Je vous ai répondu par courriel. Vous pouvez être des compatriotes, vous n’en êtes pas plus dignes de confiance.
Nice description of my BBQ by an up-and-coming food blogger.
Today I biked to Laval from my dads apartment, when we got there it looked like the house was a cabin in the woods , but it was right on the street next to a depanneur (corner store). Our friend, Alex, was on his two piece barbecue, the small piece on the left was a the actual heat and the wood chucks for the smoke and the other piece in the middle for the meat. he was smoking pork. one big pork shoulder and other little cutlets. we sat down an … Read More
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:
- A thread on a mailing-list about linguistic anthropology. A paleoanthropologist interviewed for a radio show discussed language and cognitive evolution in a way which seemed to some linguistic anthropologists as conveying some misunderstandings about language.
- Two posts on anthro blog Savage Minds, one on Facebook’s founders Mark Zuckerberg’s (mis)understanding of potlatch and gift economies. The other on broad ideas about “gift economies” among what some have called technolibtertarians.
- A blogpost about “Common Knowledge” by writer, editor, and teacher Alexa Offenhauer.
- A “linktrail” about language diversity, about which I blogged for the Society for Linguistic Anthropology.
- A podcast episode about sociology which included a discussion of the relationships between sociologists and journalists.
- Several things on my favourite academic blog, Language Log, which demonstrate the distance between popular and academic ideas about language.
But, of course, I think about many other things. Including (again, in no particular order):
- A Language Log piece (that I consider seminal) about “raising standards by lowering them” (and extending the conversation between experts and the general population).
- A post by Montreal-based entrepreneur Austin Hill about the “social economy as a gift economy.”
- Two blogposts by LibriVox founder Hugh McGuire about “Why Academics Should Blog.” The first post made me react and the second post was in a small part motivated by my reaction. (As an aside, McGuire should be commended for his flexibility of thoughts. His abilirty to adapt his ideas as the result of thoughtful discussion has helped me have less “visceral” reactions.)
- Some comments about para-academic by McGill psychologist Dan Levitin in his popular book on music cognition.
- Bob White’s colloquium on intersubjectivity in ethnography (inspired by Johannes Fabian) which was part of a pivotal moment for me. (The connection to the issue at hand is in the importance of “being taken seriously.”)
- My work as a teacher of both upper-level and intro courses.
- Diverse conversations with fellow academics.
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 posted the following on a forum in my "ANTH202/4B Introduction to Culture" course and realized it might be useful for other people. So I decided to post it here, in the spirit of "Alex's Teaching Tips." Some parts are specific to this course and most of it is about the way I teach, but it may still make some sense. For a tiny bit of context: the midterm is tomorrow. Through the first part of the semester, I've tried to give other kinds of tips. … Read More
Psalm of Montreal
Stowed away in a Montreal lumber-room
The Discobolus standeth and turneth his face to the wall,
Dusty, cobweb-covered, maimed and set at naught,
Beauty crieth in an attic, and no man regardeth.
O God, O Montreal!
Beautiful by night and day, beautiful in summer and winter,
Whole or maimed, always and alike beautiful,
He preacheth gospel of grace to the skins of owls,
And to one who seasoneth the skins of Canadian owls!
O God, O Montreal!
When I saw him I was wroth, and I said: "O Discobolus,
Beautiful Discobolus, a prince both among gods and men,
What dost thou here, how camest thou here, Discobolus,
Preaching gospel in vain to the skins of owls?
O God, O Montreal!
I turned to the man of skins, and said to him: "O thou man of skins,
Wherefore hast thou done this, to shame the beauty of the Discobolus?"
But the Lord had hardened the heart of the man of skins,
And he answered: "My brother-in-law is haberdasher to Mr. Spurgeon."
O God, O Montreal!
"The Discobolus is put here because he is vulgar,
He hath neither vest nor pants with which to cover his limbs;
I, sir, am a person of most respectable connections,
My brother-in-law is haberdasher to Mr. Spurgeon."
O God, O Montreal!
Then I said: "O brother-in-law to Mr. Spurgeon’s haberdasher,
Who seasonest also the skins of Canadian owls,
Thou callest trousers ‘pants,’ whereas I call them ‘trousers,’
Therefore thou art in hell-fire, and may the Lord pity thee!
O God, O Montreal!
Preferest thou the gospel of Montreal to the gospel of Hellas,
gospel of thy connection with Mr. Spurgeon’s haberdasher to the gospel of the Discobolus?"
Yet none the less blasphemed he beauty, saying: "The Discobolus hath no gospel,
But my brother-in-law is haberdasher to Mr. Spurgeon."
– Samuel Butler, 1878
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.
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.
The following is an edited version of a wishlist I had been keeping on the side. The main idea is to define what would be, in my mind, the “ultimate social bookmarking system.” Which, obviously, goes way beyond social bookmarking. In a way, I even conceive of it as the ultimate tool for sharing online content. Yes, it’s that ambitious. Will it ever exist? Probably not. Should it exist? I personally think so. But I may be alone in this. Surely, you’ll tell me that I am indeed alone, which is fine. As long as you share your own wishlist items.
The trigger for my posting this is that someone contacted me, asking for what I’d like in a social bookmarking system. I find this person’s move quite remarkable, as a thoughtful strategy. Not only because this person contacted me directly (almost flattering), but because such a request reveals an approach to listening and responding to people’s needs that I find lacking in some software development circles.
This person’s message served as a prompt for my blogging this, but I’ve been meaning to blog this for a while. In fact, my guess is that I created a first version of this wishlist in 2007 after having it on my mind for a while before that. As such, it represents a type of “diachronic” or “longitudinal” view of social bookmarking and the way it works in the broader scheme of social media.
Which also means that I wrote this before I heard about Google Wave. In fact, I’m still unclear about Google Wave and I’ll need to blog about that. Not that I expect Wave to fulfill all the needs I set up for a sharing tool, but I get the impression that Google is finally putting some cards on the table.
The main part of this post is in outline form. I often think through outlines, especially with such a type of notes. I fully realize that it may not be that clear, as a structure, for other people to understand. Some of these bullet points cover a much broader issue than what they look like. But the overall idea might be fairly obvious to grasp, even if it may sound crazy to other people.
I’m posting this to the benefit of anyone who may wish to build the killer app for social media. Of course, it’s just one man’s opinion. But it’s my entitled opinion.
What do we share online?
- Identified content
- Contact information
- Event description
- Contact information
- Event invitation
- Structured content
- Access to semi-private content
- Site’s entry point
- Cloud access
- “Check this out”
- Access to address book
- Password protection
- Shared interests (SIG)
- Collaboration (task-based)
Shared through network
- Define identity in network
- Reading lists
- Active reading
- Anchoring text
- Ad hoc list of bookmarks
- “Empty URL”
- Create container/page
- Personal notes
- To read
- To blog
- To share
- To update
- Add to calendar (recognized as event)
- Manage lists of links
- Easily group
Social aspects of sharing
- Gift economy
- Personal interaction
- “Online disk”
- Without download
- Touch devices
- Edit online
- Activities through pages
- Flesh out personal profile
- Enables non-hierarchical structure
- Semantic fields
- Related tags
- Can include hierarchy
- Tagclouds define concept map
- Browser-specific tools
- Complete access through cloud
- Quick add (to account)
- Bookmark all tabs (à la Flock)
- Quick tags
- Based on social graph
- Based on tags
- Based on content
- Based on popularity
- Pointing to this page
Quickly enter links
- Add in place (while editing)
- Similar to “spell as you type”
- Incremental search
- Add full link (title, URL, text, metadata)
- Prevent linkrot
- Prepare for post-processing (offline reading, blogging…)
- Enable bulk processing
- Maintain version history
- Internet Archive
- Reading time
- Page structure analysis
- Blog comments
- Forum comments
- Prepare for import
- Maintain hierarchy
- Recently used
- Site homepage
- Other services
- Device based
- Offline archiving
- Include content
- Prevent linkrot
- Maintain list for same page
- Short URLs
- Automatically generated
- Expansion on mouseover
- Use of resources
- Unnecessary for basic processing
- Sticks (no need to login frequently)
- Access to contacts and social graph
- Multiple accounts
- Group accounts
- Server space
- Usage statistics
- As group login
- Google Accounts
- Facebook Connect
- Web history
- Blogging platform
- Blog editor
- Microblogging platform
- General purpose content editor
- URL shortening
- Address book
- Social graph
- Personal profile
- Facebook share
- Blog This
- Link This
- Share this
- Windows Live Writer
- Stumble Upon
- Google Reader
- Yahoo Pipes
- Google Notebook
- Zoho Notebook
- Google Browser Sync
Wrote this a while ago, left it in my draft folder in Windows Live Writer. Posting it as-is. RERO!
Was sent here (long after the post was submitted) by a friend of mine who knows my interest in using social science to deal with online issues. When eBay changed its feedback policy (and before this piece was posted), there was some discussion about both the perceived relevance of eBay and about alternatives to the feedback system. These are all very interesting, especially to those who frequently buy and sell things online. Here, the main point seems to be: eBay isn’t the only way to trade goods and money and eBay may even have failed, so we’ll look at what happened. There’s still room for selling and buying things online, and eBay can now be an example of what didn’t work.
But the mention of Wikipedia and the “crowd control” angle bring about a broader point about social systems.
Social scientists in general (including economists, game theorists, etc.) are well-aware of many of the issues which are now being addressed with disillusion. And while several of those who were “illusioned” into thinking the ‘Net would change all the rules of social behavior are themselves social scientists, the disillusion depends less on any characteristic of social behaviour than on people’s expectations.
The same principle applies to both eBay and Wikipedia: people have been extremely optimistic and are now disappointed by what they perceive to be broken promises.
The notion that time may be a factor merits consideration. Not because of “biological time,” IMO that’s going a bit far. But maybe because of scale. The time needed to make decisions about a purchase, to write feedback about somebody else, to assess the value of an encyclopedia entry, to discuss things… That kind of time “doesn’t scale well.”
There’s a related issue, in terms of scale: the number of people involved. When some issues with Wikipedia’s management started surfacing, a year or two ago, and people started using Wikipedia as a proof that “crowds” aren’t self-regulated, some people (including those on CNET’s Buzz Out Loud) commented on scale. These comments were, IMHO, very insightful. Wikipedia was, in fact, a pretty decent example of self-regulation. But self-regulation doesn’t scale well and this dimension of the site “collapsed.” At least, that’s one way to put it.
The broad principle of scale is well-understood by technologists. What can work with some measure X (number of chips, number of visitors, etc.) may not work at 2X and is even more likely to fail at X^2. Seeing social systems in the same way may be a step in the right direction. It’s still misleading, because we’re talking about diverse human beings, but it’s a start.
In ethnography, we have quite a bit of experience with small groups of people which can be said to approximate the self-regulating ideal. Not really crowds. Loosely-joined group of maybe 30-40 people who get together through part of the year to accomplish some general tasks related to their survival. The technical term is “band” and foraging societies (of which very few remain, nowadays) could often be described using the “band” model. Some people (ethnographers and others, including Marx) have even been so taken by those “band” structures that they wanted to apply the same ideas to broader groups. One reason they failed is that these groups were not only self-regulating but also self-forming. Creating that kind of group from scratch is unlikely to result in the same type of self-regulation. Another reason is that the model doesn’t scale well. It’s easy to “grok”: a city neighbourhood is very different from a large village of the same population. They’re different models.
So, scale is an important factor to consider. eBay and Wikipedia have possibly been among the largest groups in human history to regulate themselves. People who were dependent on these sites for actual survival were few and far between. But the overall structures were still quite big. Maybe these sites just reached a break point. “Peak People,” if you will.
Or, maybe, other issues were at stake.
Size does matter, in a social system. But other things matter too. Including the internal structure of the group. “What kind of a group is it?”
Apart from being hierarchical or “fairly egalitarian,” groups can be goal-oriented, clustered, open, inward-looking, etc. All of these dimensions cut across one another: you can have a very hierarchical, closed, highly clustered, outward-looking, goal-oriented group with millions of member or with twenty.
Those group characteristics matter a lot, in terms of adaptation.
So, going back to Wikipedia (because it’s a better-known case of this than eBay). One reason the self-regulating dream didn’t come true might have to do with group structure. People interpreted the group to be extremely large, quite egalitarian, unclustered, open, outward-looking, and goal-oriented. It turns out that there was, within Wikipedia, a comparatively small, rather hierarchic, highly clustered, semi-closed, and inward-looking group acting as if they were survival-oriented (not oriented toward a specific task or goal).
Wikipedia worked for a while. More than many people seemed to realize, Wikipedia.org had succeeded at creating an actual “community”: a group of people who interact with one another on a fairly regular basis. This community included the “core” group of editors, those Wikipedians who seem to get a primary identity from their participation in Wikipedia. That community was quite large, but still fairly limited, in comparison with the number of people who use Wikipedia or who may casually edit some entries, on occasion.
From the outside, Wikipedia looked different from this. It looked like a fully-open model in which “anyone can edit,” out of their own interests, and nobody is “more equal” than the others. At that level, the difference with the reality wasn’t that significant. It was true that (just about) anyone could edit (just about) any entry. But the Wikipedia’s overall “social structure” included a “behind the scenes” group of people who took a stake in Wikipedia. Mostly through their time, passion, interest, instead of money or survival. But still, a group of people who were deeply invested in Wikipedia. Their behaviour was radically different from that of casual Wikipedians and, even more, from the Wikipedia-reading general public.
The difference was primarily one of social structure. The “in-group” wasn’t like other people associated with Wikipedia.
Probably a year or so ago, all those stories broke out about the apparent “cabal” which seems to regulate (and badmouth) some individual editors, and about the cultish aura surrounding “Jimbo.” Regardless of the factual accuracy of those stories (and I have little reason to doubt them), they showed how people perceived Wikipedia. Since then, people probably became disillusioned by Wikipedia. Utopia and dystopia might be just one step from one another.
One thing which would merit a lot more discussion is the assumption that the system itself can be self-regulating. It might be useful to look back at Adam Smith’s critique of the “invisible hand” concept, but there are many other ways to look at this.
Recently blogged about this issue: though information about this appears nowhere on the card or in the terms of service, iTunes Cards (gift cards or certificates) may not be used to purchase applications on the Canadian version of the iTunes Store.
Since I posted that blog entry, a few things have happened. I did receive replies from Apple, which were rather unhelpful. The most useful one was this message:
I understand and apologize about your situation and i do want to assist you as much as possible . I am going to issue you 10 song credit. Again i apologize and i hope this issue gets resolved. I will also apply feedback about this issue .
Thank you for choosing iTunes Store and have a great day.
iTunes Store Customer Support
I had no intention of purchasing tracks on the iTunes Store at this point but I do “appreciate the gesture.” Here’s what I wrote back:
Thanks. I wasn’t planning on downloading songs but I appreciate the gesture.
Not overwhelming gratitude on my part. Simply stating that, though this isn’t appropriate, I can still be polite.
What’s funny is that I received this reply to my simple “thank you” note:
You’re very welcome. I’m glad to hear that i was able to help some .
Nothing makes Apple happier than to hear that we have pleased our customers. I hope that you continue to enjoy the iTunes Store.
Thank you for choosing iTunes Store and have a great day.
iTunes Store Customer Support
From that message, you’d think I had praised the iTunes Store for hours on end.
Just in case it might make a difference, I tried filing another support request. Here’s the reply on that one:
Welcome to the iTunes Support Site. My name is Staci and I am here to assist you.
Thank you for contacting Apple about the App Store. We’re glad you’re interested in
this new offering.
I’m sorry, but you will not be able to purchase games or applications with store
credit or an iTunes Gift Card in Canada. Customers residing in Canada may only
purchase games and applications using a credit card.
I am confident that the information provided will solve your gift card issue. If
you have further questions, I can be contacted during the hours listed below. Thank
you and have a prosperous New Year.
iTunes Stores Customer Support
This one sounds even more like a canned reply and “the information provided” doesn’t, in fact, “solve [my] gift card issue.”
Clearly, Apple isn’t “doing the right thing.” In terms of customer service, it’s not a positive experience. I did enjoy some aspects of the iTunes Store and I think it’s quite convenient. But I’m not “enjoying the iTunes Store” so much, anymore.
Most of the advice given on this issue, outside from Apple’s unhelpful replies, has to do with things which are illicit. One would be to resell tracks purchased with this card to other iTunes users. Since the tracks are now all DRM-free, this is technically feasible. But it’s also illicit and potentially traceable. Another piece of advice, to purchase applications using an iTunes Card, is to buy a card in the US. As far as I know, this is technically doable but it also contradicts Apple terms of service.
Not good solutions, but ones which disgruntled iTunes Card buyers may contemplate.
Since then, I also received a message asking me to complete a survey about my experience with Apple support. Here’s the complaint I included in that survey:
I was given the “runaround” on a very easy issue: I need a refund.
There’s an obvious problem with the fact that iTunes Cards may not be used to purchase applications on the Canadian version of the iTunes Store. Nowhere on the card itself or even in the Terms of Service is this restriction mentioned. As this issue gains prominence, Apple could get a significant hit in consumer perception. Not sure if it will become a class action lawsuit, but it’s as significant an issue.
Email replies were disappointingly unhelpful. Instead of investigating the situation, I was led to a forum post musing about the possible reasons for this restriction. I was eventually credited ten songs even though I had no intention of getting tracks on the iTunes Store at this point.
While the amount of money is relatively small in my case, I’m getting comments on my blog from people who lost the money equivalent of an iPod nano.
Again, I probably won’t file a class action lawsuit against Apple, in part because these suits mostly make money for lawyers. But my dissatisfaction with Apple remains. In a way, it even grows, because there were several opportunities for Apple to “do the right thing.” Yes, it’s partly on principle. But it’s also a matter of the way the corporation is perceived. In this case, they sound polite but quite dismissive.
There’s no question in my mind that a mistake was made: no information on this restriction was added anywhere a gift card purchaser may find it. Because of this, people are redeeming iTunes Cards with the specific intention of enjoying their iPhone or iPod touch in a new way. As this was a season of gift-giving, some people probably received these gift cards and, thinking they might use them anywhere on iTunes, redeemed these cards instead of returning them. Only to find out, after the fact, that “you will not be able to purchase games or applications with store credit or an iTunes Gift Card in Canada.”
This frustration isn’t such a big deal in the abstract. But context is everything. Part of the context is the set of restrictions placed by the iTunes Store in general. It may not have been much of an issue, for a given user, that it’s impossible to buy applications directly from developers, unlike Android Market (the Google equivalent to the App Store). For casual users, this is pretty much a non-issue, especially since the App Store is so convenient. But this restriction becomes quite conspicuous once an iPhone or iPod touch user runs into this kind of problem.
There’s a broader issue. With the iTunes Store, Apple is sometimes said to have “solved micropayment.” Ever since the iTunes Music Store opened, at least part of Apple’s success has been assigned to the Amazon-like way they implemented their payment structure and it’s quite likely that the iTunes Store model has been having positive effects on the way Apple is perceived by investors. Because of the way it handles payments and reduces overhead, Apple has been able to make money on relatively small amounts of 99¢ (and, recently, 69¢). I’d call this “minipayment” because one can easily imagine even smaller amounts being paid online (for instance, a minute of cellular or long-distance communication). In this case, Nokia, eBay/Skype, and cellphone carriers have better micropayment systems. But Apple still deserves “Wall Street cred” for the way it handles small payments.
Yet, once you start thinking about Apple’s payment system in more details, say because of a bad experience with the applications section of the iTunes Store, you start noticing how flimsy the payment structure is because it relies on users willingly entering a closed system. It’s not just that the iTunes Store is closed. It’s that, once you buy on Apple, you need to restrict yourself to “Apple’s ecosystem.” This has often been the case on a technical level. It’s now a matter more visible to the casual end user: money.
From a “tech media” perspective, this closed ecosystem is part of a pattern for Apple. But the financial part isn’t frequently discussed.
It will sound like a strange analogy but it’s the one with which I come up as I think about this: IKEA bedding. Because IKEA’s measurements are metric, bed linen was an issue with IKEA-purchased mattresses in Canada. Not sure if it’s still the case but it used to be that those who bought beds at IKEA were then stuck with metric measurements for bed linen and those are difficult to find in Canada. In effect, those who purchased beds at IKEA were restricted to IKEA linen.
In computer terms, the classic case is that of a difference in fileformat between products from two developers. Apple certainly had its share of “format wars” but it mostly solved these issues. Recent Macs (including the Mac mini Intel Core Duo I’m currently using) support a Windows installation as well as Mac OS X. In terms of networking, it’s now quite easy to set up mixed networks with both Mac OS X and Windows machines. Even the music part of the iTunes Store is lifting those restrictions which made them technically incompatible with other devices. All in all, Apple has gone away from its strict control, at least in technical terms.
But in financial terms, Apple is using a fairly restrictive model for its iTunes Store. Once money gets into an account (through gift cards, allowances, or “gifting”), it can only be used on that account. Because of some restrictions specific to Canada, some of that money is restricted from use for buying applications. And Paypal isn’t available as a payment option in the Canadian iTunes Store. In effect, the only way to purchase an application for the iPhone or iPod touch is through a valid credit card. Given the fact that a majority of people are likely to have some kind of credit card, this doesn’t seem too restrictive. But there’s a variety of reasons people may not have valid credit cards and there’s no connection between buying something on the App Store and using a credit card. The iPod touch has been marketed as a gaming platform during the holidays and chances are that some iPod touch owners are children without credit cards. I’m not sure what the options are for them to buy iPod touch games. The same could be said about games for the iPod Classic, a device which clearly is used by children.
Part of the problem relates to the Canadian financial system. For one thing, debit cards with credit card numbers are rare in Canada (I’m not sure they exist). Many Canadians tend to use Interac, which does offer some advantages over credit cards, IMHO. As I’ve recently experienced, Interac now works online. It would make a lot of sense for Apple to support it online (I’m sure Canadian Apple Stores already support it). And there must be a reason Paypal, which can be used for iTunes Store purchases in the US, is unavailable in the Canadian iTunes Store.
So, yet again, Apple’s Canadian customers appear “underprivileged” by comparison with US customers. In public perception, this is pretty much a pattern for Apple.
I don’t think that the messages I’ve received helped. Though they were polite, they were dismissive as my problem was basically dismissed. From being dismissive, Apple can sound arrogant. And arrogance is tricky, in today’s marketplace.
I’m reminded of the recent Simpsons episode about Apple. Excerpts of it made their way to YouTube as they play on several gripes people have with Apple. Arrogance was clearly a key theme in that episode. Another Apple parody, the MacBook Wheel spoof from The Onion, was more directly centred on making fun of users and elements related to Apple’s perceived arrogance were less obvious.
I don’t own AAPL.0 stock but, if I did, I might sell some. Sounds silly but corporations which treats its customers in this way aren’t something I would invest in. Despite the fact that I do “invest” in Apple products.
I just wish Apple “did the right thing.”