Category Archives: soapbox

Reply to Alex Gagnon’s Google Paradox

[Tried adding a comment directly on Alex Gagnon’s Posterous blog, but it kept stalling. So I’ll post this here, which may make for a different kind of interaction. Besides, I’d like to blog a bit more.]

The Google Paradox – Marc-Alexandre Gagnon.

We seem to be finding very different answers to rather similar questions. So I sincerely hope we’ll have the opportunity to meet and discuss these things in a local café.

But still, a few thoughts, in no particular order.

Let’s be clear on what we mean by “culture.” Sounds like there’s a tension, here, between the ways the concept signifies in: “cultural industry,” “Minister of culture,” “pop culture,” “our culture,” and “nature vs. culture.” As a cultural anthropologist, I tend to navigate more toward the latter contexts, but there are significant connections through these diverse conceptual frames.

Speaking of significance… It can be a useful concept, with some links to “relevance.” Especially if we think about Relevance Theory as defined by Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber. Their theory is about communication and cognition, with some strange claims about semiotics. Significance can bridge the gap between their notion of relevance and what insight semiotics may provide.

Chances are, you’re not really singling out Google, right? Blekko and Bing are providing similar results for similar reasons. Google may be the target of most SEO, but current search engines share a fairly unified notion of “quality content.”

Speaking of quality… As mentioned on Twitter, we might think of quality as a social construct. Especially “now.” The modern era had a lot to do with tastemakers, which were given some “authority/influence/power” through a rather specific social process. Similar to what @ChrisBrogan and @Julien call “trust agents.” In sociology, we talk about “gatekeepers” in pretty much the same way. And Duchamp woke a few people up in showing the effects of museumization. We had similar things in music, though my courses in musical æsthetics paid relatively little attention to these.
The basic insight from most “posts” (postcolonialism, poststructuralism, postmodernism, postnationalism, postindustrialism…) is that rigid structures may crumble. Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, of course, but also the very idea of the Nation-State with “checkbox democracy” focused on the representation of predefined “interest groups.” Self-labeled arbiters of good taste, of course, but also the notion that “quality” is an immanent feature of the art object.

And speaking of art objects… People still talk about masterpieces, great works, and cathedrals. But we may also talk about the bazaar, “the eye of the beholder,” and “life as an art form.” Life is too short for everyone to be looking at the same old “artworks.” After all, “Life, sex, and art aren’t spectator sports.”

As for our logocentrism (“language media”), it’s difficult but possible to get beyond this ethnocentric bias. Part of this was prefigured in much 20th Century philosophy (from Russell to Davidson) and popular culture (Wings of Desire). But we can have a broader approach. In anthropology, we work on several things which are directly related to this, from linguistic anthropology and the ethnography of communication to cognitive anthropology and the anthropology of senses. We may live in a “visual” society but our obsession is with language. Which has a lot to do with the fact that the Internet was set in a Euro-American context.
But “our culture” isn’t a prison. We can adopt a broader worldview.

Intimacy, Network Effect, Hype

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

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

Is the Quora hype related to network effect?

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

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

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

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

It was a surreal experience.

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

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

It has to do with the network effect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going back to Quora…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, other services…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’ll be for another time.

Cheers!

Academics and Their Publics

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian
Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Academics are misunderstood.

Almost by definition.

Pretty much any academic eventually feels that s/he is misunderstood. Misunderstandings about some core notions in about any academic field are involved in some of the most common pet peeves among academics.

In other words, there’s nothing as transdisciplinary as misunderstanding.

It can happen in the close proximity of a given department (“colleagues in my department misunderstand my work”). It can happen through disciplinary boundaries (“people in that field have always misunderstood our field”). And, it can happen generally: “Nobody gets us.”

It’s not paranoia and it’s probably not self-victimization. But there almost seems to be a form of “onedownmanship” at stake with academics from different disciplines claiming that they’re more misunderstood than others. In fact, I personally get the feeling that ethnographers are more among the most misunderstood people around, but even short discussions with friends in other fields (including mathematics) have helped me get the idea that, basically, we’re all misunderstood at the same “level” but there are variations in the ways we’re misunderstood. For instance, anthropologists in general are mistaken for what they aren’t based on partial understanding by the general population.

An example from my own experience, related to my decision to call myself an “informal ethnographer.” When you tell people you’re an anthropologist, they form an image in their minds which is very likely to be inaccurate. But they do typically have an image in their minds. On the other hand, very few people have any idea about what “ethnography” means, so they’re less likely to form an opinion of what you do from prior knowledge. They may puzzle over the term and try to take a guess as to what “ethnographer” might mean but, in my experience, calling myself an “ethnographer” has been a more efficient way to be understood than calling myself an “anthropologist.”

This may all sound like nitpicking but, from the inside, it’s quite impactful. Linguists are frequently asked about the number of languages they speak. Mathematicians are taken to be number freaks. Psychologists are perceived through the filters of “pop psych.” There are many stereotypes associated with engineers. Etc.

These misunderstandings have an impact on anyone’s work. Not only can it be demoralizing and can it impact one’s sense of self-worth, but it can influence funding decisions as well as the use of research results. These misunderstandings can underminine learning across disciplines. In survey courses, basic misunderstandings can make things very difficult for everyone. At a rather basic level, academics fight misunderstandings more than they fight ignorance.

The  main reason I’m discussing this is that I’ve been given several occasions to think about the interface between the Ivory Tower and the rest of the world. It’s been a major theme in my blogposts about intellectuals, especially the ones in French. Two years ago, for instance, I wrote a post in French about popularizers. A bit more recently, I’ve been blogging about specific instances of misunderstandings associated with popularizers, including Malcolm Gladwell’s approach to expertise. Last year, I did a podcast episode about ethnography and the Ivory Tower. And, just within the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a few things which all seem to me to connect with this same issue: common misunderstandings about academic work. The connections are my own, and may not be so obvious to anyone else. But they’re part of my motivations to blog about this important issue.

In no particular order:

But, of course, I think about many other things. Including (again, in no particular order):

One discussion I remember, which seems to fit, included comments about Germaine Dieterlen by a friend who also did research in West Africa. Can’t remember the specifics but the gist of my friend’s comment was that “you get to respect work by the likes of Germaine Dieterlen once you start doing field research in the region.” In my academic background, appreciation of Germaine Dieterlen’s may not be unconditional, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on extensive work in the field. In other words, while some parts of Dieterlen’s work may be controversial and it’s extremely likely that she “got a lot of things wrong,” her work seems to be taken seriously by several French-speaking africanists I’ve met. And not only do I respect everyone but I would likely praise someone who was able to work in the field for so long. She’s not my heroine (I don’t really have heroes) or my role-model, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me that respect for her wasn’t widespread. If it had seemed that Dieterlen’s work had been misunderstood, my reflex would possibly have been to rehabilitate her.

In fact, there’s  a strong academic tradition of rehabilitating deceased scholars. The first example which comes to mind is a series of articles (PDF, in French) and book chapters by UWO linguistic anthropologist Regna Darnell.about “Benjamin Lee Whorf as a key figure in linguistic anthropology.” Of course, saying that these texts by Darnell constitute a rehabilitation of Whorf reveals a type of evaluation of her work. But that evaluation comes from a third person, not from me. The likely reason for this case coming up to my mind is that the so-called “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” is among the most misunderstood notions from linguistic anthropology. Moreover, both Whorf and Sapir are frequently misunderstood, which can make matters difficulty for many linguistic anthropologists talking with people outside the discipline.

The opposite process is also common: the “slaughtering” of “sacred cows.” (First heard about sacred cows through an article by ethnomusicologist Marcia Herndon.) In some significant ways, any scholar (alive or not) can be the object of not only critiques and criticisms but a kind of off-handed dismissal. Though this often happens within an academic context, the effects are especially lasting outside of academia. In other words, any scholar’s name is likely to be “sullied,” at one point or another. Typically, there seems to be a correlation between the popularity of a scholar and the likelihood of her/his reputation being significantly tarnished at some point in time. While there may still be people who treat Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Socrates, Einstein, or Rousseau as near divinities, there are people who will avoid any discussion about anything they’ve done or said. One way to put it is that they’re all misunderstood. Another way to put it is that their main insights have seeped through “common knowledge” but that their individual reputations have decreased.

Perhaps the most difficult case to discuss is that of Marx (Karl, not Harpo). Textbooks in introductory sociology typically have him as a key figure in the discipline and it seems clear that his insight on social issues was fundamental in social sciences. But, outside of some key academic contexts, his name is associated with a large series of social events about which people tend to have rather negative reactions. Even more so than for Paul de Man or  Martin Heidegger, Marx’s work is entangled in public opinion about his ideas. Haven’t checked for examples but I’m quite sure that Marx’s work is banned in a number of academic contexts. However, even some of Marx’s most ardent opponents are likely to agree with several aspects of Marx’s work and it’s sometimes funny how Marxian some anti-Marxists may be.

But I digress…

Typically, the “slaughtering of sacred cows” relates to disciplinary boundaries instead of social ones. At least, there’s a significant difference between your discipline’s own “sacred cows” and what you perceive another discipline’s “sacred cows” to be. Within a discipline, the process of dismissing a prior scholar’s work is almost œdipean (speaking of Freud). But dismissal of another discipline’s key figures is tantamount to a rejection of that other discipline. It’s one thing for a physicist to show that Newton was an alchemist. It’d be another thing entirely for a social scientist to deconstruct James Watson’s comments about race or for a theologian to argue with Darwin. Though discussions may have to do with individuals, the effects of the latter can widen gaps between scholarly disciplines.

And speaking of disciplinarity, there’s a whole set of issues having to do with discussions “outside of someone’s area of expertise.” On one side, comments made by academics about issues outside of their individual areas of expertise can be very tricky and can occasionally contribute to core misunderstandings. The fear of “talking through one’s hat” is quite significant, in no small part because a scholar’s prestige and esteem may greatly decrease as a result of some blatantly inaccurate statements (although some award-winning scholars seem not to be overly impacted by such issues).

On the other side, scholars who have to impart expert knowledge to people outside of their discipline  often have to “water down” or “boil down” their ideas and, in effect, oversimplifying these issues and concepts. Partly because of status (prestige and esteem), lowering standards is also very tricky. In some ways, this second situation may be more interesting. And it seems unavoidable.

How can you prevent misunderstandings when people may not have the necessary background to understand what you’re saying?

This question may reveal a rather specific attitude: “it’s their fault if they don’t understand.” Such an attitude may even be widespread. Seems to me, it’s not rare to hear someone gloating about other people “getting it wrong,” with the suggestion that “we got it right.”  As part of negotiations surrounding expert status, such an attitude could even be a pretty rational approach. If you’re trying to position yourself as an expert and don’t suffer from an “impostor syndrome,” you can easily get the impression that non-specialists have it all wrong and that only experts like you can get to the truth. Yes, I’m being somewhat sarcastic and caricatural, here. Academics aren’t frequently that dismissive of other people’s difficulties understanding what seem like simple concepts. But, in the gap between academics and the general population a special type of intellectual snobbery can sometimes be found.

Obviously, I have a lot more to say about misunderstood academics. For instance, I wanted to address specific issues related to each of the links above. I also had pet peeves about widespread use of concepts and issues like “communities” and “Eskimo words for snow” about which I sometimes need to vent. And I originally wanted this post to be about “cultural awareness,” which ends up being a core aspect of my work. I even had what I might consider a “neat” bit about public opinion. Not to mention my whole discussion of academic obfuscation (remind me about “we-ness and distinction”).

But this is probably long enough and the timing is right for me to do something else.

I’ll end with an unverified anecdote that I like. This anecdote speaks to snobbery toward academics.

[It’s one of those anecdotes which was mentioned in a course I took a long time ago. Even if it’s completely fallacious, it’s still inspiring, like a tale, cautionary or otherwise.]

As the story goes (at least, what I remember of it), some ethnographers had been doing fieldwork  in an Australian cultural context and were focusing their research on a complex kinship system known in this context. Through collaboration with “key informants,” the ethnographers eventually succeeded in understanding some key aspects of this kinship system.

As should be expected, these kinship-focused ethnographers wrote accounts of this kinship system at the end of their field research and became known as specialists of this system.

After a while, the fieldworkers went back to the field and met with the same people who had described this kinship system during the initial field trip. Through these discussions with their “key informants,” the ethnographers end up hearing about a radically different kinship system from the one about which they had learnt, written, and taught.

The local informants then told the ethnographers: “We would have told you earlier about this but we didn’t think you were able to understand it.”

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.

Homeroasting and Coffee Geekness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Especially since it complements my other purchases.

So, going to the i-Roast.

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

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

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

And the i-Roast 2 itself fits, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I’m still dreaming about such things.

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

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

Development and Quality: Reply to Agile Diary

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

My tweet:

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

Vikrama’s post:

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

My reply:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, I digress…

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

Disclaimer: I am not a coder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Personal Devices

Still thinking about touch devices, such as the iPod touch and the rumoured “Apple Tablet.”

Thinking out loud. Rambling even more crazily than usual.

Something important about those devices is the need for a real “Personal Digital Assistant.” I put PDAs as a keyword for my previous post because I do use the iPod touch like I was using my PalmOS and even NewtonOS devices. But there’s more to it than that, especially if you think about cloud computing and speech technologies.
I mentioned speech recognition in that previous post. SR tends to be a pipedream of the computing world. Despite all the hopes put into realtime dictation, it still hasn’t taken off in a big way. One reason might be that it’s still somewhat cumbersome to use, in current incarnations. Another reason is that it’s relatively expensive as a standalone product which requires some getting used to. But I get the impression that another set of reasons has to do with the fact that it’s mostly fitting on a personal device. Partly because it needs to be trained. But also because voice itself is a personal thing.

Cloud computing also takes a new meaning with a truly personal device. It’s no surprise that there are so many offerings with some sort of cloud computing feature in the App Store. Not only do Apple’s touch devices have limited file storage space but the notion of accessing your files in the cloud go well with a personal device.
So, what’s the optimal personal device? I’d say that Apple’s touch devices are getting close to it but that there’s room for improvement.

Some perspective…

Originally, the PC was supposed to be a “personal” computer. But the distinction was mostly with mainframes. PCs may be owned by a given person, but they’re not so tied to that person, especially given the fact that they’re often used in a single context (office or home, say). A given desktop PC can be important in someone’s life, but it’s not always present like a personal device should be. What’s funny is that “personal computers” became somewhat more “personal” with the ‘Net and networking in general. Each computer had a name, etc. But those machines remained somewhat impersonal. In many cases, even when there are multiple profiles on the same machine, it’s not so safe to assume who the current user of the machine is at any given point.

On paper, the laptop could have been that “personal device” I’m thinking about. People may share a desktop computer but they usually don’t share their laptop, unless it’s mostly used like a desktop computer. The laptop being relatively easy to carry, it’s common for people to bring one back and forth between different sites: work, home, café, school… Sounds tautological, as this is what laptops are supposed to be. But the point I’m thinking about is that these are still distinct sites where some sort of desk or table is usually available. People may use laptops on their actual laps, but the form factor is still closer to a portable desktop computer than to the kind of personal device I have in mind.

Then, we can go all the way to “wearable computing.” There’s been some hype about wearable computers but it has yet to really be part of our daily lives. Partly for technical reasons but partly because it may not really be what people need.

The original PDAs (especially those on NewtonOS and PalmOS) were getting closer to what people might need, as personal devices. The term “personal digital assistant” seemed to encapsulate what was needed. But, for several reasons, PDAs have been having a hard time. Maybe there wasn’t a killer app for PDAs, outside of “vertical markets.” Maybe the stylus was the problem. Maybe the screen size and bulk of the device weren’t getting to the exact points where people needed them. I was still using a PalmOS device in mid-2008 and it felt like I was among the last PDA users.
One point was that PDAs had been replaced by “smartphones.” After a certain point, most devices running PalmOS were actually phones. RIM’s Blackberry succeeded in a certain niche (let’s use the vague term “professionals”) and is even beginning to expand out of it. And devices using other OSes have had their importance. It may not have been the revolution some readers of Pen Computing might have expected, but the smartphone has been a more successful “personal device” than the original PDAs.

It’s easy to broaden our focus from smartphones and think about cellphones in general. If the 3.3B figure can be trusted, cellphones may already be outnumbering desktop and laptop computers by 3:1. And cellphones really are personal. You bring them everywhere; you don’t need any kind of surface to use them; phone communication actually does seem to be a killer app, even after all this time; there are cellphones in just about any price range; cellphone carriers outside of Canada and the US are offering plans which are relatively reasonable; despite some variation, cellphones are rather similar from one manufacturer to the next… In short, cellphones already were personal devices, even before the smartphone category really emerged.

What did smartphones add? Basically, a few PDA/PIM features and some form of Internet access or, at least, some form of email. “Whoa! Impressive!”

Actually, some PIM features were already available on most cellphones and Internet access from a smartphone is in continuity with SMS and data on regular cellphones.

What did Apple’s touch devices add which was so compelling? Maybe not so much, apart from the multitouch interface, a few games, and integration with desktop/laptop computers. Even then, most of these changes were an evolution over the basic smartphone concept. Still, it seems to have worked as a way to open up personal devices to some new dimensions. People now use the iPhone (or some other multitouch smartphone which came out after the iPhone) as a single device to do all sorts of things. Around the World, multitouch smartphones are still much further from being ubiquitous than are cellphones in general. But we could say that these devices have brought the personal device idea to a new phase. At least, one can say that they’re much more exciting than the other personal computing devices.

But what’s next for personal devices?

Any set of buzzphrases. Cloud computing, speech recognition, social media…

These things can all come together, now. The “cloud” is mostly ready and personal devices make cloud computing more interesting because they’re “always-on,” are almost-wearable, have batteries lasting just about long enough, already serve to keep some important personal data, and are usually single-user.

Speech recognition could go well with those voice-enabled personal devices. For one thing, they already have sound input. And, by this time, people are used to seeing others “talk to themselves” as cellphones are so common. Plus, voice recognition is already understood as a kind of security feature. And, despite their popularity, these devices could use a further killer app, especially in terms of text entry and processing. Some of these devices already have voice control and it’s not so much of a stretch to imagine them having what’s needed for continuous speech recognition.

In terms of getting things onto the device, I’m also thinking about such editing features as a universal rich-text editor (à la TinyMCE), predictive text, macros, better access to calendar/contact data, ubiquitous Web history, multiple pasteboards, data detectors, Automator-like processing, etc. All sorts of things which should come from OS-level features.

“Social media” may seem like too broad a category. In many ways, those devices already take part in social networking, user-generated content, and microblogging, to name a few areas of social media. But what about a unified personal profile based on the device instead of the usual authentication method? Yes, all sorts of security issues. But aren’t people unconcerned about security in the case of social media? Twitter accounts are being hacked left and right yet Twitter doesn’t seem to suffer much. And there could be added security features on a personal device which is meant to really integrate social media. Some current personal devices already work well as a way to keep login credentials to multiple sites. The next step, there, would be to integrate all those social media services into the device itself. We maybe waiting for OpenSocial, OpenID, OAuth, Facebook Connect, Google Connect, and all sorts of APIs to bring us to an easier “social media workflow.” But a personal device could simplify the “social media workflow” even further, with just a few OS-based tweaks.

Unlike my previous, I’m not holding my breath for some specific event which will bring us the ultimate personal device. After all, this is just a new version of my ultimate handheld device blogpost. But, this time, I was focusing on what it means for a device to be “personal.” It’s even more of a drafty draft than my blogposts usually have been ever since I decided to really RERO.

So be it.

Beer Eye for the Coffee Guy (or Gal)

Judged twelve (12) espresso drinks as part of the Eastern Regional Canadian Barista Championship (UStream).

[Never watched Queer Eye. Thought the title would make sense, given both the “taste” and even gender dimensions.]

Had quite a bit of fun.

The experience was quite similar to the one I had last year. There were fewer competitors, this year. But I also think that there were more people in the audience, at least in the morning. One possible reason is that ads about the competition were much more visible this year than last (based on my own experience and on several comments made during the day). Also, I noticed a stronger sense of collegiality among competitors, as several of them have been different things together in the past year.

More specifically, people from Ottawa’s Bridgehead and people from Montreal’s Café Myriade have developed something which, at least from the outside, look like comradery. At the Canadian National Barista Championship, last year, Myriade’s Anthony Benda won the “congeniality” prize. This year, Benda got first place in the ERCBC. Second place went to Bridgehead’s Cliff Hansen, and third place went to Myriade’s Alex Scott.

Bill Herne served as head judge for most of the event. He made it a very pleasant experience for me personally and, I hope, for other judges. His insight on the championship is especially valuable given the fact that he can maintain a certain distance from the specifics.

The event was organized in part by Vida Radovanovic, founder of the Canadian Coffee & Tea Show. Though she’s quick to point to differences between Toronto and Montreal, in terms of these regional competitions, she also seemed pleased with several aspects of this year’s ERCBC.

To me, the championship was mostly an opportunity for thinking and talking about the coffee world.

Met and interacted with diverse people during the day. Some of them were already part of my circle of coffee-loving friends and acquaintances. Some who came to me to talk about coffee after noticing some sign of my connection to the championship. The fact that I was introduced to the audience as a blogger and homeroaster seems to have been relatively significant. And there were several people who were second-degree contacts in my coffee-related social network, making for easy introductions.

A tiny part of the day’s interactions was captured in interviews for CBC Montreal’s Daybreak (unfortunately, the recording is in RealAudio format).

“Coffee as a social phenomenon” was at the centre of several of my own interactions with diverse people. Clearly, some of it has to do with my own interests, especially with “Montreal’s coffee renaissance.” But there were also a clear interest in such things as the marketshare of quality coffee, the expansion of some coffee scenes, and the notion of building a sense of community through coffee. That last part is what motivated me to write this post.

After the event, a member of my coffee-centric social network has started a discussion about community-building in the coffee world and I found myself dumping diverse ideas on him. Several of my ideas have to do with my experience with craft beer in North America. In a way, I’ve been doing informal ethnography of craft beer. Beer has become an area of expertise, for me, and I’d like to pursue more formal projects on it. So beer is on my mind when I think about coffee. And vice-versa. I was probably a coffee geek before I started homebrewing beer but I started brewing beer at home before I took my coffee-related activities to new levels.

So, in my reply on a coffee community, I was mostly thinking about beer-related communities.

Comparing coffee and beer is nothing new, for me. In fact, a colleague has blogged about some of my comments, both formal and informal, about some of those connections.

Differences between beer and coffee are significant. Some may appear trivial but they can all have some impact on the way we talk about cultural and social phenomena surrounding these beverages.

  • Coffee contains caffeine, beer contains alcohol. (Non-alcoholic beers, decaf coffee, and beer with coffee are interesting but they don’t dominate.) Yes: “duh.” But the difference is significant. Alcohol and caffeine not only have different effects but they fit in different parts of our lives.
  • Coffee is often part of a morning ritual,  frequently perceived as part of preparation for work. Beer is often perceived as a signal for leisure time, once you can “wind down.” Of course, there are people (including yours truly) who drink coffee at night and people (especially in Europe) who drink alcohol during a workday. But the differences in the “schedules” for beer and coffee have important consequences on the ways these drinks are integrated in social life.
  • Coffee tends to be much less expensive than beer. Someone’s coffee expenses may easily be much higher than her or his “beer budget,” but the cost of a single serving of coffee is usually significantly lower than a single serving of beer.
  • While it’s possible to drink a few coffees in a row, people usually don’t drink more than two coffees in a single sitting. With beer, it’s not rare that people would drink quite a few pints in the same night. The UK concept of a “session beer” goes well with this fact.
  • Brewing coffee takes a few minutes, brewing beer takes a while (hours for the brewing process, days or even weeks for fermentation).
  • At a “bar,” coffee is usually brewed in front of those who will drink it while beer has been prepared in advance.
  • Brewing coffee at home has been mainstream for quite a while. Beer homebrewing is considered a hobby.
  • Historically, coffee is a recent phenomenon. Beer is among the most ancient human-made beverages in the world.

Despite these significant differences, coffee and beer also have a lot in common. The fact that the term “brew” is used for beer and coffee (along with tea) may be a coincidence, but there are remarkable similarities between the extraction of diverse compounds from grain and from coffee beans. In terms of process, I would argue that beer and coffee are more similar than are, say, coffee and tea or beer and wine.

But the most important similarity, in my mind, is social: beer and coffee are, indeed, central to some communities. So are other drinks, but I’m more involved in groups having to do with coffee or beer than in those having to do with other beverages.

One way to put it, at least in my mind, is that coffee and beer are both connected to revolutions.

Coffee is community-oriented from the very start as coffee beans often come from farming communities and cooperatives. The notion, then, is that there are local communities which derive a significant portion of their income from the global and very unequal coffee trade. Community-oriented people often find coffee-growing to be a useful focus of attention and given the place of coffee in the global economy, it’s unsurprising to see a lot of interest in the concept (if not the detailed principles) of “fair trade” in relation to coffee. For several reasons (including the fact that they’re often produced in what Wallerstein would call “core” countries), the main ingredients in beer (malted barley and hops) don’t bring to mind the same conception of local communities. Still, coffee and beer are important to some local agricultural communities.

For several reasons, I’m much more directly involved with communities which have to do with the creation and consumption of beverages made with coffee beans or with grain.

In my private reply about building a community around coffee, I was mostly thinking about what can be done to bring attention to those who actually drink coffee. Thinking about the role of enthusiasts is an efficient way to think about the craft beer revolution and about geeks in general. After all, would the computer world be the same without the “homebrew computer club?”

My impression is that when coffee professionals think about community, they mostly think about creating better relationships within the coffee business. It may sound like a criticism, but it has more to do with the notion that the trade of coffee has been quite competitive. Building a community could be a very significant change. In a way, that might be a basis for the notion of a “Third Wave” in coffee.

So, using my beer homebrewer’s perspective: what about a community of coffee enthusiasts? Wouldn’t that help?

And I don’t mean “a website devoted to coffee enthusiasts.” There’s a lot of that, already. A lot of people on the Coffee Geek Forums are outsiders to the coffee industry and Home Barista is specifically geared toward the home enthusiasts’ market.

I’m really thinking about fostering a sense of community. In the beer world, this frequently happens in brewclubs or through the Beer Judge Certification Program, which is much stricter than barista championships. Could the same concepts apply to the coffee world? Probably not. But there may still be “lessons to be learnt” from the beer world.

In terms of craft beer in North America, there’s a consensus around the role of beer enthusiasts. A very significant number of craft brewers were homebrewers before “going pro.” One of the main reasons craft beer has become so important is because people wanted to drink it. Craft breweries often do rather well with very small advertising budgets because they attract something akin to cult followings. The practise of writing elaborate comments and reviews has had a significant impact on a good number of craft breweries. And some of the most creative things which happen in beer these days come from informal experiments carried out by homebrewers.

As funny as it may sound (or look), people get beer-related jobs because they really like beer.

The same happens with coffee. On occasion. An enthusiastic coffee lover will either start working at a café or, somewhat more likely, will “drop everything” and open her/his own café out of a passion for coffee. I know several people like this and I know the story is quite telling for many people. But it’s not the dominant narrative in the coffee world where “rags to riches” stories have less to do with a passion for coffee than with business acumen. Things may be changing, though, as coffee becomes more… passion-driven.

To be clear: I’m not saying that serious beer enthusiasts make the bulk of the market for craft beer or that coffee shop owners should cater to the most sophisticated coffee geeks out there. Beer and coffee are both too cheap to warrant this kind of a business strategy. But there’s a lot to be said about involving enthusiasts in the community.

For one thing, coffee and beer can both get viral rather quickly. Because most people in North America can afford beer or coffee, it’s often easy to convince a friend to grab a cup or pint. Coffee enthusiasts who bring friends to a café do more than sell a cup. They help build up a place. And because some people are into the habit of regularly going to the same bar or coffee shop, the effects can be lasting.

Beer enthusiasts often complain about the inadequate beer selection at bars and restaurants. To this day, there are places where I end up not drinking anything besides water after hearing what the beerlist contains. In the coffee world, it seems that the main target these days is the restaurant business. The current state of affairs with coffee at restaurants is often discussed with heavy sighs of disappointment. What I”ve heard from several people in the coffee business is that, too frequently,  restaurant owners give so little attention to coffee that they end up destroying the dining experience of anyone who orders coffee after a meal. Even in my own case, I’ve had enough bad experiences with restaurant coffee (including, or even especially, at higher-end places) that I’m usually reluctant to have coffee at a restaurant. It seems quite absurd, as a quality experience with coffee at the end of a meal can do a lot to a restaurant’s bottom line. But I can’t say that it’s my main concern because I end up having coffee elsewhere, anyway. While restaurants can be the object of a community’s attention and there’s a lot to be said about what restaurants do to a region or neighbourhood, the community dimensions of coffee have less to do with what is sold where than with what people do around coffee.

Which brings me to the issue of education. It’s clearly a focus in the coffee world. In fact, most coffee-related events have some “training” dimension. But this type of education isn’t community-oriented. It’s a service-based approach, such as the one which is increasingly common in academic institutions. While I dislike customer-based learning in universities, I do understand the need for training services in the coffee world. What I perceive insight from the beer world can do is complement these training services instead of replacing them.

An impressive set of learning experiences can be seen among homebrewers. From the most practical of “hands-on training” to some very conceptual/theoretical knowledge exchanges. And much of the learning which occurs is informal, seamless, “organic.” It’s possible to get very solid courses in beer and brewing, but the way most people learn is casual and free. Because homebrewers are organized in relatively tight groups and because the sense of community among homebrewers is also a matter of solidarity.  Or, more simply, because “it’s just a hobby anyway.”

The “education” theme also has to do with “educating the public” into getting more sophisticated about what to order. This does happen in the beer world, but can only be pulled off when people are already interested in knowing more about beer. In relation with the coffee industry, it sometimes seems that “coffee education” is imposed on people from the top-down. And it’s sometimes quite arbitrary. Again, room for the coffee business to read the Cluetrain Manifesto and to learn from communities.

And speaking of Starbucks… One draft blogpost which has been nagging me is about the perception that, somehow, Starbucks has had a positive impact in terms of coffee quality. One important point is that Starbucks took the place of an actual coffee community. Even if it can be proven that coffee quality wouldn’t have been improved in North America if it hadn’t been for Starbucks (a tall order, if you ask me), the issue remains that Starbucks has only paid attention to the real estate dimension of the concept of community. The mermaid corporation has also not doing so well, recently, so we may finally get beyond the financial success story and get into the nitty-gritty of what makes people connect through coffee. The world needs more from coffee than chains selling coffee-flavoured milk.

One notion I wanted to write about is the importance of “national” traditions in both coffee and beer in relation to what is happening in North America, these days. Part of the situation is enough to make me very enthusiastic to be in North America, since it’s increasingly possible to not only get quality beer and coffee but there are many opportunities for brewing coffee and beer in new ways. But that’ll have to wait for another post.

In Western Europe at least, coffee is often associated with the home. The smell of coffee has often been described in novels and it can run deep in social life. There’s no reason homemade coffee can’t be the basis for a sense of community in North America.

Now, if people in the coffee industry would wake up and… think about actual human beings, for a change…