Thursday, December 03, 2009

Re-creating a lost art on Facebook

A long time ago, not quite so far back as Plato's time, but before Google, there was a particular kind of conversation that intelligent people would enter into. They would be sitting around drinking coffee or beer, at a party or at work, and stumble onto some interesting subject. Someone would ask a question and no one would know the answer. Since the people involved were intelligent and well-informed, they would attempt usually in a good-natured way, to figure it out.

I have been half jokingly saying for months now that this kind of conversation is obsolete. The answer to all of these interesting and obscure questions seems to be "look it up!" ( Meaning on the Internet, probably using Google.) At least for people temporarily isolated from the net, an art was dead or maybe just dying.

I discovered over the last week that I was too pessimistic. Subject of some significance came up in a post to Facebook: have the Afghans beaten every army of invasion which ever tried to take the country? Including Alexander the Great?

This precis of Afghan history has become a great cliché for obvious reasons, and I am not sure I believe it. I drew the line at Alexander. The person who raised the issue this time is an intelligent military historian so I engaged in the conversation. And so did several other people. It was really neat. And the issue remains unresolved. As so often in the old days.

What this proves to me is that there is always room for intelligent conversation that goes beyond the mechanics of "looking it up." I you really want to discuss the fortunes of empires in what is now Afghanistan, you are going to need a good library and a convincing argument. Wikipedia is not good enough.

an ancient Greek symposium.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

The *new* menace of Wikipedia!

Over at Wormtalk and Slugspeak, Michael Drout, who has recently been a TV talking head, drops this alarming observation:

What I could glean of the script [for Clash of the Gods] from the questions made it seem pretty decent (which has been borne out so far). The writers/producers had done good work tracking down reasonable information. However, it was a little surprising how much the agenda (as opposed to the actual content) seemed to be set by Wikipedia. For example, I got asked a question about the Canterbury Charm, which I hadn't studied very much. I was impressed at how wide-ranging the inquiry was until I happened upon the Wikipedia page for Thor and found the Canterbury Charm referenced. I'm not a Wiki-hater, but the influence of Wikipedia on the script does give yet another reason why professors in relevant fields should perhaps look at the relevant Wiki entries and correct them if need be (though I, sadly, haven't gotten around to doing this yet).


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Thursday, February 26, 2009

E-books: in general and specifically at Nipissing University

Earlier this month, Charlotte Innerd gave a presentation on the state of e-book publishing as it applies to availability of material at Nipissing University. Despite my constant use of the Internet for scholarly and personal purposes, I didn't know at least half of this stuff. She has posted a voice/slide presentation and I highly recommend that you take a look. It is less than 10 minutes long.

Thanks, Charlotte!

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Audience atomization overcome

You may or may not find this essay by Jay Rosen as recapitulating the obvious. The conclusion:

Now we can see why blogging and the Net matter so greatly in political journalism. In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized— meaning they were connected “up” to Big Media but not across to each other. But today one of the biggest factors changing our world is the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, trade impressions and realize their number. Among the first things they may do is establish that the “sphere of legitimate debate” as defined by journalists doesn’t match up with their own definition.

In the past there was nowhere for this kind of sentiment to go. Now it collects, solidifies and expresses itself online. Bloggers tap into it to gain a following and serve demand. Journalists call this the “echo chamber,” which is their way of downgrading it as a reliable source. But what’s really happening is that the authority of the press to assume consensus, define deviance and set the terms for legitimate debate is weaker when people can connect horizontally around and about the news.

Which is how I got to my three word formula for understanding the Internet’s effects in politics and media: “audience atomization overcome.”

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Friday, July 11, 2008

The future of academic publication

In my usual daily wandering through a number of blogs, most of them concerned with foreign policy and American politics, I ran across this post at the blog Open Left. It is a response by Chris Bowers to another blog post by David Appell that basically argues, in an unfortunate ad hominem fashion, that blogs are worthless for discussing any serious issue. (The critic includes his own blog in his rather sweeping statements.) Rather, he says one should go to serious magazines and journals for the real stuff since what you find there is backed up by in-depth investigation.

I could reply to Appell myself, but I am more interested in something that Bowers says in defending his own devotion to blogging:

I have a personal stake in this, of course. Before I became a blogger, I spent my entire 20's trying to become an academic (English and critical theory was my focus). While I struggled to produce a handful of conference papers or publishable articles during that decade, in my four years as a blogger I have published about 4,400 articles that have received about 50,000,000 direct page views, 46,000 incoming links, and over 100 Lexis Nexus mentions. Had I stayed in academia, none of this would have been possible, and I would have continued to receive an endless series of rejections from the gatekeepers. The "experts" that Appell describes did not see the same value in my writing huge numbers of other people clearly have. Either they were wrong about my writing, or I just wasn't writing about the best topics for me. Probably a combination of both, but I'm pretty sure the balance of evidence shows they were wrong. (Man, I am still really angst ridden about this.)
It seems likely that somewhere in Bowers's soul he thinks of himself as a failed academic. I, as an employed and high-ranking academic at a small but respectable academic institution, think he has nothing to apologize for (I am talking about activity level, not the specific things that he has written.) He does talk about important issues. And I note that if he and others like him had left it to the established media to cover and interpret what is going on in the world, things would be much worse than they are now. But again that's not the point of this post. The point is this:

50 million freaking direct page views!

In that fact I see the doom of the academic journal as it now exists, in particular the paper version thereof. Fifty million direct page views!
I don't fear for the academic book actually, because I think books, at least good ones, provide an in-depth experience that nothing else has been able to rival so far. But when it comes to investigating the small pointsthat lead to the big insights, or clear up the small mysteries that clarify the big picture, why not do it all electronically? (Preservation questions apart of course; again, nothing beats paper yet. And there are other practical questions to be considered.)

I am quite aware that most so-called academic blogs, including my own, are made up of snippets that may or may not be developed into some important scholarly contribution -- and usually not. But blogs and the habit of reading them is a rather new thing. See how they grow.

One example of the direction they might go can be seen in the medievalist group blog In the Middle. Here some like-minded scholars, with a penchant for complex literary theory that sometimes leaves me behind, are throwing out some of their best new ideas in what might be seen as half developed form, so that their blog partners and any passing reader can think about them and comment, favorably or unfavorably. This is not instead of the usual academic activity. Material on In the Middle relates directly to conference papers, potential articles, and monographs being worked on by the blog owners, material it should be noted that otherwise I never would have heard of (being a more or less conventional historian). I'm part of an unexpected audience that was attracted to the blog by a reference to some other blog. And there must be many others, all of whom are in a position to comment, at whatever length. Who knows what some half-random reader may say that may contribute to this remarkable productivity?

This is just one way the Web can work for you.

Working academics who are reading this: be honest. When was the last time you sat down with a congenial group and really kicked around an idea that appeared in an academic article? There's nothing better for getting the intellect really working, for shooting down mistaken ideas, for putting together half-formed thoughts into useful ones. But they are rare, those in-person opportunities. But the Internet, for us lucky ones, is always available. And damned cheap to compared to paper journals.

PS: what about copyediting, you ask? It's dead anyway, as I'm here attest on the basis of much recent reading of ink-on-paper publications by big-name scholarly presses.

Image: Fifty million marks, Germany, 1923.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

And another video goes viral... can hope.

This may be the top cultural achievement of the 21st century (so far). I'm not kidding. A bit of an antidote to all the crap flying around.

Thanks to Jennifer Lynn Jordan at Per Omnia Secula for alerting me. "Pretty remarkable" indeed. yoga? :-)

Update: more on the video. The NY Times is right to say the Internet is central to the matter.

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Monday, June 30, 2008

Mapping the all-too-narrow boundaries of human creativity

From Dr. Nokes.


Friday, May 23, 2008

Some interesting insights on argumentation and writing

This week I stumbled across an interesting site by a well-known IT expert, Paul Graham. His site has a variety of purposes, including attracting people with good start up proposals. What I found interesting and worth blogging about were two articles on communication -- or perhaps I should say, rhetoric.

One is probably intended as a guide for people who have never thought very seriously about the structure of arguments, but as Internet users now find themselves involved in quite a few of them. One might call this a pocket guide to rhetoric and dialectic.

Then there's a very short but useful discussion of how Graham thinks effective writing can be accomplished. The essence of the article is:

As for how to write well, here's the short version: Write a bad version 1 as fast as you can; rewrite it over and over; cut out everything unnecessary; write in a conversational tone; develop a nose for bad writing, so you can see and fix it in yours; imitate writers you like; if you can't get started, tell someone what you plan to write about, then write down what you said; expect 80% of the ideas in an essay to happen after you start writing it, and 50% of those you start with to be wrong;...

Oops, I'm duplicating the essay.


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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Lies by omission

The Group News Blog says it:

...the most shocking thing this weekend is the complete silence from the corporate media on this. 6 of the top people in the Bush administration were meeting for over a year, in the White House, to discuss torture techniques and the President knew and approved of it.

And the story can barely be found even on Google News.

When people bemoan the Internet-induced death of quality journalism, remember this. The quality journalists, and they exist, are not allowed to do their work if the topic is really vital.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

World of Warcraft and 19th-century racial constructs

Rhiannon Don of the Department of English Studies invites you to a talk:

I am pleased to announce that I will be presenting a talk entitled "Crisis in Orkientalism: Navigating the Racial Other in Blizzard's World of Warcraft" tonight at 6:30 in H105 as part of NipissingYOU's Speaker Series. In January of 2008, World of Warcraft's subscriber base reached ten million players worldwide, and it is the most successful Massively Multiplay Online Rolye Playing Game on the market today. I will be discussing how the game's racial constructs reflect 19th century ideas of scientific racism, along with making a case for the value of humanities-based criticism in video game studies.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Smiley's avatars

Secret agents have always worked through alternate identities. Now they are doing it in Second Life. Match made in heaven.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Google makes us give up our dreams of uniqueness

A family member, intelligent and witty, floated the idea that many people who loudly claim to have this personality syndrome or that may well have Attention Seeking Syndrome. We thought that was clever and apt, and rather hoped the idea would spread.

Imagine my dismay, followed by fatalism, when another family member dug up (guess how) this post by an inhabitant of Dubai who back in 2006 had a very similar idea.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

More on the new world of information

Would students like to get textbooks free for the cost of printing from the Web, if they included a few ads? I bet they would! Brad DeLong and his commenters discuss how it is already happening at Freeload Press, how it might happen with other material, and what it might have to do with the Screenwriter's strike.

Brad also directs us to the end of the "Australian models discuss quantam physics" scandal, and posts a "mock final exam" from a first year economic history course he teaches at Berkeley.

Finally, Google is getting into competition with Wikipedia by starting an encyclopedia that won't have articles that are anonymously written and edited, but a variety of signed articles. The idea is that if you don't like the existing article on a given subject, you can write your own. Interesting idea.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Over on Scott Aaronson's blog there's been a lively discussion about a knotty problem. Aaronson is a computer scientist interested in quantum computing (which I always think of as something pertaining to a rather distant future) and therefore quantum mechanics.

Well, back in October Scott found that a couple of lines from lectures he's published on the web constitute the entire script for an Australian ad for Ricoh printers. You really owe it to yourself to see the ad on YouTube. He's not quite sure what he should do about it. Hundreds of people have made suggestions in comments and I suggest you go over there and give your prejudices an exercise. Somebody has already contributed a comment that will raise your ire.

Opinion there polarized around two positions: one, that Scott should not be such an uptight American about intellectual property and feel complimented or something that his words got out there; and two, nobody (the ad agency) should be making money with his stuff when they didn't even ask permission.

I can see both sides, since I have plenty of lectures on the web. I don't know if anyone's ever stolen them (for term papers?). I'm glad to have my stuff out there to be read, but on the other hand...

An interesting problem indeed.

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