in which I’ve lived. In terms of “sanitary conditions,” I’ve had much better and a bit worse. (I’ve lived in a house where we received an eviction notice from the county based on safety hazards in that place. Lots of problems with flooding, mould, etc.)

Like most other North American brewers, I used to obsess about sanitization, at every step in the process. I was doing an average job at sanitization and didn’t seem to get any obvious infection. I did get “gushers” (beers which gush out of the bottle when I open it) and a few “bottle bombs” (beer bottles which actually explode). But there were other explanations behind those occurrences than contamination.

The practise of sanitizing everything in the brewery had some significance in other parts of my life. For instance, I tend to think about dishes and dishwashing in a way which has more to do with caution over potential contamination than with dishes appearing clean and/or shiny. I also think about what should be put in the refrigerator and what can be left out, based on my limited understanding of biochemistry. And I think about food safety in a specific way.

In the brewery, however, I moved more and more toward another approach to microflora. Again, a more carefree approach to brewing. And I’m getting results that I enjoy while having a lot of fun. This approach is also based on my pseudo-biochemistry.

One thing is that, in brewing, we usually boil the wort for an hour or more before inoculation with pure yeast. As boiling kills most bugs, there’s something to be said about sanitization being mostly need for equipment which touches the wort after the boil. Part of the equipment is sanitized during the boiling process and what bugs other pieces of equipment may transfer to the wort before boiling are unlikely to have negative effects on the finished beer. With this idea in mind, I became increasingly careless with some pieces of my brewing equipment. Starting with the immersion chiller and kettle, going all the way to the mashtun.

Then, there’s the fact that I use wild yeast in some fermentations. In both brewing and baking, actually. Though my results with completely “wild” fermentations have been mixed to unsatisfactory, some of my results with “partially-wild” fermentations have been quite good.

Common knowledge among brewers is that “no known pathogen can survive in beer.” From a food safety standpoint, beer is “safe” for four main reasons: boiling, alcohol, low pH, and hops. At least, that’s what is shared among brewers, with narratives about diverse historical figures who saved whole populations through beer, making water sanitary. Depending on people’s attitudes toward alcohol, these stories about beer may have different connotations. But it does seem historically accurate to say that beer played an important part in making water drinkable.

So, even wild fermentation is considered safe. People may still get anxious but, apart from off-flavours, the notion is that contaminated beer can do no more harm than other beers.

The most harmful products of fermentation about which brewers may talk are fusel alcohols. These, brewers say, may cause headaches if you get too much of them. Fusels can cause some unwanted consequences, but they’re not living organisms and won’t spread as a disease. In brewer common knowledge, “fusels” mostly have to do with beers with high degrees of alcohol which have been fermented at a high temperature. My personal sense is that fusels aren’t more likely to occur in wild fermentation than with pure fermentation, especially given the fact that most wild fermentation happens with beer with a low degree of alcohol.

Most of the “risks” associated with wild fermentation have to do with flavours and aromas which may be displeasing. Many of these have to do with souring, as some bugs transform different compounds (alcohol especially, if I’m not mistaken) into different types of acids. While Brett and other strains of wild yeast can cause some souring, the acids in questions mostly have to do with bacteria. For instance, lactobacillus creates lactic acid, acetobacter creates acetic acid, etc.

Not only do I like that flavour and aroma characteristics associated with some wild yeast strains (Brett, especially), I also like sour beers. It may sound strange given the fact that I suffer from GERD. But I don’t overindulge in sour beers. I rarely drink large quantities of beer and sour beers would be the last thing I’d drink large quantities of. Besides, there’s a lot to be said about balance in pH. I may be off but I get the impression that there are times in which sour things are either beneficial to me or at least harmless. Part of brewer common knowledge in fact has a whole thing about alkalinity and pH. I’m not exactly clear on how it affects my body based on ingestion of diverse substances, but I’m probably affected by my background as a homebrewer.

Despite my taste for sour beers, I don’t necessarily have the same reaction to all souring agents. For instance, I have a fairly clear threshold in terms of acetic acid in beer. I enjoy it when a sour beer has some acetic character. But I prefer to limit the “aceticness” of my beers. Two batches I’ve fermented with wild bugs were way too acetic for me and I’m now concerned that other beers may develop the same character. In fact, if there’s a way to prevent acetobacter from getting in my wort while still getting the other bugs working, I could be even more carefree as a brewer than I currently am.

Which is a fair deal. These days, I really am brewing carefreely. Partly because of my “discovery” of lactobacillus.

As brewer common knowledge has it, lactobacillus is just about everywhere. It’s certainly found on grain and it’s present in human saliva. It’s involved in some dairy fermentation and it’s probably the main source of bacterial fear among dairy farmers.

Apart from lambic beers (which all come from a specific region in Belgium), the main sour beer that is part of brewer knowledge is Berliner Weisse. Though I have little data on how Berliner Weisse is fermented, I’ve known for a while that some people create a beer akin to Berliner Weisse through what brewers call a “sour mash” (and which may or may not be related to sour mash in American whiskey production). After thinking about it for years, I’ve done my first sour mash last year. I wasn’t very careful in doing it but I got satisfying results. One advantage of the sour mash is that it happens before boiling, which means that the production of acid can be controlled, to a certain degree. While I did boil my wort coming from sour mash, it’s clear that I still had some lactobacillus in my fermenters. It’s possible that my boil (which was much shorter than the usual) wasn’t enough to kill all the bugs. But, come to think of it, I may have been a bit careless with sanitization of some pieces of equipment which had touched the sour wort before boiling. Whatever the cause, I ended up with some souring bugs in my fermentation. And these worked really well for what I wanted. So much so that I’ve consciously reused that culture in some of my most recent brewing experiments.

So, in my case, lactobacillus is in the “desirable” category of yeast taxonomy. With Brett and diverse Saccharomyces strains, lactobacillus is part of my fermentation apparatus.

As a mad brewer, I can use what I want to use. I may not create life, but I create beer out of this increasingly complex microflora which has been taking over my brewery.

And I’m a happy brewer.

How I Got Into Beer

Was doing some homebrewing experimentation (sour mash, watermelon, honey, complex yeast cultures…) and I got to think about what I’d say in an interview about my brewing activities.

It’s a bit more personal than my usual posts in English (my more personal blogposts are usually in French), but it seems fitting.

I also have something of a backlog of blogposts I really should do ASAP. But blogging is also about seizing the moment. I feel like writing about beer. 😛

So…

As you might know, the drinking age in Quebec is 18, as in most parts of the World except for the US. What is somewhat distinct about Qc with regards to drinking age is that responsible drinking is the key and we tend to have a more “European” attitude toward alcohol: as compared to the Rest of Canada, there’s a fair bit of leeway in terms of when someone is allowed to drink alcohol. We also tend to learn to drink in the family environment, and not necessarily with friends. What it means, I would argue, is that we do our mistakes in a relatively safe context. By the time drinking with peers becomes important (e.g., in university or with colleagues), many of us know that there’s no fun in abusing alcohol and that there are better ways to prove ourselves than binge drinking. According to Barrett Seaman, author of Binge: What Your College Student Won’t Tell You, even students from the US studying at McGill University in Montreal are more likely to drink responsibly than most students he’s seen in the US. (In Montreal, McGill tends to be recognized as a place where binge drinking is most likely to occur, partly because of the presence of US students. In addition, binge drinking is becoming more conspicuous, in Qc, perhaps because of media pressure or because of influence from the US.)

All this to say that it’s rather common for a Québécois teen to at least try alcohol at a relatively age. Because of my family’s connections with Switzerland and France, we probably pushed this even further than most Québécois family. In other words, I had my first sips of alcohol at a relatively early age (I won’t tell) and, by age 16, I could distinguish different varieties of Swiss wines, during an extended trip to Switzerland. Several of these wines were produced by relatives and friends, from their own vineyards. They didn’t contain sulfites and were often quite distinctive. To this day, I miss those wines. In fact, I’d say that Swiss wines are among the best kept secrets of the wine world. Thing is, it seems that Swiss vineyards barely produce enough for local consumption so they don’t try to export any of it.

Anyhoo…

By age 18, my attitude toward alcohol was already quite similar to what it is now: it’s something that shouldn’t be abused but that can be very tasty. I had a similar attitude toward coffee, that I started to drink regularly when I was 15. (Apart from being a homebrewer and a beer geek, I’m also a homeroaster and coffee geek. Someone once called me a “Renaissance drinker.”)

When I started working in French restaurants, it was relatively normal for staff members to drink alcohol at the end of the shift. In fact, at one place where I worked, the staff meal at the end of the evening shift was a lengthy dinner accompanied by some quality wine. My palate was still relatively untrained, but I remember that we would, in fact, discuss the wine on at least some occasions. And I remember one customer, a stage director, who would share his bottle of wine with the staff during his meal: his doctor told him to reduce his alcohol consumption and the wine only came in 750ml bottles. 😉

That same restaurant might have been the first place where I tried a North American craft beer. At least, this is where I started to know about craft beer in North America. It was probably McAuslan‘s St. Ambroise Stout. But I also had opportunities to have some St. Ambroise Pale Ale. I just preferred the Stout.

At one point, that restaurant got promotional beer from a microbrewery called Massawippi. That beer was so unpopular that we weren’t able to give it away to customers. Can’t recall how it tasted but nobody enjoyed it. The reason this brewery is significant is that their license was the one which was bought to create a little microbrewery called Unibroue. So, it seems that my memories go back to some relatively early phases in Quebec’s craft beer history. I also have rather positive memories of when Brasal opened.

Somewhere along the way, I had started to pick up on some European beers. Apart from macros (Guinness, Heineken, etc.), I’m not really sure what I had tried by that point. But even though these were relatively uninspiring beers, they somehow got me to understand that there was more to beer than Molson, Labatt, Laurentide, O’Keefe, and Black Label.

The time I spent living in Switzerland, in 1994-1995, is probably the turning point for me in terms of beer tasting. Not only did I get to drink the occasional EuroLager and generic stout, but I was getting into Belgian Ales and Lambics. My “session beer,” for a while, was a wit sold in CH as Wittekop. Maybe not the most unique wit out there. But it was the house beer at Bleu Lézard, and I drank enough of it then to miss it. I also got to try several of the Trappists. In fact, one of the pubs on the EPFL campus had a pretty good beer selection, including Rochefort, Chimay, Westmalle, and Orval. The first lambic I remember was Mort Subite Gueuze, on tap at a very quirky place that remains on my mind as this near-cinematic experience.

At the end of my time in Switzerland, I took a trip to Prague and Vienna. Already at that time, I was interested enough in beer that a significant proportion of my efforts were about tasting different beers while I was there. I still remember a very tasty “Dopplemalz” beer from Vienna and, though I already preferred ales, several nice lagers from Prague.

A year after coming back to North America, I traveled to Scotland and England with a bunch of friends. Beer was an important part of the trip. Though I had no notion of what CAMRA was, I remember having some real ales in diverse places. Even some of the macro beers were different enough to merit our interest. For instance, we tried Fraoch then, probably before it became available in North America. We also visited a few distilleries which, though I didn’t know it at the time, were my first introduction to some beer brewing concepts.

Which brings me to homebrewing.

The first time I had homebrew was probably at my saxophone teacher’s place. He did a party for all of us and had brewed two batches. One was either a stout or a porter and the other one was probably some kind of blonde ale. What I remember of those beers is very vague (that was probably 19 years ago), but I know I enjoyed the stout and was impressed by the low price-quality ratio. From that point on, I knew I wanted to brew. Not really to cut costs (I wasn’t drinking much, anyway). But to try different beers. Or, at least, to easily get access to those beers which were more interesting than the macrobrewed ones.

I remember another occasion with a homebrewer, a few years later. I only tried a few sips of the beer but I remember that he was talking about the low price. Again, what made an impression on me wasn’t so much the price itself. But the low price for the quality.

At the same time, I had been thinking about all sorts of things which would later become my “hobbies.” I had never had hobbies in my life but I was thinking about homeroasting coffee, as a way to get really fresh coffee and explore diverse flavours. Thing is, I was already this hedonist I keep claiming I am. Tasting diverse things was already an important pleasure in my life.

So, homebrewing was on my mind because of the quality-price ratio and because it could allow me to explore diverse flavours.

When I moved to Bloomington, IN, I got to interact with some homebrewers. More specifically, I went to an amazing party thrown by an ethnomusicologist/homebrewer. The guy’s beer was really quite good. And it came from a full kegging system.

I started dreaming.

Brewpubs, beerpubs, and microbreweries were already part of my life. For instance, without being a true regular, I had been going to Cheval blanc on a number of occasions. And my “go to” beer had been Unibroue, for a while.

At the time, I was moving back and forth between Quebec and Indiana. In Bloomington, I was enjoying beers from Upland’s Brewing Co., which had just opened, and Bloomington Brewing Co., which was distributed around the city. I was also into some other beers, including some macro imports like Newcastle Brown Ale. And, at liquor stores around the city (including Big Red), I was discovering a few American craft beers, though I didn’t know enough to really make my way through those. In fact, I remember asking for Unibroue to be distributed there, which eventually happened. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t try Three Floyds, at the time.

So I was giving craft beer some thought.

Then, in February 1999, I discovered Dieu du ciel. I may have gone there in late 1998, but the significant point was in February 1999. This is when I tried their first batch of “Spring Equinox” Maple Scotch Ale. This is the beer that turned me into a homebrewer. This is the beer that made me changed my perspetive about beer. At that point, I knew that I would eventually have to brew.

Which happened in July 1999, I think. My then-girlfriend had offered me a homebrewing starter kit as a birthday gift. (Or maybe she gave it to me for Christmas… But I think it was summer.) Can’t remember the extent to which I was talking about beer, at that point, but it was probably a fair bit, i.e., I was probably becoming annoying about it. And before getting the kit, I was probably daydreaming about brewing.

Even before getting the kit, I had started doing some reading. The aforementioned ethnomusicologist/homebrewer had sent me a Word file with a set of instructions and some information about equipment. It was actually much more elaborate than the starter kit I eventually got. So I kept wondering about all the issues and started getting some other pieces of equipment. In other words, I was already deep into it.

In fact, when I got my first brewing book, I also started reading feverishly, in a way I hadn’t done in years. Even before brewing the first batch, I was passionate about brewing.

Thanks to the ‘Net, I was rapidly amassing a lot of information about brewing. Including some recipes.

Unsurprisingly, the first beer I brewed was a maple beer, based on my memory of that Dieu du ciel beer. However, for some reason, that first beer was a maple porter, instead of a maple scotch ale. I brewed it with extract and steeped grain. I probably used a fresh pack of Coopers yeast. I don’t think I used fresh hops (the beer wasn’t supposed to be hop-forward). I do know I used maple syrup at the end of boil and maple sugar at priming.

It wasn’t an amazing beer, perhaps. But it was tasty enough. And it got me started. I did a few batches with extract and moved to all-grain almost right away. I remember some comments on my first maple porter, coming from some much more advanced brewers than I was. They couldn’t believe that it was an extract beer. I wasn’t evaluating my extract beer very highly. But I wasn’t ashamed of it either.

Those comments came from brewers who were hanging out on the Biéropholie website. After learning about brewing on my own, I had eventually found the site and had started interacting with some local Québécois homebrewers.

This was my first contact with “craft beer culture.” I had been in touch with fellow craft beer enthusiasts. But hanging out with Bièropholie people and going to social events they had organized was my first foray into something more of a social group with its associated “mode of operation.” It was a fascinating experience. As an ethnographer and social butterfly, this introduction to the social and cultural aspects of homebrewing was decisive. Because I was moving all the time, it was hard for me to stay connected with that group. But I made some ties there and I still bump into a few of the people I met through Bièropholie.

At the time I first started interacting with the Bièropholie gang, I was looking for a brewclub. Many online resources mentioned clubs and associations and they sounded exactly like the kind of thing I needed. Not only for practical reasons (it’s easier to learn techniques in such a context, getting feedback from knowledgeable people is essential, and tasting other people’s beers is an eye-opener), but also for social reasons. Homebrewing was never meant to be a solitary experience, for me.

I was too much of a social butterfly.

Which brings me back to childhood. As a kid, I was often ostracized. And I always tried to build clubs. It never really worked. Things got much better for me after age 15, and I had a rich social life by the time I became a young adult. But, in 2000-2001, I was still looking for a club to which I could belong. Unlike Groucho, I cared a lot about any club which would accept me.

As fun as it was, Bièropholie wasn’t an actual brewclub. Brewers posting on the site mostly met as a group during an annual event, a BBQ which became known as «Xè de mille» (“Nth of 1000”) in 2001. The 2000 edition (“0th of 1000”) was when I had my maple porter tasted by more advanced brewers. Part of event was a bit like what brewclub meetings tend to be: tasting each other’s brews, providing feedback, discussing methods and ingredients, etc. But because people didn’t meet regularly as a group, because people were scattered all around Quebec, and because there wasn’t much in terms of “contribution to primary identity,” it didn’t feel like a brewclub, at least not of the type I was reading about.

The MontreAlers brewclub was formed at about that time. For some reason, it took me a while to learn of its existence. I distinctly remember looking for a Montreal-based club through diverse online resources, including the famed HomeBrew Digest. And I know I tried to contact someone from McGill who apparently had a club going. But I never found the ‘Alers.

I did eventually find the Members of Barleyment. Or, at least, some of the people who belonged to this “virtual brewclub.” It probably wasn’t until I moved to New Brunswick in 2003, but it was another turning point. One MoB member I met was Daniel Chisholm, a homebrewer near Fredericton, NB, who gave me insight on the New Brunswick beer scene (I was teaching in Fredericton at the time). Perhaps more importantly, Daniel also invited me to the Big Strange New Brunswick Brew (BSNBB), a brewing event like the ones I kept dreaming about. This was partly a Big Brew, an occasion for brewers to brew together at the same place. But it was also a very fun social event.

It’s through the BSNBB that I met MontreAlers Andrew Ludwig and John Misrahi. John is the instigator of the MontreAlers brewclub. Coming back to Montreal a few weeks after BSNBB, I was looking forward to attend my first meeting of the ‘Alers brewclub, in July 2003.

Which was another fascinating experience. Through it, I was able to observe different attitudes toward brewing. Misrahi, for instance, is a fellow experimental homebrewer to the point that I took to call him “MadMan Misrahi.” But a majority of ‘Alers are more directly on the “engineering” side of brewing. I also got to observe some interesting social dynamics among brewers, something which remained important as I moved to different places and got to observe other brewclubs and brewers meetings, such as the Chicago Beer Society’s Thirst Fursdays. Eventually, this all formed the backdrop for a set of informal observations which were the corse of a presentation I gave about craft beer and cultural identity.

Through all of these brewing-related groups, I’ve been positioning myself as an experimenter.  My goal isn’t necessarily to consistently make quality beer, to emulate some beers I know, or to win prizes in style-based brewing competitions. My thing is to have fun and try new things. Consistent beer is available anywhere and I drink little enough that I can afford enough of it. But homebrewing is almost a way for me to connect with my childhood.

There can be a “mad scientist” effect to homebrewing. Michael Tonsmeire calls himself The Mad Fermentationist and James Spencer at Basic Brewing has been interviewing a number of homebrewer who do rather unusual experiments.

I count myself among the ranks of the “Mad Brewers.” Oh, we’re not doing anything completely crazy. But slightly mad we are.

Through the selective memory of an adult with regards to his childhood, I might say that I was “always like that.” As a kid, I wanted to be everything at once: mayor, astronaut, fireman, and scholar. The researcher’s spirit had me “always try new things.” I even had a slight illusion of grandeur in that I would picture myself accomplishing all sorts of strange things. Had I known about it as a kid, I would have believed that I could solve the Poincaré conjecture. Mathematicians were strange enough for me.

But there’s something more closely related to homebrewing which comes back to my mind as I do experiments with beer. I had this tendency to do all sorts of concoctions. Not only the magic potions kids do with mud  and dishwashing liquid. But all sorts of potable drinks that a mixologist may experiment with. There wasn’t any alcohol in those drinks, but the principle was the same. Some of them were good enough for my tastes. But I never achieved the kind of breakthrough drink which would please masses. I did, however, got my experimentation spirit to bear on food.

By age nine, I was cooking for myself at lunch. Nothing very elaborate, maybe. It often consisted of reheating leftovers. But I got used to the stove (we didn’t have a microwave oven, at the time). And I sometimes cooked some eggs or similar things. To this day, eggs are still my default food.

And, like many children, I occasionally contributing to cooking. Simple things like mixing ingredients. But also tasting things at different stages in the cooking or baking process. Given the importance of sensory memory, I’d say the tasting part was probably more important in my development than the mixing. But the pride was mostly in being an active contributor in the kitchen.

Had I understood fermentation as a kid, I probably would have been fascinated by it. In a way, I wish I could have been involved in homebrewing at the time.

A homebrewery is an adult’s chemistry set.