Category Archives: product and process

Concierge-Style Service

Disclaimer: This is one of those blogposts in which I ramble quite a bit. I do have a core point, but I take winding roads around it. It’s also a post where I’m consciously naïve, this time talking about topics which may make economists react viscerally. My hope is that they can get past their initial reaction and think about “the fool’s truth”.

High-quality customer service is something which has a very positive effect, on me. More than being awed by it, I’m extremely appreciative for it when it’s directed towards me and glad it exists when other people take advantage of it.

And I understand (at least some of) the difficulties of customer service.

Never worked directly in customer service. I do interact with a number of people, when I work (teaching, doing field research, working in restaurants, or even doing surveys over the phone). And I’ve had to deal with my share of “difficult customers”, sometimes for months at a time. But nothing I’ve done was officially considered customer service. In fact, with some of my work, “customer service” is exactly the opposite of “what the job is about”, despite some apparent similarities.

So I can only talk about customer service as a customer.

As job sectors go, customer service is quite compatible with a post-industrial world. At the end of the Industrial Revolution, jobs in the primary and secondary sectors have decreased a lot in numbers, especially in the wealthiest parts of the World. The tertiary sector is rapidly growing, in these same contexts. We may eventually notice a significant move toward the quaternary sector, through the expansion of the “knowledge society” but, as far as I know, that sector employs a very small proportion of the active population in any current context.

Point is, the service sector is quite big.

It’s also quite diverse, in terms of activities as well as in terms of conditions. There are call centres where working conditions and salaries are somewhat comparable to factory work (though the latter is considered “blue collar” and the former “white collar”). And there are parts of the service industry which, from the outside, sound quite pleasant.

But, again, I’m taking the point of view of the customer, here. I really do care about working conditions and would be interested in finding ways to improve them, but this blogpost is about my reactions as someone on the other side of the relationship.

More specifically, I’m talking about cases where my satisfaction reaches a high level. I don’t like to complain about bad service (though I could share some examples). But I do like to underline quality service.

And there are plenty of examples of those. I often share them on Twitter and/or on Facebook. But I might as well talk about some of these, here. Especially since I’m wrapping my head about a more general principal.

A key case happened back in November, during the meetings of the American Anthropological Association, here in Montreal. Was meeting a friend of mine at the conference hotel. Did a Foursquare checkin there, while I was waiting, pointing out that I was a local. Received a Twitter reply from the hotel’s account, welcoming me to Montreal. Had a short exchange about this and was told that “if my friend needs anything…” Went to lunch with my friend.

Among the topics of our conversation was the presentation she was going to give, that afternoon. She was feeling rather nervous about it and asked me what could be done to keep her nervousness under control. Based on both personal experience and rumours, I told her to eat bananas, as they seem to help in relieving stress. But, obviously, bananas aren’t that easy to get, in a downtown area.

After leaving my friend, I thought about where to get bananas for her, as a surprise. Didn’t remember that there was a supermarket, not too far from the hotel, so I was at a loss. Eventually went back to the hotel, thinking I might ask the hotel staff about this. Turns out, it would have been possible to order bananas for my friend but the kitchen had just closed.

On a whim, I thought about contacting the person who had replied to me through the hotel’s Twitter account. Explained the situation, gave my friend’s room number and, within minutes, a fruit basket was delivered to her door. At no extra charge to me or to my friend. As if it were a completely normal thing to do, asking for bananas to be delivered to a room.

I’m actually not one to ask for favours, in general. And I did feel strange asking for these bananas. But I wanted to surprise my friend and was going to pay for the service anyway. And the “if she needs anything” message was almost a dare, to me. My asking for bananas was almost defiant. “Oh, yeah? Anything? How about you bring bananas to her room, then?” Again, I’m usually not like this but exchanges like those make me want to explore the limits of the interaction.

And the result was really positive. My friend was very grateful and I sincerely think it helped her relax before her presentation, beyond the effects of the bananas themselves. And it titillated my curiosity, as an informal observer of customer service.

Often heard about hotel concierges as the model of quality in customer service. This fruit basket gave me a taster.

What’s funny about «concierges» is that, as a Québécois, I mostly associate them with maintenance work. In school, for instance, the «concierge» was the janitor, the person in charge of cleaning up the mess left by students. Sounds like “custodian” (and “custodial services”) may be somewhat equivalent to this meaning of «concierge», among English-speaking Canadians, especially in universities. Cleaning services are the key aspect of this line of work. Of course, it’s important work and it should be respected. But it’s not typically glorified as a form of employment. In fact, it’s precisely the kind of work which is used as a threat to those whose school performance is considered insufficient. Condescending teachers and principals would tell someone that they could end up working as a «concierge» (“janitor”) if they didn’t get their act together. Despite being important, this work is considered low-status. And, typically, it has little to do with customer service, as their work is often done while others are absent.

Concierges in French apartment buildings are a different matter, as they also control access and seem to be involved in collecting rent. But, in the “popular imagination” (i.e., in French movies), they’re not associated with a very high quality of service. Can think of several concierges of this type, in French movies. Some of them may have a congenial personality. But I can’t think of one who was portrayed as a model of high-quality customer service.

(I have friends who were «concierges» in apartment buildings, here in Montreal. Their work, which they did while studying, was mostly about maintenance, including changing lightbulbs and shovelling snow. The equivalent of “building superintendent”, it seems. Again, important but devalued work.)

Hotel concierges are the ones English-speakers think of when they use the term. They are the ones who are associated with high-quality (and high-value) customer service. These are the ones I’m thinking about, here.

Hotel concierges’ “golden keys” («Clefs d’or») are as much of a status symbol as you can get one. No idea how much hotel concierges make and I’m unclear as to their training and hiring. But it’s clear that they occupy quite specific a position in the social ladder, much higher than that of school janitors or apartment concierges.

Again, I can just guess how difficult their work must be. Not only the activities themselves but the interactions with the public. Yet, what interests me now is their reputation for delivering outstanding service. The fruit basket delivered to my friend’s door was a key example, to me.

(I also heard more about staff in luxury hotels, in part from a friend who worked in a call centre for a hotel with an enviable reputation. The hospitality industry is also a central component of Swiss culture, and I heard a few things about Swiss hotel schools, including Lausanne’s well-known EHL. Not to mention contacts with ITHQ graduates. But my experience with this kind of service in a hotel context is very limited.)

And it reminds me of several other examples. One is my admiration for the work done by servers in a Fredericton restaurant. The food was quite good and the restaurant’s administration boasts their winelist. But the service is what gave me the most positive feeling. Those service were able to switch completely from treating other people like royalty to treating me like a friend. These people were so good at their job that I discussed it with some of them. Perhaps they were just being humble but they didn’t even seem to realize that they were doing an especially good job.

A similar case is at some of Siena’s best restaurants, during a stay with several friends. At most places we went, the service was remarkably impeccable. We were treated like we deserved an incredible amount of respect, even though we were wearing sandals, shorts, and t-shirts.

Of course, quality service happens outside of hotels and restaurants. Which is why I wanted to post this.

Yesterday, I went to the “Genius Bar” at the Apple Store near my university campus. Had been having some issues with my iPhone and normal troubleshooting didn’t help. In fact, I had been to the same place, a few months ago, and what they had tried hadn’t really solved the problem.

This time, the problem was fixed in a very simple way: they replaced my iPhone with a new one. The process was very straightforward and efficient. And, thanks to regular backups, setting up my replacement iPhone was relatively easy a process. (There were a few issues with it and it did take some time to do, but nothing compared to what it might have been like without cloud backups.)

Through this and previous experiences with the “Genius Bar“, I keep thinking that this service model should be applied to other spheres of work. Including healthcare. Not the specifics of how a “Genius Bar” works. But something about this quality of service, applied to patient care. I sincerely think it’d have a very positive impact on people’s health.

In a way, this might be what’s implied by “concierge medicine”: personalized healthcare services, centred on patients’ needs. But there’s a key difference between Apple’s “Genius Bar” and “concierge medicine”: access to the “Genius Bar” is open to all (customers of Apple products).

Sure, not everyone can afford Apple products. But, despite a prevailing impression, these products are usually not that much more expensive than those made by competitors. In fact, some products made by Apple are quite competitive in their market. So, while the concierge-style services offered by the “Genius Bar” are paid by Apple’s customers, costing those services as even the totality of the “Apple premium” might reveal quite decent a value proposition.

Besides, it’s not about Apple and it’s not really about costs. While Apple’s “Genius Bar” provided my inspiration for this post, I mostly think about quality of service, in general. And while it’s important for decision-makers to think about the costs involved, it’s also important to think about what we mean by high quality service.

One aspect of concierge-style service is that it’s adapted to specific needs. It’s highly customized and personalized, the exact opposite of a “cookie-cutter” approach. My experience at BrewBakers was like that: I was treated the way I wanted to be treated and other people were treated in a very different way. For instance, a server sat besides me as I was looking at the menu, as if I had been a friend “hanging out” with them, and then treated some other customers as if they were the most dignified people in the world. Can’t say for sure the other people appreciated it (looked like they did), but I know it gave me a very warm feeling.

Similar thing at the “Genius Bar”. I could hear other people being treated very formally, but every time I went I was treated with the exact level of informality that I really enjoy. Perhaps more importantly, people’s technology skills are clearly taken into account and they never, in my experience, represent a basis for condescension or for misguided advice. In other words, lack of knowledge of an issue is treated with an understanding attitude and a customer’s expertise on an issue is treated with the exact level of respect it deserves. As always, YMMV. But I’m consistently struck by how appropriately “Genius Bar” employees treat diverse degrees of technological sophistication. As a teacher, this is something about which I care deeply. And it’s really challenging.

While it’s flexible and adaptable, concierge-style service is also respectful, no matter what. This is where our experiences in Siena were so striking. We were treated with respect, even though we didn’t fit the “dress code” for any of these restaurants. And this is a city where, in our observations, people seemed to put a lot of care in what they wore. It’s quite likely that we were judged like annoying tourists, who failed to understand the importance of wearing a suit and tie when going to a “classy” restaurant. But we were still welcomed in these establishments, and nothing in the service made us perceive negatively judged by these servers.

I’ve also heard about hotel staff having to maintain their dignity while coping with people who broke much more than dress codes. And this applies whether or not these people are clients. Friends told me about how the staff at a luxury hotel may deal with people who are unlikely to be customers (including homeless people). According to these friends, the rule is to treat everyone with respect, regardless of which position in the social ladder people occupy. Having noticed a few occasions where respectful treatment was applied to people who are often marginalized, it gives me some of the same satisfaction as when I’m treated adequately.

In other words, concierge-style service is appropriate, “no matter what”. The payoff may not be immediately obvious to everyone, but it’s clearly there. For one thing, poor-quality service to someone else can be quite painful to watch and those of us who are empathetic are likely to “take our business elsewhere” when we see somebody else being treated with disrespect. Not to mention that a respectful attitude is often the best way to prevent all sorts of negative situations from happening. Plus, some high-status people may look like low-status ones in certain of these situations. (For instance, friend working for a luxury hotel once commented on some celebrities looking like homeless people when they appeared at the hotel’s entrance.)

Concierge-style service is also disconnected from business transactions. While the money used to pay for people providing concierge-style service comes from business transactions, this connection is invisible in the service itself. This is similar to something which seems to puzzle a number of people I know, when I mention it. And I’m having a hard time explaining it in a way that they understand. But it’s quite important in the case of customer service.

At one level, you may call it an illusion. Though people pay for a service, the service is provided as if this payment didn’t matter. Sure, the costs associated with my friend’s fruit basket were incurred in the cost of her room. But neither of us saw that cost. So, at that level, it’s as if people were oblivious to the business side of things. This might help explain it to some people, but it’s not the end of it.

Another part has to do with models in which the costs behind the service are supported by a larger group of people, for instance in the ad-based model behind newspapers and Google or in the shared costs model behind insurance systems (not to mention public sectors programs). The same applies to situation where a third-party is responsible for the costs, like parents paying for services provided to their children. In this case, the separation between services and business transactions is a separation between roles. The same person can be beneficiary or benefactor in the same system, but at different times. Part of the result is that the quality of the service is directed toward the beneficiary, even though this person may not be directly responsible for the costs incurred by this service. So, the quality of a service offered by Google has to do with users of that service, not with Google’s customers (advertisers). The same thing applies to any kind of sponsorship and can work quite well with concierge-level quality of service. The Apple Store model is a bit like this, in that Apple subsidizes its stores out of its “own pocket”, and seems to be making a lot of money thanks to them. It may be counterintuitive, as a model, and the distinction between paying for and getting a service may sound irrelevant. But, from the perspective of human beings getting this kind of service, the difference is quite important.

At another level, it’s a matter of politeness. While some people are fine talking financials about any kind of exchange, many others find open discussion of money quite impolite. The former group of people may find it absurd but some of us would rather not discuss the specifics of the business transactions while a service is given. And I don’t mean anything like the lack of transparency of a menu with no price, in a very expensive restaurant. Quite the contrary. I mean a situation where everybody knows how much things cost in this specific situation, but discussion of those costs happens outside of the service itself. Again, this may sound strange to some, but I’d argue that it’s a characteristic of concierge-style service. You know how much it costs to spend a night at this hotel (or to get a haircut from this salon). But, while a specific service is provided, these costs aren’t mentioned.

Another component of this separation between services and their costs is about “fluidity”. It can be quite inefficient for people to keep calculating how much a service costs, itemized. The well-known joke about an engineer asked to itemize services for accounting purposes relates to this. In an industrial context, every item can have a specific cost. Applying the same logic to the service sector can lead to an overwhelming overhead and can also be quite misleading, especially in the case of knowledge and creative work. (How much does an idea cost?) While concierge-style service may be measured, doing so can have a negative impact on the service itself.

Some of my thinking about services and their costs has to do with learning contexts. In fact, much of my thinking about quality of service has to do with learning, since teaching remains an important part of my life. The equation between the costs of education and the learning process is quite complex. While there may be strong correlations between socioeconomic factors and credentials, the correlation between learning and credential is seems to be weaker and the connection between learning and socioeconomic factors is quite indirect.

In fact, something which is counterintuitive to outsiders and misconstrued to administrators at learning institutions is the relationship between learning and the quality of the work done by a teacher. There are many factors involved, in the work of a teacher, from students’ prior knowledge to their engagement in the learning process, and from “time on task” to the compatibility between learning and teaching methods. It’s also remarkably difficult to measure teaching effectiveness, especially if one is to pay more than lipservice to lifelong learning. Also, the motivations behind a teacher’s work rarely have much to do with such things as differential pay. At the very least, it’s clear that dedicated teachers spend more time than is officially required, and that they do so without any expectation of getting more money. But they do expect (and often get) much more than money, including the satisfaction of a job well done.

The analogy between teaching and concierge services falls down quickly if we think that concierges’ customers are those who use their services. Even in “for-profit” schools, the student-teacher relationship has very little to do with a client-business relationship. Those who “consume” the learning process are learners’ future employers or society as a whole. But students themselves aren’t “consuming teaching”, they’re learning. Sure, students often pay a portion of the costs to run educational institutions (other costs being covered by research activities, sponsorships, government funding, alumni, and even parents). But the result of the learning process is quite different from paying for a service. At worst, students are perceived as the “products” of the process. At best, they help construct knowledge. And even if students are increasingly treated as if they were customers of learning institutions (including publicly-funded ones), their relationship to teachers is quite distinct from patronage.

And this is one place for a connection between teachers and concierges, having to do with the separation between services and their fees: high quality service is given by concierges and teachers beyond direct financial incentives to do so. Even if these same teachers and concierges are trying to get increased wages, the services they provide are free of these considerations. Salary negotiations are a matter between employers and employees. Those who receive services are customers of the employers, not the employees. There’d be no reason for a concierge or teacher to argue with customers and students about their salaries.

In a way, this is almost the opposite of “social alienation”. In social sciences. “alienation” refers to a feeling of estrangement often taking place among workers whose products are consumed by people with whom they have no connection. A worker at a Foxconn factory may feel alienated from the person who will buy the Dell laptop on which she’s working. But service work is quite distinct from this. While there may be a huge status differential between someone getting a service and the person providing it and there can be a feeling of distance, the fact that there’s a direct connection between the two is quite significant. Even someone working at a call centre in India providing technical support to a high-status customer in the US  is significantly different from the alienated factory worker. The direct connection between call centre employee and customer can have a significant impact on both people involved, and on the business behind the technical support request.

And, to a large extent, the further a person working in customer service is from the financial transaction, the higher the quality of the service.

Lots has been said about Zappos and about Nordstrom. Much of that has to do with how these two companies’ approaches to customer service differ from other approaches (for instance, avoiding scripts). But there might be a key lesson, here, in terms of distancing the service from the job. The “customers are always right” ethos doesn’t jive well with beancounting.

So, concierge-style service is “more than a job”.

Providing high-quality service can be highly stimulating, motivating, and satisfying. Haven’t looked at job satisfaction levels among these people, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were quite high. What managers seem to forget, about job satisfaction, is that it has an impact beyond employee retention, productivity, and reputation. Satisfying jobs have a broad impact on society, which then impacts business. Like Ford paying high wages for his workers, much of it has to do with having a broader vision than simply managing the “ins and outs” of a given business. This is where Hanifan’s concept of social capital may come into play. Communities are built through such things as trust and job satisfaction.

Again, these aren’t simple issues. Quality customer service isn’t a simple matter of giving people the right conditions. But its effect are far-reaching.

It’s interesting to hear about “corporate concierge services” offered to employees of certain businesses. In a way, they loop back the relationship between high-quality service and labour. It sounds like corporate concierges can do a lot to enhance a workplace, even  making it more sustainable. I’d be curious to know more about them, as it sounds like they might have an interesting position with regards to the enterprise. I wouldn’t be surprised if their status were separate from that of regular employees within the business.

And, of course, I wish I were working at a place where such services were available. Sounds like those workplaces aren’t that uncommon. But having access to such services would be quite a privilege.

Thing is, I hate privilege, even when I’m the one benefitting from it. I once quipped that I hated library privileges, because they’re unequally distributed. The core of this is that I wish society were more equal. Not by levelling down everything we have, but by providing broader access to resources and services.

A key problem with concierge-style services is that access to them tends to be restricted. But it doesn’t sound like their costs are the only factor for this exclusiveness. In a way, concierge-level service may not be that much more expensive than standard service. It might be about concierge-style services being a differentiating factor, but even that doesn’t imply that it should be so restricted.

I’d argue that the level of quality of service that I’ve been describing (and rambling on about) can be found in just about any context. I’ve observed the work of librarians, gas station attendants, police officers, street vendors, park rangers, and movers who provided this level of service. While it may difficult to sustain high-quality service, it does scale and it does seem to make life easier for everyone.

Using WordPress as a Syllabus Database: Learning is Fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, a cool plugin became cooler.

Syllabus Database (archive)

GDE Error: Unable to load requested profile.

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

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

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

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

First Attach Button (Screenshot)
Screenshot of First “Attach” Button

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

Second Attach Button (Screenshot)
Screenshot of the Second “Attach” Button

The problem is between these two Attach buttons.

File Uploaded Screenshot
Screenshot of the Uploaded File

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

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

Images Only Screenshot
Screenshot of the Media Library Only Showing Images

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

Second Attach Button (Screenshot)
Screenshot of the second “Attach” Button

Then, finally, the final Attach button shows up.

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

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

Far from ideal.

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

Course Data Screenshot
Screenshot of the Course Data Box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m truly in flow!

iCloud Dreams

Got lots more to blog, including something about “received knowledge”. And a list of things I love about Google. (I’m also getting started on “logical punctuation”, as you may already be noticing…)

But, at the risk of attracting trolls and Apple haters, I thought I’d post some notes from a daydreaming session. In some ways, it’s easier to write than the rest. And it’s more “time-sensitive”, in that my thoughts will likely sound very silly, very soon.

But I don’t care.

So, yes, this post is about iCloud, which will be officially unveiled in a few hours. No, it doesn’t mean that I expect anything specific from iCloud or that I trust Apple to deliver something awesome.

Contrary to what some people seem to think, I’m no Apple fanboi. I use a number of Apple products and I find several of them to be close to the ideal in my workflow, but I don’t have any sort of deep involvement in “the Cult of Mac”, Apple Inc., AAPL, or even Apple-focused development. I use the tools and like them, but I don’t think Apple will save us any more than will Facebook, Dell, Google, Amazon, Twitter, HP, or Microsoft.

[Automattic, on the other hand… 😉 ]

So, back to iCloud…

According to many, “cloud computing” (whatever that means) is a domain in which Apple has been relatively weak. I tend to share that opinion, despite the fact that a number of tools that I use have to do with either “the cloud”, Apple, or both. What might give trolls and haters some ammo is that I do have a MobileMe subscription. But there’s a lot I dislike about it and the only features I really find valuable are “over-the-air” syncing (henceforth “OTA”) and “Find My iPhone”. And since I use GSync on my iPod touch, MobileMe’s OTA isn’t that incredibly important. Depending on what iCloud may be, my MobileMe renewal (which comes up in a few days) could be a very hard sell. I don’t regret having it as it did help me retrieve my iPad. But it’s rather expensive if it’s the only thing it does. (Then again, so is insurance of any kind, but I digress…)

So, I’m no MobileMe poweruser. Why would I care about iCloud?

In some ways, I don’t. Or, at least, I didn’t. Until very recently, though I saw rumours about Apple’s new “cloud services”, I was only vaguely intrigued about it. I did think that it might solve my MobileMe issue. But I treated these rumours with a lot of skepticism and a rather low level of interest.

Yet, today, iCloud has been giving me a drift-off moment. Like Android did, at some point.

It’s not that I have predictions to make about iCloud. I’m not even speculating, really. But it got me to think. And, I admit, I enjoy thinking.

Without further ado (about nothing), my fanciful thoughts stemming from a short daydreaming session about iCloud…

The main thing people seem to be expecting  (based on rumoured negotiations with music publishers) is a music streaming service similar to Music Beta by Google or a digital file storage service similar to Amazon Cloud Drive. Both of these are quite neat and I could see myself using something like this. But it’s not exactly what makes me dream. While iTunes integration might make Apple’s version of a music streaming service somewhat more useful than the others. Besides, rumours have it that, through agreements with the recording industry, iCloud might sync music without requiring long uploads. It’s quite possible that this only works with tracks purchased on iTunes, which would upset those whose expectations are high, but could already be useful to some.

Where I’m beginning to drift off, though, is when I start thinking about OTA for podcasts. It’s been high up on my wishlist, as a feature, and you might say that it’s a pet peeve with iOS devices for podcatching. Having to sync my iPod touch to my main desktop just to have my podcast list up-to-date is a major hassle. Sure, there are apps which sync podcasts OTA. Problem is, they can’t add podcasts to the native iOS media player, which is a dealbreaker in my case. (As absurd as it may sound to others, one reason this is a dealbreaker is that I now listen to everything at doublespeed. Hey, it’s my podcast library and I listen to it as I want, ok?)

So, OTA podcasts would constitute a significant enhancement to my experience. Nothing absolutely required and possibly not that significant for others, but it’d really help me in more ways than one could imagine.

Thing is, syncing my iPod touch isn’t just about podcasts, even though podcatching is my main motivation to sync. After all, I don’t listen to podcasts yet I still sync my iPad. So, what else? Well, backing up is the main other thing, and it might be one of the core reason for Apple’s implicit insistence on syncing. That’d be classic Apple. Data loss can be such a big problem that they’d “do what they can” to prevent users from losing data. Far from perfect, in my experience (I ended up having some problems when I lost my “iTunes Library” file). And quite annoying when it meant that the sync would take a very long time to finish at precisely the point when I’m trying to leave home. But a classic Apple move, even in the way Apple haters may mean it.

So OTA synchronization of the whole iOS device, and not just podcasts or music, would be a definite plus, in this perspective. If it does end up coming with iCloud, it’d provide support to the idea that the tethering of iOS devices to desktop computers is really about ensuring that users back up their devices…

…and stay up to date. Firmware updates aren’t that frequent, but they’re probably a major part of the equation for Apple.

But not so much for me. If OTA podcasts were available, I’d still sync my iOS devices on occasion, through whatever means necessary. In fact, were I to use an Android device, a backup app would be essential, to me. So still not much dreaming from the backup aspect of iCloud.

Although… Sync is much broader than preventing device-specific data loss and making sure your device has the latest firmware.

For one thing, it does encompass some of the aforementioned OTA functionalities in MobileMe. Useful, but still not dreamworthy.

We get a bit closer to a “dream come true” if we talk about Xmarks, a bookmark-sync service originally meant for Firefox.  Sure, it sounds incredibly prosaic. But OTA bookmarks would open up a wide range of possibilities. This is about a qualitative difference from going OTA. In the case of backups, it’s about avoiding an annoyance but, arguably, it’s not really about changing something major about our behaviour. (Then again, maybe it is, with people who don’t back their devices up.) Point is, with something as simple as bookmarks, OTA is “disruptive”. At least, it gets me to daydream. One reason is that:

…no matter how fundamental they have been for the Web, links and bookmarks have yet to find their full value.

Hmm… Ok, perhaps a bit hyperbolic… So let me rephrase…

There’s still a lot to be done with URLs and, as simple as they are, I love thinking about links. Maybe I’m just obsessed with URLs.

As it so happens, I have a full list of thoughts about “link processing” and I’ve already blogged about related topics (on more than one occasion, in different contexts, going back to relatively early blogposts). And I even think social science can help.

I mean, think about it! There’s so much you can do, with links! Much of it is obvious, but I’d argue, rarely discussed. For instance, it’s very clear that we can post links pretty much anywhere. Doing so, we’re sharing their “content”. (In a semiotic sense, links are indices. I wish we can move from the “semantic Web” to the “semiotic Web”. But that’s another issue.) Sharing a link is the basic act of the social Web. It’s so obvious and frequent that it seems not to require discussion”.

Another obvious thing about links: we can measure the number of times they’re followed. In 2011, more than thirty years after hypertext has been introduced as a stable concept, much of the Web’s finances still relies on “clickthroughs”. Seems important.

And there’s a lot of processing which can be done with URLs: shortening them, adding them to “to do” lists, checking them for validity, keeping them in link libraries, archiving their “content”, showing them as external or internal links, preventing them from “rotting away”, showing the wordcount or reading time of the item they “target”, display them as QR codes, abuse them, etc.

As you can notice, it’s easy to get me on a tangent simply thinking about URLs. What’s this have t’do with iCloud, you ask? Probably not much, in terms of the actual service which will be announced at Moscone. But I’ve been dreaming about iCloud as a way to integrate Diigo, Instapaper, Delicious, reddit, digg, Slashdot, StumbleUpon, Spurl, The NethernetXmarks

Hey, I told you I was dreaming! Something as simple as managing, processing, sharing, and archiving links in iCloud could lead to just about anything, in my imagination.

And speaking of Xmarks… It’s now owned by Lastpass, a company which focus on password management. IMHO, some Lastpass-like features could make their way in diverse products, including iCloud. Is this far-fetched? Possibly. But secure handling of passwords can be a major issue in both of Apple’s new operating systems (Mac OS X Lion and iOS5). From “keychains” to SSO, there’s a lot of work to be done which relates to password management, in my mind.

Which leads me to think about authentication in general and the rumours about “deep Twitter integration in iOS 5”. (Not directly related to iCloud, but who knows?) Again, something which can send me (and others) on drift-off moments. What if this integration suddenly made iOS devices more useful in terms of social networking services? Something to ponder, if one has a propensity for pondering.

At the same time, given the relative lack of activity on iTunes Ping, I wouldn’t bet on Twitter integration having that major an impact by itself. Not unlike Google, Apple has a hard time making a mark on the social Web. Now, if Twitter integration does connect to everything else Apple does, it could lead to interesting things. A full-fledged online identity? Access to contacts for not only messaging and photo sharing but for collaboration, group management, and media sharing? Not betting on any of this, but it could be fun. Again, not specific to iCloud, but quite related to “The Cloud”. If Twitter integration is deep enough, in iOS 5, it’d be possible to use iOS devices for “cloud computing”, getting further into the “post-PC era”.

An iCloud feature which is expected by several people, is something like an OTA version of the “iTunes file sharing” feature in iOS. Several apps (especially Apple’s own apps) use iTunes and a USB cable to share files. It was a welcome addition to iTunes 9.1 but it’s rather inconvenient. So many other apps rely on Dropbox for file sharing.

Which leads me to dream about iCloud as a replacement for Dropbox. Sounds extremely unlikely that it’ll have the full Dropbox feature set, especially if one thinks about the “Pro 50” and “Pro 100” plans on Dropbox. But I dream of the day when Apple’s iDisk will compete with Dropbox. Not that I’m convinced it ever will. But it’d make Apple’s devices all the more useful if it did.

Something similar, which isn’t frequently discussed directly, in connection with iCloud rumours, but which would rock: Mozy– or Carbonite-style backup, for Mac OS X machines. Sounds very unlikely that Apple will ever offer something like this but, as crazy as it may sound, the connection between Time Capsule and iCloud would be great if it went that far. From a user’s perspective, the similarities between Time Machine backup and “backing up in the cloud” (à la Mozy/Carbonite) are quite obvious. The advantages of both are clear. And while no hardware announcement is supposed to make its way to the WWDC 2011 keynote, I’d give the Time Capsule some consideration if it provided me with the equivalent of what I currently have with Mozy. Not to mention that Mozy has already sparked some drift-off moments, in me, before they announced their new plans. What if I could have a single service which combines features from Mozy, Time Machine, Dropbox, and YouSendIt?

I even think about the possibilities in terms of web hosting. As it stands, MobileMe does allow for some Web publishing through the iWeb application in its iLife suite. But iWeb has never been a major effort for Apple and it hasn’t been seen a significant update in quite a while. What if iCloud could become a true webhost just like, say… iWeb.com? (Semi-disclaimer: I won a free account with iWeb.com, last Fall, and I host some sites there. I also know some of the people who work there…)

Yet again, I don’t expect this to happen. It’s not speculation, on my part. It’s a daydream.

The reason this makes me dream is that I find all these things to be related and I wish they were integrated more seamlessly. Something about which Apple haters may not care much is the type of integration represented by iTunes. As clunky as iTunes may be, in some respects, it’s quite a success in terms of integrating a lot of different things. In fact, it probably overextended its reach a bit too much and we need to replace it. Apple needs to replace iTunes and we should also replace iTunes in our lives.

Like Gruber, I end up thinking about iCloud in relation to iTunes more than in relation to MobileMe. But I also dream about the ideal cloud service, which would not only sync and backup files between iOS devices, hundreds of millions of iTunes store accounts, and Macs, but replace several of the services for which I’m paying monthly fees.

Here’s to dreaming…

Other parts of this crazy, iCloud-infused daydream, in notes form:

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.

Scriptocentrism and the Freedom to Think

As a comment on my previous blogpost on books, a friend sent me (through Facebook) a link to a blogpost about a petition to Amazon with the following statement:

The freedom to read is tantamount to the freedom to think.

As this friend and I are both anthros+africanists, I’m reacting (perhaps a bit strongly) to that statement.

Given my perspective, I would dare say that I find this statement (brought about by DbD)… ethnocentric.

There, I said it.

And I’ll try to back it up in this blogpost in order to spark even more discussion.

We won’t exhaust this topic any time soon, but I feel there’s a lot we can do about it which has rarely been done.

I won’t use the textbook case of “Language in the Inner City,” but it could help us talk about who decides, in a given social context, what is important. We both come from a literacy-focused background, so we may have to take a step back. Not sure if Bourdieu has commented on Labov, especially in terms of what all this means for “education,” but I’d even want to bring in Ivan Illich, at some point.

Hunters with whom I’ve been working, in Mali, vary greatly in terms of literacy. Some of them have a strong university background and one can even write French legalese (he’s a judge). Others (or some of the same) have gone to Koranic school long enough that can read classical Arabic. Some have the minimal knowledge of Arabic which suffices, for them, to do divination. Many of them have a very low level of functional literacy. There’s always someone around them who can read and write, so they’re usually not out of the loop and it’s not like the social hierarchy stereotypical of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages in Europe. It’s a very different social context which can hardly be superimposed with the history of writing and the printing press in Europe.

In terms of “freedom to thinik,” I really wouldn’t say that they’re lacking. Of course, “free thinker” has a specific meaning in liberal societies with a European background. But even this meaning can be applied to many people I’ve met in Mali.

And I go back to the social context. Those with the highest degree of functional literacy aren’t necessarily those with the highest social status. And unlike Harlem described by Labov, it’s a relatively independent context from the one in which literacy is a sine qua non. Sure, it’s a neocolonial context and Euro-Americans keep insisting that literacy in Latin script is “the most important thing ever” if they are to become a true liberal democracy. Yet, internally, it’s perfectly possible for someone to think freely, get recognition, and help other people to think without going through the written medium.

Many of those I know who have almost nonexistent skills in the written medium also have enough power (in a Weberian sense) that they get others to do the reading and writing for them. And because there are many social means to ensure that communication has worked appropriately, these “scribes” aren’t very likely to use this to take anything away from those for whom they read and write.

In Switzerland, one of my recent ancestors was functionally illiterate. Because of this, she “signed away” most of her wealth. Down the line, I’m one of her very few heirs. So, in a way, I lost part of my inheritance due to illiteracy.

Unless the switch to a European model for notarial services becomes complete, a case like this is unlikely to occur among people I know in Mali. If it does happen, it’s clearly not a failure of the oral system but a problem with this kind of transition. It’s somewhat similar to the situation with women in diverse parts of the continent during the period of direct colonialism: the fact that women have lost what powers they had (say, in a matrilineal/matrilocal society) has to do with the switch to a hierarchical system which put the emphasis on new factors which excluded the type of influence women had.

In other words, I fully understand the connections between liberalism and literacy and I’ve heard enough about the importance of the printing press and journalism in these liberal societies to understand what role reading has played in those contexts. I simply dispute the notion that these connections should be universal.

Yes, I wish the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (including the (in)famous Article 26, which caused so many issues) were more culturally aware.

I started reading Deschooling Society a few weeks ago. In terms of “insight density,” it’s much higher than the book which prompted this discussion. While reading the first chapter, I constructed a number of ideas which I personally find useful.

I haven’t finished reading the book. Yet. I might eventually finish it. But much of what I wanted to get from that book, I was able to get from diverse sources. Including that part of the book I did read, sequentially. But, also, everything which has been written about Illich since 1971. And I’ll be interested in reading comments by the reading group at Wikiversity.

Given my background, I have as many “things to say” about the issues surrounding schooling as what I’ve read. If I had the time, I could write as much on what I’ve read from that book and it’d probably bring me a lot of benefits.

I’ve heard enough strong reactions against this attitude I’m displaying that I can hear it, already: “how can you talk about a book you haven’t read.” And I sincerely think these people miss an important point. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that their reading habits are off (that’d be mean), especially since those are well-adapted to certain contexts, including what I call scriptocentrism. Not that these people are scriptocentric. But their attitude “goes well with” scriptocentrism.

Academia, despite being to context for an enormous amount of writing and reading, isn’t displaying that kind of scriptocentrism. Sure, a lot of what we do needs to be written (although, it’s often surprising how much insight goes unwritten in the work of many an academic). And we do get evaluated through our writing. Not to mention that we need to write in a very specific mode, which almost causes a diglossia.

But we simply don’t feel forced to “read the whole text.”

A colleague has described this as the “dirty little secret” of academia. And one which changes many things for students, to the point that it almost sounds as if it remains a secret so as to separate students into categories of “those who get it” and “the mass.”

It doesn’t take a semester to read a textbook so there are students who get the impression that they can simply read the book in a weekend and take the exams. These students may succeed, depending on the course. In fact, they may get really good grades. But they run into a wall if they want to go on with a career making any use of knowledge construction skills.

Bill Reimer has interesting documents about “better reading.” It’s a PowerPoint presentation accompanied by exercises in a PDF format. (No, I won’t discuss format here.)

I keep pointing students to those documents for a simple reason: Reimer isn’t advocating reading every word in sequence. His “skim then focus” advice might be the one piece which is harder to get through to people but it’s tremendously effective in academic contexts. It’s also one which is well-adapted to the kind of online reading I’m thinking about. And not necessarily that good for physical books. Sure, you can efficiently flip pages in a book. But skimming a text on paper is more likely to be about what stands out visually than about the structure of the text. Especially with book-length texts. The same advice holds with physical books, of course. After all, this kind of advice originally comes from that historical period which I might describe as the “heyday of books”: the late 20th Century. But I’d say that the kind of “better reading” Reimer describes is enhanced in the context of online textuality. Not just the “Read/Write Web” but Instant Messaging, email, forums, ICQ, wikis, hypertext, Gopher, even PowerPoint…

Much of this has to do with different models of human communication. The Shannon/Weaver crowd have a linear/directional model, based on information processing. Codec and modem. Something which, after Irvine’s Shadow Conversations, I tend to call “the football theory of communication.” This model might be the best-known one, especially among those who study in departments of communication along with other would-be journalists. Works well for a “broadcast” medium with mostly indirect interaction (books, television, radio, cinema, press conferences, etc.). Doesn’t work so well for the backchannel-heavy “smalltalk”  stuff of most human communication actually going on in this world.

Some cognitivists (including Chomsky) have a schema-based model. Constructivists (from Piaget on) have an elaborate model based on knowledge. Several linguistic anthropologists (including yours truly but also Judith Irvine, Richard Bauman, and Dell Hymes) have a model which gives more than lipservice to the notion of performance. And there’s a functional model of any human communication in Jakobson’s classic text on verbal communication. It’s a model which can sound as if it were linear/bidirectional but it’s much broader than this. His six “functions of verbal communication” do come from six elements of the communication process (channel, code, form, context, speaker, listener). But each of these elements embeds a complex reality and Jakobson’s model seems completely compatible with a holistic approach to human communication. In fact, Jakobson has had a tremendous impact on a large variety of people, including many key figures in linguistic anthropology along with Lévi-Strauss and, yes, even Chomsky.

(Sometimes, I wish more people knew about Jakobson. Oh, wait! Since Jakobson was living in the US, I need to americanize this statement: “Jakobson is the most underrated scholar ever.”)

All these models do (or, in my mind, should) integrate written communication. Yet scriptocentrism has often led us far away from “texts as communication” and into “text as an object.” Scriptocentrism works well with modernity. Going away from scriptocentrism is a way to accept our postmodern reality.

I Hate Books

In a way, this is a followup to a discussion happening on Facebook after something I posted (available publicly on Twitter): “(Alexandre) wishes physical books a quick and painfree death. / aime la connaissance.”

As I expected, the reactions I received were from friends who are aghast: how dare I dismiss physical books? Don’t I know no shame?

Apparently, no, not in this case.

And while I posted it as a quip, it’s the result of a rather long reflection. It’s not that I’m suddenly anti-books. It’s that I stopped buying several of the “pro-book” arguments a while ago.

Sure, sure. Books are the textbook case of technlogy which needs no improvement. eBooks can’t replace the experience of doing this or that with a book. But that’s what folkloristics defines as a functional shift. Like woven baskets which became objects of nostalgia, books are being maintained as the model for a very specific attitude toward knowledge construction based on monolithic authored texts vetted by gatekeepers and sold as access to information.

An important point, here, is that I’m not really thinking about fiction. I used to read two novel-length works a week (collections of short stories, plays…), for a period of about 10 years (ages 13 to 23). So, during that period, I probably read about 1,000 novels, ranging from Proust’s Recherche to Baricco’s Novecentoand the five books of Rabelais’s Pantagruel series. This was after having read a fair deal of adolescent and young adult fiction. By today’s standards, I might be considered fairly well-read.

My life has changed a lot, since that time. I didn’t exactly stop reading fiction but my move through graduate school eventually shifted my reading time from fiction to academic texts. And I started writing more and more, online and offline.
In the same time, the Web had also been making me shift from pointed longform texts to copious amounts of shortform text. Much more polyvocal than what Bakhtin himself would have imagined.

(I’ve also been shifting from French to English, during that time. But that’s almost another story. Or it’s another part of the story which can reamin in the backdrop without being addressed directly at this point. Ask, if you’re curious.)
The increase in my writing activity is, itself, a shift in the way I think, act, talk… and get feedback. See, the fact that I talk and write a lot, in a variety of circumstances, also means that I get a lot of people to play along. There’s still a risk of groupthink, in specific contexts, but one couldn’t say I keep getting things from the same perspective. In fact, the very Facebook conversation which sparked this blogpost is an example, as the people responding there come from relatively distant backgrounds (though there are similarities) and were not specifically queried about this. Their reactions have a very specific value, to me. Sure, it comes in the form of writing. But it’s giving me even more of something I used to find in writing: insight. The stuff you can’t get through Google.

So, back to books.

I dislike physical books. I wish I didn’t have to use them to read what I want to read. I do have a much easier time with short reading sessions on a computer screen that what would turn into rather long periods of time holding a book in my hands.

Physical books just don’t do it for me, anymore. The printing press is, like, soooo 1454!

Yes, books had “a good run.” No, nothing replaces them. That’s not the way it works. Movies didn’t replace theater, television didn’t replace radio, automobiles didn’t replace horses, photographs didn’t replace paintings, books didn’t replace orality. In fact, the technology itself doesn’t do much by itself. But social contexts recontextualize tools. If we take technology to be the set of both tools and the knowledge surrounding it, technology mostly goes through social processes, since tool repertoires and corresponding knowledge mostly shift in social contexts, not in their mere existence. Gutenberg’s Bible was a “game-changer” for social, as well as technical reasons.

And I do insist on orality. Journalists and other “communication is transmission of information” followers of Shannon&Weaver tend to portray writing as the annihilation of orality. How long after the invention of writing did Homer transfer an oral tradition to the writing media? Didn’t Albert Lord show the vitality of the epic well into the 20th Century? Isn’t a lot of our knowledge constructed through oral means? Is Internet writing that far, conceptually, from orality? Is literacy a simple on/off switch?

Not only did I maintain an interest in orality through the most book-focused moments of my life but I probably care more about orality now than I ever did. So I simply cannot accept the idea that books have simply replaced the human voice. It doesn’t add up.

My guess is that books won’t simply disappear either. There should still be a use for “coffee table books” and books as gifts or collectables. Records haven’t disappeared completely and CDs still have a few more days in dedicated stores. But, in general, we’re moving away from the “support medium” for “content” and more toward actual knowledge management in socially significant contexts.

In these contexts, books often make little sense. Reading books is passive while these contexts are about (hyper-)/(inter-)active.

Case in point (and the reason I felt compelled to post that Facebook/Twitter quip)…
I hear about a “just released” French book during a Swiss podcast. Of course, it’s taken a while to write and publish. So, by the time I heard about it, there was no way to participate in the construction of knowledge which led to it. It was already “set in stone” as an “opus.”

Looked for it at diverse bookstores. One bookstore could eventually order it. It’d take weeks and be quite costly (for something I’m mostly curious about, not depending on for something really important).

I eventually find it in the catalogue at BANQ. I reserve it. It wasn’t on the shelves, yet, so I had to wait until it was. It took from November to February. I eventually get a message that I have a couple of days to pick up my reservation but I wasn’t able to go. So it went back on the “just released” shelves. I had the full call number but books in that section aren’t in their call number sequence. I spent several minutes looking back and forth between eight shelves to eventually find out that there were four more shelves in the “humanities and social sciences” section. The book I was looking was on one of those shelves.

So, I was able to borrow it.

Phew!

In the metro, I browse through it. Given my academic reflex, I look for the back matter first. No bibliography, no index, a ToC with rather obscure titles (at random: «Taylor toujours à l’œuvre»/”Taylor still at work,” which I’m assuming to be a reference to continuing taylorism). The book is written by two separate dudes but there’s no clear indication of who wrote what. There’s a preface (by somebody else) but no “acknowledgments” section, so it’s hard to see who’s in their network. Footnotes include full URLs to rather broad sites as well as “discussion with <an author’s name>.” The back cover starts off with references to French popular culture (including something about “RER D,” which would be difficult to search). Information about both authors fits in less than 40 words (including a list of publication titles).

The book itself is fairly large print, ways almost a pound (422g, to be exact) for 327 pages (including front and back matter). Each page seems to be about 50 characters per line, about 30 lines per page. So, about half a million characters or 3500 tweets (including spaces). At 5+1 characters per word, about 80,000 words (I have a 7500-words blogpost, written in an afternoon). At about 250 words per minute, about five hours of reading. This book is listed at 19€ (about 27CAD).
There’s no direct way to do any “postprocessing” with the text: no speech synthesis for visually impaired, concordance analysis, no machine translation, even a simple search for occurences of “Sarkozy” is impossible. Not to mention sharing quotes with students or annotating in an easy-to-retrieve fashion (à la Diigo).

Like any book, it’s impossible to read in the dark and I actually have a hard time to find a spot where I can read with appropriate lighting.

Flipping through the book, I get the impression that there’s some valuable things to spark discussions, but there’s also a whole lot of redundancy with frequent discussions on the topic (the Future of Journalism, or #FoJ, as a matter of fact). My guesstimate is that, out of 5 hours of reading, I’d get at most 20 pieces of insight that I’d have exactly no way to find elsewhere. Comparable books to which I listened as audiobooks, recently, had much less. In other words, I’d have at most 20 tweets worth of things to say from the book. Almost a 200:1 compression.
Direct discussion with the authors could produce much more insight. The radio interviews with these authors already contained a few insight hints, which predisposed me to look for more. But, so many months later, without the streams of thought which animated me at the time, I end up with something much less valuable than what I wanted to get, back in November.

Bottomline: Books aren’t necessarily “broken” as a tool. They just don’t fit my life, anymore.

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.

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.

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.