Category Archives: linkfest

Touch Thoughts: Apple's Handheld Strategy

I’m still on the RDF.
Apple‘s March 6, 2008 event was about enterprise and development support for its iPhone and iPod touch lines of handheld devices. Lots to think about.

(For convenience’s sake, I’ll lump together the iPod touch and the iPhone under the name “Touch,” which seems consistent with Apple’s “Cocoa Touch.”)

Been reading a fair bit about this event. Interesting reactions across the board.

My own thoughts on the whole thing.
I appreciate the fact that Phil Schiller began the “enterprise” section of the event with comments about a university. Though universities need not be run like profit-hungry corporations, linking Apple’s long-standing educational focus with its newly invigorated enterprise focus makes sense. And I had a brief drift-off moment as I was thinking about Touch products in educational contexts.

I’m surprised at how enthusiastic I get about the enterprise features. Suddenly, I can see Microsoft’s Exchange make sense.

I get the clear impression that even more things will come into place at the end of June than has been said by Apple. Possibly new Touch models or lines. Probably the famous 3G iPhone. Apple-released apps. Renewed emphasis on server technology (XServe, Mac OS X Server, XSan…). New home WiFi products (AirPort, Time Capsule, Apple TV…). New partnerships. Cool VC-funded startups. New features on the less aptly named “iTunes” store.

Though it was obvious already, the accelerometer is an important feature. It seems especially well-adapted to games and casual gamers like myself are likely to enjoy games this feature makes possible. It can also lead to very interesting applications. In fact, the “Etch and Sketch” demo was rather convincing as a display of some core Touch features. These are exactly the features which help sell products.
Actually, I enjoyed the “wow factor” of the event’s demos. I’m convinced that it will energize developers and administrators, whether or not they plan on using Touch products. Some components of Apple’s Touch strategy are exciting enough that the more problematic aspects of this strategy may matter a bit less. Those of us dreaming about Android, OpenMoko, or even a revived NewtonOS can still find things to get inspired by in Apple’s roadmap.

What’s to come, apart from what was announced? No idea. But I do daydream about all of this.
I’m especially interested in the idea of Apple Touch as “mainstream, WiFi, mobile platform.” There’s a lot of potential for Apple-designed, WiFi-enabled handhelds. Whether or not they include a cellphone.
At this point, Apple only makes five models of Touch products: three iPod touches and two iPhones. Flash memory is the main differentiating factor within a line. It makes it relatively easy to decide which device to get but some product diversity could be interesting. While some people expect/hope that Apple will release radically new form factors for Touch devices (e.g., a tablet subnotebook), it’s quite likely that other features will help distinguish Apple’s Touch hardware.
Among features I’d like to get through software, add-ons, or included in a Touch product? Number of things, some alluded to in the “categories” for this post. Some of these I had already posted.

  • Quality audio recording (to make it the ideal fieldwork audio tool).
  • eBook support (to compete with Amazon’s Kindle).
  • Voice support (including continuous dictation, voice interface…).
  • Enhanced support for podcasting (interacting with podcasts, sending audio/video responses…)
  • Video conferencing (been thinking about this for a while).
  • GPS (location will be big).
  • Mesh networking (a neat feature of OLPC’s XO).
  • Mobile WiMAX (unlikely, but it could be neat).
  • Battery pack (especially for long trips in remote regions).
  • Add-on flash memory (unlikely, but it could be useful, especially for backup).
  • Offline storage of online content (likely, but worth noting).
  • Inexpensive model (especially for “emerging markets”).
  • Access to 3G data networks without cellular “voice plan” (unlikely, but worth a shot).
  • Alternative input methods (MessagEase, Graffiti, adaptive keyboard, speech recognition…).
  • Use as Mac OS X “host” (kind of like a user partition).
  • Bluetooth/WiFi data transfer (no need for cables and docks).
  • MacBook Touch (unlikely, especially with MacBook Air, but it could be fun).
  • Automatic cell to VoIP-over-WiFi switching (saving cell minutes).

Of course, there are many obvious ones which will likely be implemented in software. I’m already impressed by the Omni Group’s pledge to develop a Touch version of their flagship GTD app.

The Geek Niche (Draft)

As explained before, I am not a “visual” thinker. Unlike some other people, I don’t draw witty charts all the time. However, I do occasionally think visually. In this case, I do “see” Venn diagrams and other cutesy graphics. What I’m seeing is the proportion of “geeks” in the world. And, to be honest, it’s relatively clear for me. I may be completely off, but I still see it clearly.

Of course, much of it is about specifying what we mean by “geek.” Which isn’t easy for someone used to looking at culture’s near-chaotic intricacy and intricacies. At this point, I’m reluctant to define too clearly what I mean by “geek” because some people (self-professed geeks, especially) are such quick nitpickers that anything I say about the term is countered by more authorized definitions. I even expect comments to this blog entry to focus on how inaccurate my perception of geeks is, regardless of any other point I make.

Ah, well…

My intention isn’t to stereotype a group of people. And I don’t want to generalize. I just try to describe a specific situation which I find very interesting. In and of itself, the term “geek” carries a lot of baggage, much of which is problematic for anyone who is trying to understand an important part of the world in which we all live. But the term is remarkably useful as a way to package an ethos, a style, a perspective, an approach, a worldview, a personality type. Among those who could be called “geeks” are very diverse people. There might not even a single set of criteria to define who should legitimately be called a “geek.” But “geekness” is now a reference for some actions, behaviors, markets, and even language varieties. Describing “geeks” as a group makes some sense, even if some people get very sensitive about the ways geeks are described.

For the record, I don’t really consider myself a geek. At the same time, I do enjoy geekness and I consider myself geek-friendly. It’s just that I’m not an actual insider to the geek coterie.

Thinking demographically has some advantages in terms of simplification. Simple is reassuring, especially in geek culture. So, looking at geek demographics on a broad scale…

First, the upper demographic limit for geekery. At the extreme, the Whole Wide World. What’s geeky about The World?

Number of things, actually. Especially in terms of some key technologies. Those technologies some people call “the tech world.” Consumer electronics, digital gadgets, computers…

An obvious tech factor for the upper limit of geekness is the ‘Net. The Internet is now mainstream. Not that everyone, everywhere truly lives online but the ‘Net is having a tremendous impact on the world as a whole. And Internet penetration is shaping up, in diverse parts of the world. This type of effect goes well with a certain type of “low-level geekness.” Along with widespread online communication, a certain approach to the world has become more prominent. A techno-enthusiastic and troubleshooting approach I often associate with engineering. Not that all engineers uses this type of approach or that everyone who uses this type of approach is an engineer. But, in my mind, it’s an “engineering worldview” similar to an updated set of mechanistic metaphors.

Another obvious example of widespread geek-friendly technology is the cellphone. Obvious because extremely widespread (apparently, close to half of the human population of the planet is cellphoned). Yet, cellphones are the geekiest technology item available. What makes them geeky, in my eyes, is the way they’re embedded in a specific social dynamic emphasizing efficiency, mobility, and “always-on connectivity” along with work/life, group/individual, and public/private dichotomies.

The world’s geekiness can also be observed through other lenses, more concerned with the politic and the social drive of human behavior. Meritocracies, relatively non-judgemental ethics, post-national democracies, neo-liberal libertarianism, neo-Darwinian progress-mindedness, networked identities… Figures on populations “affected” by these geeky dimensions of socio-political life are hard to come by and it’s difficult to tell apart these elements from simple “Westernization.” But it’s easy to conceive of a geeky version of the world in which all of these elements are linked. In a way, it’s as if the world were dominated by geekdom.

Which brings me to the lower demographic limit for geekiness: How many “true geeks” are there? What’ are the figures for the “alpha geek” population?

My honest guesstimate? Five to ten million worldwide, concentrated in a relatively small number of urban areas in North America and Eurasia. I base this range on a number of hunches I got throughout the years. In fact, my impression is that there are about two million people in (or “oriented toward”) the United States who come close enough to the geek stereotype to qualify as “alpha geeks.” Haven’t looked at academic literature on the subject but judging from numbers of early adopters in “geeky tech,” looking at FLOSS movements, thinking about desktop Linux, listening to the “tech news” I don’t think this figure is so far off. On top of these U.S. geeks are “worldwide geeks” who are much harder to count. Especially since geekness itself is a culture-specific concept. But, for some reason, I get the impression that those outside the United States who would be prototypical geeks number something like five million people, plus or minus two million.

All this surely sounds specious. In fact, I’m so not a quant dude, I really don’t care about the exact figure. But my feeling, here, is that this ultra-geeky population is probably comparable to a large metropolitan area.

Of course, geeks are dispersed throughout the world. Though there are “geek meccas” like Bangalore and the San Francisco Bay Area, geeks are often modern cosmopolitans. They are typically not “of a place” and they navigate through technology institutions rather than through native locales. Thanks to telecommuting, some geeks adopt a glocal lifestyle making connections outside of their local spheres yet constructing local realities, at least in their minds. In some cases, übergeeks are resolute loners who consciously try to avoid being tied to local circles.

Thanks in part to the “tech industry” connections of geek society, geek-friendly regions compete with one another on the world stage.

Scattered geeks have an impact on local communities and this impact can be disproportionately large in comparison to the size of the geek population.

Started this post last week, after listening to Leo Laporte’s  TWiT “netcast.” 

The TWiT Netcast Network with Leo Laporte


I wanted to finish this post but never got a round tuit. I wanted to connect this post with a few things about the connection between “geek culture” in the computer/tech industry and the “craft beer” and “coffee geek” movements. There was also the obvious personal connection to the subject. I’m now a decent ethnographic insider-outsider to geek culture. Despite (thanks to) the fact that, as a comment-spammer was just saying, I’m such a n00b.

Not to mention that I wanted to expand upon JoCo‘s career, attitude, and character (discussed during the TWiT podcast). And that was before I learned that JoCo himself was coming to Austin during but not through the expensive South by Southwest film/music/interactive festivals.

If I don’t stop myself, I even get the urge to talk about the politics of geek groups, especially in terms of idealism

This thoughtful blogpost questioning the usefulness of the TED conference makes me want to push the “publish” button, even though this post isn’t ready. My comments about TED aren’t too dissimilar to many of the things which have appeared in the past couple of days. But I was going to focus on the groupthink, post-Weberian neo-liberalism, Well/Wired/GBN links, techy humanitarianism, etc.


Ah, well… 

Guess I should just RERO it and hope for the best. Maybe I’ll be able to leave those topics behind. RSN


Game, Drama, Fashion Show, Media Event?

Austin, my current hometown, was host last night to the kind of event which gets national coverage. This time, 43,436 people tried to attend the event but only a hundred of them got selected. There were also 400 tickets for around 18,000 UT students who had entered the lottery.

Contrary to what one might guess, the event was not about Longhorn Football. Although, one of the protagonists in last night’s event, a basketball player, did visit UT’s famous team.

The “post-game analysis” makes it sound like a match between two sports teams.

Interestingly enough, it’s a mixed sport, making it easy for journalists to use pronouns to distinguish players in the two teams. One source described the night’s event as possible end game for the team led by a woman:

After losing a string of contests to [him] over the last several weeks, she is running neck-and-neck with him in Texas, according to some polls, a state in which she previously had a commanding lead.

One might think it was a fashion show:

the gold piping on her raised black collar and pockets gave her a martial, commander-in-chief look (the very model of a modern major general)

But I also get the impression that it was a theater premiere, with one source describing one actor’s “classic ‘I-feel-your-pain’ finale” meant to go to watchers’ “heads and hearts.”

In the end, the event was mostly “media event.” By the media, for the media, of the media.

Most likely, it won’t change the dynamic of this race, though the true effect of it will be determined by the media coverage around it: Should it get replayed over and over on television, it just may have an impact on this race and could stand out as the debate’s most striking moment.

So, I’m a bit puzzled by the whole thing.

Less Than 30 Minutes


At 20:27 (EST) on Saturday, November 17, 2007, I post a blog entry on the archaic/rare French term «queruleuse» (one equivalent of “querulous”). At 20:54 (EST) of the same day, Google is already linking my main blog page as the first page containing the term “queruleuse” and as the fourth page containing the term “querulente.” At that point in time, the only other result for “queruleuse” was to a Google Book. Interestingly enough, a search in Google Book directly lists other Google Books containing that term, including different versions of the same passage. These other books do not currently show up on the main Google search for that term. And blogs containing links to this blog are now (over two hours after my «queruleuse» post) showing above the Google Book in search results.

Now, there’s nothing very extraordinary, here. The term «queruleuse» is probably not the proper version of the term. In fact, «querulente» seems a bit more common. Also, “querulous” and “querulent” both exist in English, and their definitions seem fairly similar to the concept to which «queruleuse» was supposed to refer. So, no magic, here.

But I do find it very interesting that it takes Google less than a half hour for Google to update its database to show my main page as the first result for a term which exists in its own Google Books database.

I guess the reason I find it so interesting is that I have thought a bit about SEO, Search Engine Optimization. I usually don’t care about such issues but a couple of things made me think about Google’s PageRank specifically.

One was that someone recently left a comment on this very blog (my main blog, among several), asking how long it took me to get a PageRank of 5. I don’t know the answer but it seems to me that my PageRank hasn’t varied since pretty much the beginning. I don’t use the Google Toolbar in my main browser so I don’t really know. But when I did look at the PR indicator on this blog, it seemed to be pretty much always at the midway point and I assumed it was just normal. What’s funny is that, after attending a couple Yulblog meetings more than a year ago, someone mentioned my PageRank, trying to interpret why it was so high. I checked that Yulblogger’s blog recently and it has a PR of 6, IIRC. Maybe even 7. (Pretty much an A-List blogger, IMHO.)

The other thing which made me think about PageRank is a discussion about it on a recent episode of the This Week in Tech (TWiT) “netcast” (or “podcast,” as everybody else would call it). On that episode, Chaos Manor author Jerry Pournelle mused about PageRank and its inability to provide a true measure of just about anything. Though most people would agree that PageRank is a less than ideal measure for popularity, influence, or even relevance, Pournelle’s point was made more strongly than “consensus opinion among bloggers.” I tend to agree with Pournelle. 😉

Of course, some people probably think that I’m a sore loser and that the reason I make claims about the irrelevance of PageRank is that I’d like to get higher in a blogosphere’s hierarchy. But, honestly, I had no idea that PR5 might be a decent rank until this commenter asked me about. Even when the aforementioned Yulblogger talked about it, I didn’t understand that it was supposed to be a rather significant number. I just thought this blogger was teasing (despite not being a teaser).

Answering the commenter’s question as to when my PR reached 5, I talked about the rarity of my name. Basically, I can always rely on my name being available on almost any service. Things might change if a distant cousin gets really famous really soon, of course… ;-) In fact, I’m wondering if talking about this on my blog might push someone to use my name for some service just to tease/annoy me. I guess there could even be more serious consequences. But, in the meantime, I’m having fun with my name’s rarity. And I’m assuming this rarity is a factor in my PageRank.

Problem is, this isn’t my only blog with my name in the domain. One of the others is on Google’s very own Blogger platform. So I’m guessing other factors contribute to this (my main) blog’s PageRank.

One factor is likely to be my absurdly long list of categories. Reason for this long list is that I was originally using them as tags, linked to Technorati tags. Actually, I recently shortened this list significantly by transforming many categories into tags. It’s funny that the PageRank-interested commenter replied to this very same post about categories and tags since I was then positing that the modification to my categories list would decrease the number of visits to this blog. Though it’s hard for me to assess an actual causal link, I do get significantly less visits since that time. And I probably do get a few more comments than before (which is exactly what I wanted). AFAICT, tags still work as Technorati tags so I have no idea how the change could have had an impact. Come to think of it, the impact probably is spurious.

A related factor is my absurdly long blogroll. I don’t “do it on purpose,” I just add pretty much any blog I come across. In fact, I’ve been adding most blogs authored by MyBlogLog visitors to this blog (those you see on the right, here). Kind of as a courtesy to them for having visited my blog. And I do the same thing with blogs managed by people who comment on this blog. I even do it with blogs by pretty much any Yulblogger I’ve come across, somehow. All of this is meant as a way to collect links to a wide diversity of blogs, using arbitrary selection criteria. Just because I can.

Actually, early on (before I grokked the concept of what a blogroll was really supposed to be), I started using the “Link This” bookmarklet to collect links whether they were to actual blogs or simply main pages. I wasn’t really using any Social Networking Service (SNS) at that point in time (though I had used some SNS several years prior) and I was thinking of these lists of people pretty much the same way many now conceive of SNS. Nowadays, I use Facebook as my main SNS (though I have accounts on other SNS, including MySpace). So this use of links/blogrolls has been superseded by actual SNS.

What has not been superseded and may in fact be another factor for my PageRank is the fact that I tend to keep links of much of the stuff I read. After looking at a wide variety of “social bookmarking systems,” I recently settled on Spurl (my Spurl RSS). And it’s not really that Spurl is my “favourite social bookmarking system evah.” But Spurl is the one system which fits the most in (or least disrupts) my workflow right now. In fact, I keep thinking about “social bookmarking systems” and I have lots of ideas about the ideal one. I know I’ll be posting some of these ideas someday, but many of these ideas are a bit hard to describe in writing.

At any rate, my tendency to keep links on just about anything I read might contribute to my PageRank as Google’s PageRank does measure the number of outgoing links. On the other hand, the fact that I put my Spurl feed on my main page probably doesn’t have much of an impact on my PageRank since I started doing this a while after I started this blog and I’m pretty sure my PageRank remained the same. (I’m pretty sure Google search only looks at the actual blog entries, not the complete blog site. But you never know…)

Now, another tendency I have may also be a factor. I tend to link to my own blog entries. Yeah, I know, many bloggers see this as self-serving and lame. But I do it as a matter of convenience and “thought management.” It helps me situate some of my “streams of thought” and I like the idea of backtracking my blog entries. Actually, it’s all part of a series of habits after I started blogging, 2.5 years ago. And since I basically blog for fun, I don’t really care if people think my habits are lame.

Sheesh! All this for a silly integer about which I tend not to think. But I do enjoy thinking about what brings people to specific blogs. I don’t see blog statistics on any of my other blogs and I get few enough comments or trackbacks to not get much data on other factors. So it’s not like I can use my blogs as a basis for a quantitative study of “blog influence” or “search engine relevance.”

One dimension which would interesting to explore, in relation to PageRank, is the network of citations in academic texts. We all know that Brin and Page got their PageRank idea from the academic world and the academic world is currently looking at PageRank-like measures of “citation impact” (“CitationRank” would be a cool name). I tend to care very little about the quantitative evaluation of even “citation impact” in academia, but I really am intrigued by the network analysis of citations between academic references. One fun thing there is that there seems to be a high clustering coefficient among academic papers in some research fields. In some cases, the coefficient itself could reveal something interesting but the very concept of “academic small worlds” may be important to consider. Especially since these “worlds” might integrate as apparently-coherent (and consistent) worldviews.

Groupthink, anyone? 😉

Readership to Comments Conversion

As mentioned recently (among other times), I’d like to get more reader comments than I do now. Haven’t been really serious about it as I’m not using any of the several methods I know to get more comments. For instance, I realise shorter, quick-and-dirty posts are likely to get me more comments than my longer ramblings. Everybody knows that inflammatory (Dvorak-like) posts get more comments. I also know that commenting on other people’s blog entries is the best way to receive comments from fellow bloggers. Not to mention generating something of a community aspect through my blog. And I could certainly ask more questions in my blog posts. So I guess I’m not doing my part here.

It’s not that I care so much about getting more comments. It’s just that I do like receiving comments on blog posts. Kind of puts me back into mailing-list mode. So I (frequently) end up wondering out loud about blog comments. I don’t really want to make more of an effort. I just want my cake and eat it too. (Yes, this one is an egotistical entry.)

One thing I keep noticing is that I get more comments when I get less readers. It’s a funny pattern. Sounds like the ice-cream/crime (ice-crime?) correlation but I’m not sure what the shared cause may be. So my tendency is to think that I might get more comments if I get lower readership. I know, I know: sounds like wishful thinking. But there’s something fun about this type of thinking.

Now, how can I decrease my readership? Well, since a lot of readers seem to come to this blog through Web searches and Technorati links, I guess I could decrease my relevance in those contexts. Kind of like reverse-SEO.

As my unseemly large number of categories might be responsible for at least some of that search/Technorati traffic, getting rid of some of those categories might help.

On this blog, I’ve been using categories like tags. The Categories section of’s own blog post editor makes this use very straightforward. Instead of selecting categories, I just type them in a box and press the Add button. Since categories are also Technorati links, this categories-as-tags use made some sense. But I ended up with some issues, especially with standalone blog editors. Not only do most standalone blog editors have categories as selection items (which makes my typical tagging technique inappropriate) but the incredibly large number of categories on this blog makes it hard to use any blog editor which fetches those categories.

Not too long ago, added a tagging system to their (limited) list of supported features. Given my issues with categories, this seemed like a very appropriate feature for me to use. So the few posts I wrote since that feature became available have both tags and categories.

But what about all of those categories? Well, in an apparent effort to beef up the tagging features, added Category to Tag Converter. (I do hope tagging and categories development on will continue at a steady pace.)

This converter is fairly simple. It lists all the categories used on your blog and you can either select which categories you want to convert into tags or press the Convert All button to get all categories transformed into tags. Like a neat hack, it does what it should do. I still had to spend quite a bit of time thinking about which categories I wanted to keep. Because tags and categories perform differently and because I’m not completely clear on how tags really work (are they also Technorati tags? Can we get a page of tags? A tag cloud?), it was a bit of a shot in the dark. I pretty much transformed into tags most categories which I had only applied to one post. It still leaves me with quite a few categories which aren’t that useful but I’ll sort these out later, especially after I see the effects tags may have on my blogging habits and on my blog itself.

As luck would have it, this change in my blog may have as an impact a decrease in readership and an increase in comments. My posts might end up being more relevant for categories and tags with which they are associated. And I might end up having sufficiently few categories that I could, in fact, use blog editors on this blog.

While I was converting these categories into tags, I ended up changing some categories. Silly me thought that by simply changing the name of a category to be the same as the name of another category, I’d end up with “merged categories” (all blog posts in the category I changed being included in the list for the new categories). Turns out, it doesn’t really work like that and I ended up with duplicate categories. Too bad. Just one of those quirks.

Speaking of itself. I do like it as a blogging system. It does/could have a few community-oriented features. I would probably prefer it if it were more open, like a self-hosted WordPress installation. But the team seems to mostly implement features they like or that they see as being advantageous for as a commercial entity. Guess you could say is the Apple of the blogging world! (And I say this as a Macaholic.)

Just found out that has a new feature called AnswerLinks, which looks like it can simplify the task of linking to some broad answers. Like several other features, this one looks like it’s mostly meant as a cross-promotion than a user-requested feature, but it still sounds interesting.

Still, maybe the development of tag features is signalling increased responsiveness on the part of As we all know, responsiveness is a key to success in the world of online business ventures.

Tagged Again?

I seem to be one of few bloggers fellow anthroblogger Nancy Leclerc (aka Gary Dickinson) wishes to tag:

Music, Books and Spirit: 8 things . . .

So, even though I’ve been tagged very recently,  I’ll play along. But just because I’m lazy and reveal a lot about myself anyway, I’ll just say eight random things about myself, regardless of how well-known they may be. What’s funny is that Nancy and I have never met IRL.


  1.  I’ve had a crush on a number of women when I was a kid, including some fictional characters. One crush I had as a teenager was with Simone Foster from Head of the Class. I still love humanists.
  2. Not only did I have imaginary friends when I was a kid but I kept imagining all sorts of things throughout my childhood, some of which were just too extreme in terms of megalomania. I still have a very active “internal life.”
  3. I don’t really have an alter ego but people are telling me that I act very different whether I speak English or French. Does that count?
  4. I decided to go into anthropology when I was 13 and never really deviated. Between ages 8 and 11, I wanted to become a lawyer (to defend innocent people). I eventually decided (at age 11) that law had too much to do with personal profit for my tastes.
  5. Despite being a single-parent household, my family (my mother, my brothers, and myself) has mostly been quite unified. Actually, I revealed quite a bit about this in a blog post in French.
  6. I’m not shy at all and I probably appear to be overly eager, assertive, extrovert, or friendly to a number of people. Though I’m sorry if I rub people the wrong way, I probably won’t change on this point.
  7. I’m in love with someone who lives 460km away from here. For the past 10 years, we spent about half of our time away from one another. The cool thing is, we’re going to settle down in Austin together, come December.
  8. I love teaching so much that I’m not sure how I can envision my life without teaching opportunities. Oh, I may get other jobs and I may spend some time without any formal teaching duties. But I’ll still get withdrawal symptoms.

Oh, kay… This was, erm, different. Whom should I tag?

Let’s go semi-random, this time.

Andi, SteveAnne-José, Gary Lee, Vanou, Kevin, Debbie, Sarah

What Radio Open Source Should Do

I probably think too much. In this case, about a podcast and radio show which has been with me for as long as I started listening to podcasts: Radio Open Source on Public Radio International. The show is hosted by Christopher Lydon and is produced in Cambridge, MA, in collaboration with WGBH Boston. The ROS staff is a full team working on not only the show and the podcast version but on a full-fledged blog (using a WordPress install, hosted by Contegix) with something of a listener community.

I recently decided not to listen to ROS anymore. Nothing personal, it just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. But I spent enough time listening to the show and thinking about it, I even have suggestions about what they should do.

At the risk of sounding opinionated, I’m posting these comments and suggestions. In my mind, honesty is always the best policy. Of course, nothing personal about the excellent work of the ROS team.

Executive summary of my suggestion: a weekly spinoff produced by the same team, as an actual podcast, possibly as a summary of highlights. Other shows do something similar on different radio stations and it fits the podcasting model. Because time-shifting is of the essence with podcasts, a rebroadcast version (instead of a live show) would make a lot of sense. Obviously, it would imply more work for the team as a whole but I sincerely think it would be worth it.

ROS has been one of the first podcasts to which I subscribed and it might be the one that I have maintained in my podcatcher for the longest time. The reason is that several episodes have inspired me in different ways. My perception is that the teamwork “behind the scenes” makes for a large part of the success of the show.

Now, I don’t know anything about the inner workings of the ROS team. But I do get the impression that some important changes are imminent. The two people who left in the last few months, the grant they received, their successful fundraiser, as well as some perceivable changes in the way the show is handled tell me that ROS may be looking for new directions. I’m just an ethnographer and not a media specialist but here are some of my (honest) critical observations.

First, some things which I find quite good about the show (or some reasons I was listening to the show).

  • In-depth discussions. As Siva Vaidhyanathan mentioned it on multiple occasions, ROS is one of few shows in the U.S . during which people can really spend an hour debating a single issue. While intriguing, Siva’s comparison with Canadian shows does seem appropriate according to my own experience with CBC and Radio-Canada. Things I’ve heard in Western Europe and West Africa would also fit this pattern. A show like ROS is somewhat more like The New Yorker than like The New York Times. (Not that these are innocent choices, of course.)
  • Research. A lot of care has been put in preparing for each show and, well, “it shows.” The “behind the scenes” team is obviously doing a great job. I include in this the capacity for the show to entice fascinating guests to come on the show. It takes diplomacy, care, and insight.
  • Podcasting. ROS was one of the first “public radio” shows to be available as a podcast and it’s possibly one of the radio shows for which the podcasting process is the most appropriate. Ease of subscribing, relatively few problems downloading shows, etc.
  • Show notes. Because the show uses a blog format for all of its episodes, it makes for excellent show notes, very convenient and easy to find. Easy to blog. Good trackback.
  • The “Community.” Though it can be troublesome at times, the fact that the show has a number of fans who act as regular commentators on the blog entries has been an intriguing feature of the show. On occasion, there is a sense that listeners can have some impact on the way the show is structured. Few shows on public radio do this and it’s a feature that makes the show, erm, let’s say “podworthy.” (Apologies to those who hate the “pod-” prefix. At least, you got my drift, right?)

On the other hand, there are things with ROS that have kept putting me off, especially as a podcast. A few of those “pet peeves.”

  • “Now the News.” While it’s perfectly natural for a radio show to have to break for news or ads, the disruption is quite annoying on a podcast. The pacing of the show as a whole becomes completely dominated by the breaks. What’s more, the podcast version makes very obvious the fact that discussions started before the break rarely if ever get any resolution after the break. A rebroadcast would allow for seamless editing. In fact, some television shows offer exclusive online content as a way to avoid this problem. Or, more accurately, some television shows use this concept as a way to entice watchers to visit their websites. Neat strategy, powerful concept.
  • Length. While the length of the show (a radio “hour”) allows for in-depth discussions, the usual pacing of the show often implies a rather high level of repetition. One gets the impression that the early part of the show contains most of the “good tidbits” one needs to understand what will be discussed later. I often listen to the first part of the show (before the first break) and end up skipping the rest of the show. This could be alleviated with a “best of ROS” podcast. In fact, it’s much less of an issue when the listener knows what to expect.
  • Host. Nothing personal. Chris Lydon is certainly a fabulous person and I would feel bad to say anything personal about him even though, to make a point, I have used a provocative title in the past which specifically criticised him. (My point was more about the show as a whole.) In fact, Lydon can be very good as a radio host, as I described in the past. Thing is, Lydon’s interviewing style seems to me more appropriate for a typical radio show than for a podcast. Obviously, he is quite knowledgeable of a wide array of subjects enabling him to relate to his guests. Also, he surely has a “good name” in U.S. journalistic milieus. But, to be perfectly honest, I sometimes feel that his respect for guests and other participants (blog commentators and callers when ROS still had them) is quite selective. In my observation, Lydon also tends to do what Larry King described on the Colbert Report as an “I-show” (host talking about her/his own experience, often preventing a guest to follow a thought). It can be endearing on some radio shows but it seems inappropriate for a podcast. What makes this interviewing style even more awkward is the fact that the show is frequently billed as a “conversation.” In conversation analysis, Lydon’s interviews would merit a lot of discussion.
  • Leading questions. While many questions asked on the show do help guests get into interesting issues, many questions sound like “leading” questions. Maybe not to the “how long have you been beating your wife?” extreme, but it does seem that the show is trying to get something specific out of each guest. Appropriate for journalism but awkward for what is billed as a “conversation.” In fact, many “questions” asked on the show are phrased as affirmative utterances instead of actual questions
  • Old School Journalism. It may sound like harsh criticism but what I hear from ROS often makes me think that they still believe that some sources are more worthy than others by mere virtue of being “a trusted source.” I’ve been quite critical of what I think of as “groupthink.” Often characterised by the fact that everybody listens, reads, or watches the same sources of information. In Quebec, it’s often Radio-Canada’s television shows. In the U.S., it typically implies that everyone reads the New York Times and thinks of it as their main “source of information.” IMHO, the ROS-NYT connection is a strong one. To me, critical thinking implies a mistrust of specific sources and an ability to process information regardless of the source. I do understand that the NYT is, to several people, the “paper of record” but the very notion of “paper of record” seems outdated in this so-called “Information Age.” In fact, as an outsider, I often find the NYT even more amenable to critical challenge than some other sources. This impression I got even before the scandals which have been plaguing the NYT. In other words, the NYT is the best example of Old School Journalism. Podcasting is going away from Old School Journalism so a podcast version of ROS should go away from NYT groupthink. Lydon’s NYT background is relevant here but what I describe goes much beyond that print newspaper.
  • The “Wolfpack.” The community around ROS is fascinating. If I had more time, I might want to spend more time “in” it. Every commentator on the show’s entries has interesting things to say and the comments are sometimes more insightful than the show itself. Yet, as contradictory as it may sound, the ROS “fanbase” makes the show less approachable to new listeners. This one is a common feature of open networks with something of a history but it’s heightened by the way the community is handled in the show. It sometimes seems as though some “frequent contributors” are appreciated more than others. The very fact that some people are mentioned as “frequent contributors to the show” makes the “community” sound more like a clique than like an open forum. While Brendan often brought in some questions from the real-time blog commentators, these questions rarely led to real two-way conversations. The overall effect is more like a typical radio talk show than like a community-oriented podcast.
  • Show suggestions. Perhaps because suggestions submitted to the show are quite numerous, very few of these suggestions have been discussed extensively. The “pitch a show idea of your own” concept is helpful but the end-result is that commentators will need to prepare a pitch which might be picked up by a member of the ROS team to be pitched during the team’s meeting. The process is thus convoluted, non-transparent, non-democratic, and cumbersome. To be perfectly honest, it sounds as if it were “lipservice” to the audience instead of being a way to have listeners be part of the show. As a semi-disclaimer, I did pitch several ideas. The one of my ideas which was picked up was completely transformed from my original idea. Nothing wrong with that but it doesn’t make the process feel transparent or open. While a digg-like system for voting on suggestions might be a bit too extreme for a show on public radio, I find myself dreaming for the ROS team working on shows pitched by listeners.
  • Time-sensitiveness. Because the show is broadcast and podcast four days a week, the production cycle is particularly tight. In this context, commentators need to post on an entry in a timely fashion to “get the chance to be heard.” Perfectly normal, but not that podfriendly. It seems that the most dedicated listeners are those who listen to the show live while posting comments on the episode’s blog entry. This alienates the actual podcasting audience. Time-shifting is at the very basis of podcasting and many shows had to adapt to this reality (say, for a contest or to get feedback). The time-sensitive nature of ROS strengthens the idea that it’s a radio show which happens to be podcast, contrary to their claims. A weekly podcast would alleviate this problem.
  • Gender bias. Though I didn’t really count, it seems to me that a much larger proportion of men than women are interviewed as guests on the show. It even seems that women are only interviewed when the show focuses specifically on gender. Women are then interviewed as women instead of being guests who happen to be females. This is especially flagrant when compared to podcasts and radio shows outside of the U.S. mainstream media. Maybe I’m too gender-conscious but a gender-balanced show often produces a dynamic which is, I would dare say, “friendlier.”
  • U.S. focus. While it makes sense that a show produced in Cambridge, MA should focus on the U.S., I naively thought that the ‘I’ in PRI implied a global reach. Many ROS episodes have discussed “international affairs” yet the focus is on “what does it mean for U.S.” This approach is quite far from what I have heard in West Africa, Western Europe, and Canada.


Yes, that’s a lot.

Overall, I still enjoyed many things of the show while I was listening to it. I was often compelled to post a blog entry about something I heard on the show which, in itself, is a useful thing about a podcast. But the current format of the show is clearly not what I expect a podcast to be.

Now what? Well, my dream would be a podcast on disparate subjects with the team and clout of ROS but with podcasting in mind, from beginning to end. I imagine the schedule to be more of a weekly wrap-up than a live daily show. As a podcast listener, I tend to prefer weekly shows. In some cases, podcasts serve as a way to incite listeners to listen to the whole show. Makes a lot of sense.

That podcast could include a summary of what was said in the live comments. It could also have guest hosts. And exclusive content. And it could become an excellent place to get insight about a number of things. And I’d listen to it. Carefully.

Some “pie in the sky” wishes.

  • Full transcripts. Yes, it takes time and effort, but it brings audio to the blogosphere more than anything else could. Different transcribing services are available for podcasts and members of the team could make this more efficient.
  • Categorised feeds. The sadly missed DailySonic podcast had excellent customisation feature. If a mainstream radio station could do it, ROS would be a good candidate for categorised feeds.
  • Voting mechanism. Since Slashdot and Digg, voting has probably been the most common form of online participation by people who care about media. Voting on features would make the “pitching” process more than simply finding the right “hook” to make the show relevant. Results are always intriguing in those cases.
  • Community guests. People do want to get involved and the ROS community is fascinating. Bringing some members on the podcast could do a lot to give a voice to actual people. The only attempt I remember on ROS was with a kind of answering machine system. Nothing was played on the show. (What I left was arguably not that fascinating but I was surprised nothing came out of it.)
  • Guest hosts. Not to go too Bakhtin on y’all, but multiple voices in the same discussion makes for interesting stories. Being a guest host could prove how difficult it is be a host.
  • Field assignments. With a wide community of listeners, it could be interesting to have audio from people in other parts of the world, apart from phone interviews. Even an occasional one-minute segment would go a long way to give people exposure to realities outside the United States.
  • Social bookmarking. Someone recently posted an advice for a book club. With social bookmarking features, book recommendations could be part of a wider scheme.
  • Enhanced audio. While the MP3 version is really necessary, podcasts using enhanced features such as chapters and embedded images can be extremely useful, especially for owners of recent iPod/iPhone.
  • Links. ROS is not the only radio show and links are what makes podcasts alive, especially when one is linked to another. In a way, podcasts become an alternate universe through those links.

Ok, I’m getting too far astray from my original ideas about ROS. It must mean that I should leave it at that.

I do sincerely hope that ROS will take an interesting turn. I’ll be watching from my blog aggregator and I might join the ROS community again.

In the meantime, I’ll focus on other podcasts.

Audio People of the World: "You, Knight!"

Much to be said about a recent ITConversations podcast episode. Ostensibly, this episode was about the LibriVox success story. (LibriVox is a community project producing public domain audiobooks from public domain books in diverse languages.) Yet, during this conversation, Web analyst (and Microsoft employee) Jon Udell along with LibriVox founder Hugh McGuire managed to share much insight on such varied issues as community-building, project management, grassroots movement, open source development, participatory culture, and aurality/orality.

After the chat, Udell and McGuire followed up, on their respective blogs. Udell developed a useful script to make all LibriVox books into RSS feeds for use in iTunes and other media players. Such a collaboration is an appropriate example of the power of “scratch your own itch” development, described during the podcast conversation. The conversation also prompted Librivox reader Sean McGaughey to describe LibriVox as a killer app. [Update: Blog version of the same description.]

I was led to this podcast episode through a visit to LibriVox reader Kara Shallenberg’s blog. Started listening to the LibriVox podcast after reading about LibriVox on fellow YulBlogger Patrick Tanguay’s own blog. Among other things, LibriVox helped me appreciate Canadian Literature and I’m quite glad that the project may contribute to Montreal’s widespread recognition at the cutting edge of technology and culture.

As an aural learner, I was quite taken by Udell and McGuire’s comments on auditory media. It seems that these two guys really grok what is so neat about sound. At least, their ideas about sound are quite compatible with my own ideas about music, language, and the cultural importance of sound.

We might be in a minority, North Americans who care about sound. Many people (including some online visionaries) seem to care more about visuality. In fact, given the large number of Web designers in the “Web 2.0” movement, it might be said that auditory media have often been considered a subset of “audiovisual content.” Yet there is something to be said about sound standing alone in digital life.

For instance, McGuire and Udell talk about the possibility for people to undertake other activities while listening to audiobooks and other auditory content. Commuting is probably the easiest one to grasp, for most people, and while it might be fun to watch a DVD on a plane or bus, audio podcasts are possibly the ideal “distraction” for (hearing) commuters. Listening to podcasts while moving around has led to very stimulating experiences.

Fans of McLuhan would probably think of “hot” and “cool” media. The difference between video and audio podcasts clearly relates to McLuhan’s ideas about participation.

There’s also the issue of rhythm. While moving images certainly can be rhythmic, speech and musical rhythm seem, to me, to be more readily associated with diverse human activities. No idea where to look for the cognitive side of this but it’s clearly worth investigating.

For lack of a better word, sound is more “abstract” than other sensory experiences. Acoustic signals do have a physical reality but the practise of listening has been used to elicit important ideas about abstract structures in Euro-American aesthetics.

Lots more to talk about but it will do for today.

Lydon at His Best

By definition, my reaction is subjective. So it might just be the fact that it’s a sunny day or that Life Is Good®, as my water bottle and diner mug say.

Yet there’s something about the April 17 episode of the Radio Open Source (ROS) podcast with Christopher Lydon which works for me.

Maybe I was just charmed by the introduction as it played with my expectations. But there’s clearly more to my enthusiasm for Lydon’s interviewing style in that specific episode than the mere enjoyment of being fooled. My initial excitement abated a bit as the show progressed and Lydon went back to his I-show mode (which I mentioned before and warned students about). This decrease in excitement strengthens my notion that Lydon was, surprisingly enough, letting participants speak in earlier portions of the show.

In fact, Lydon did something he rarely does, during the first part of this episode: he proposed a topic and let one of his guests respond without even asking a question. Sometimes, Lydon will string together a long series of questions to which the interviewee cannot really respond. In the way I was enculturated, these strings of questions are markers of close-mindedness so I have a hard time understanding why Lydon would produce them.

In fact, I would seriously like to do some conversation analysis of Lydon’s interviewing style. For instance, how long (in seconds) are his questions as compared to his guests’ comments? Is there a difference when the guest is perceived to have a higher status, in which case Lydon might go into “deference mode?” Is my perception accurate, that Lydon speaks differently to women and men? (In my observations, ROS seems to mostly have women as guests when gender is admittedly the focus.) Are there cues in Lydon’s speech patterns which reveal what he might be thinking about his guests? Is Lydon typical of “Old Media” radio shows even though he entered the “Web 2.0 landscape” with ROS?
What ticked me off, originally, was Lydon’s tendency to cut his guests in a very cavalier manner and his habit of emphasising distinctions based on perceived prestige. These issues are less problematic to me during some shows, but they still do tick me off fairly frequently. Lydon’s respect, contrary to mine, seems quite selective.

Why do I care so much about Lydon’s style, you ask? Why do I ever listen to the show if it makes me react so strongly? A number of reasons.

Radio Open Source is one of the first few podcasts to which I subscribed when iTunes began podcast support. Although I’ve unsubscribed to many other podcasts, this is a podcast which became part of my habits. I know several people who watch shows they don’t like so that they can complain about it. It might be the case for my listening to Open Source. Although, I would really prefer it if I were not to complain (I hate myself every time I do). My “problem” is that ROS often has insightful guests, frequently tackles fascinating issues, and represents the cultural specificity of a small segment of U.S. society with which I happen to relate on a fairly regular basis. In fact, ROS often provokes thoughts in me which lead to my own insight about U.S. society specifically or, on occasion, about post-industrial societies in general. And the often insightful blog comments, gatekept by the very thoughtful “blogger in chief” Brendan Greeley, occasionally make their way into the program, which evokes a type of polyvocality that is rare in Old Media (but required in the “Web 2.0 movement”). (Unfortunately, Greeley is apparently leaving the show, on which occasion I might start listening to another Greeley show if it’s podcast.)

So I probably won’t stop listening to ROS for a while. Can’t avert my ear.

Why do I tease Lydon so much? Well, as we say in French, «qui aime bien, châtie bien» or “I keed because I like.” People from the United States, especially those who claim European-American ancestry and respond rather well to the Judeo-Christian liberal model, tend to avoid conflict at all cost. It might be the main reason why, though some members of the ROS staff have contacted me after reading some of my blog posts about the show, I get this feeling that my perspective on the show is falling on deaf ears. It’s not that they don’t want to hear criticisms and critiques of the show, it’s just that my voluntarily confrontational style might clash with their own styles. If anyone on the ROS staff reads this: sorry, nothing personal!

So, do I write those posts just to be mean? Not really. But I do like challenging preconceived notions about the skills of people in positions of power. In other words, I tease Christopher Lydon because I know he can handle it. He apparently has a fairly high status within “PRI culture” (which is possibly similar to the “BBC culture” described by Georgina Born). And, to be honest, he sounds self-assured enough (notice I didn’t say “cocky” or “arrogant”) to dismiss this type of nagging offhandedly.

So, Lydon is the journalist I enjoy teasing.

Hey, it is some people’s idea of fun!

Internet Democracy

There’s been several “If X were a country” analogies, especially with MySpace as a target.

But then:

If the Internet was a country, it would be many times larger than the country of MySpace The Something Awful Forums

And then:

Nicholas Negroponte, the noted futurist and author of ‘Being Digital’, once observed that if the Internet were a country, it would be the nicest place on earth. Security and Vulnerability

Not to mention:

If the internet were a country, you’d know a relative of almost everybody. Scribd

It’d be interesting to use notions we have about actual countries to follow the analogy further. Some might think that the Internet could have a president but most of us seem to agree that the current structure of the Internet, without a specific “head of state,” works fairly well. We’ve known for a while that ordered anarchy can work:

In his classic study of the Nuer of the Southern Sudan Evans-Pritchard presents them as naked cattle-herders, seasonally nomadic, living in grass huts and supplementing their diet of animal products by horticulture. They form a congeries of tribes, sometimes gathering into loose federations but without central administration, rulers or grading of warriors or elders, and the age-sets into which they are divided have no corporate function. Evans-Pritchard speaks of ‘leopard-skin chiefs’ among them, but makes it clear that this position is backed by no coercive force. They show some specialisation but nothing amounting to a profession and cannot be said in any strict sense to have law, for there is no authority with power to adjudicate or enforce a verdict. In sum, ‘their state might be described as an ordered anarchy’. From Village to Empire

Associating the ‘Net with that anarchic model isn’t new. What seems to me a bit newer is to call that system “democratic” (especially in the context of User Generated Content, and other “Web 2.0” phenomena).

Even newer, to me at least, is the idea that the open and flexible nature of the Internet as it was originally designed might not be part of redesigns of the Internet.

Should we apply a more democratic model for the new Internet? How far should the “country” analogy affect the way we remodel the ‘Net?

The literature on nationalism and communities could help.