Joho the BlogAugust 2013 - Page 2 of 2 - Joho the Blog

August 8, 2013

Definition (n) An explicit formulation of what is obvious to most other people

A mailing list I’m on is discussing GenderAvenger.com. Here’s the text from the home page:

Be A Gender Avenger
Don’t Accept It. Change It.

Panel of all men? Conference with no women speakers? Book of essays with no women authors? Do something, something simple: Point it out. Opportunities — sadly — abound. How could that be in 2013? They can be found among iconic institutions and in seemingly small bore infractions.

Seeing can be believing. Everywhere possible when women are unrepresented or underrepresented, a gender avenger will take note, take action or ask someone else to take action. No excuses. This effort requires speaking out even when it is uncomfortable. Try it. The outcome could make you smile or groan. Either way you will have a story to tell that could influence others.

The site does a poor job of explaining exactly what it wants by way of input and what the outcome will be, but the email you receive if you decide to sign up anyway cites a HuffPo article about the idea, encourages you to publicize male-dominated conferences, etc., and asks for your participation in a discussion about how to make the idea work.

In the course of the back and forth on the mailing list, one participant got angry about the site and quoted the dictionary definition of “avenger”:

a·venge [uh-venj]
verb (used with object), a·venged, a·veng·ing.
1. to take vengeance or exact satisfaction for: to avenge a grave insult.
2. to take vengeance on behalf of: He avenged his brother.

This person knows that we know (and Gina Glanz, the site’s creator, knows) what the word “avenger” means. He’s not correcting a misuse, the way he might if she’d used “revenge” as a verb. So why is he telling us what he knows we all already know?

Very likely he’s saying that the way people take a word is how the word is defined in a dictionary. But since this mailing list has been together for well over a decade, and since no one on it has ever recommended violent action (it’s moderated by a pacifist), and since the language of the site itself talks about “speaking out even when it’s uncomfortable,” to think that the site or its supporters mean “vengeance” in its dictionary sense requires dropping a whole lot of context in favor of a slavish devotion to Mr. Webster. It would be perfectly reasonable to push back on the word because it carries bad connotations or because it doesn’t quite fit the intended meaning, but neither of those conversations is advanced by citing the dictionary definition of a common word. Rather, the argument is over territory beyond the sovereignty of a dictionary.

In short (or as the kids say, TL;DR), if you’re citing a definition of a word that everyone understands, you’re probably missing the point.

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August 7, 2013

Radio Berkman is a Top 9 tech podcast, according to Verge

I’m a little bit proud that Radio Berkman is on The Verge’s list of top 9 technology podcasts.

Radio Berkman is produced by Daniel Dennis Jones (twitter: blanket) who does a fabulous job and deserves the credit for this. The podcasts are generally 20-30 mins, although they go longer when it makes sense to. Generally they are interviews with people passing through the Center. (I am the interviewer in many of them.)

Yay for Radio Berkman!

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When push buttons destroyed civilization

Rachel Plotnick has an article in Technology and Culture called “At the Interface: The Case of the Electric Push Button, 1880-1923″[1] that begins by recounting the early reaction to push buttons. She cites a book by “educator and activist Dorothy Canfield Fisher”:

Fisher recognized how use of push-button interfaces had contributed to making electrical experiences effortless, opaque, and therefore unquestioned by consumers. She and others worried that if button-pressers could not envision the mechanical processes that happened behind buttons, they would lose all ability to navigate in the world. [p. 814]

We obviously didn’t get perpetually lost, but that doesn’t mean that Fisher was wrong to raise the alarm, especially if the alarm was raised by slamming down on a big ol’ button.

The rest of the article is about the educational strategies used by manufacturers, journalists, advertisers and others, starting in 1880, to “make button interfaces intelligible to consumers.” [815] She notes a split between those who thought customers would be more comfortable with electricity if they understood what happened on the other side of the button and those who thought it best to keep electricity as uncomplicated to the user as possible. Business was at stake here: Rachel notes that by 1915, push buttons were letting us take electricity for granted, which meant “the electrical industry faced an apathetic populace” that didn’t appreciate the complexity or expense of their service.[835]

Fascinating…


..And slightly reminiscent of a 1950 instructional video from AT&T on how to dial a rotary phone.

In fact, here’s an earlier public service announcement:


[1] Rachel Plotnick, “At the Interface: The Case of the Electric Push Button, 1880â??1923,” Technology and Culture, Volume 53, Number 4, October 2012, pp. 815-845 DOI: 10.1353/tech.2012.0138

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August 5, 2013

A very good day in NYC

I love Boston, where I live, but NYC on a good day is beyond words.

Here is one very good day in New York, with my wife.

Sunday:

  • Amtrak to New York.

  • Library Hotel. Friendly, guest-centric, non-obsequious, relatively mid-priced, well-placed hotel. (I did much better on price by going to the hotel’s site.)

  • Walk 30 blocks up 5th Ave., 10 of them in Central Park

  • Frick Collection. Such an intensity of awesomeness. God bless the robber barons!

  • Dinner at Candle Cafe: hearty vegan food

  • Mediocre movie.(Pacific Rim. Yes, I know.)

  • Back to the hotel for a drink outside.

And, what the heck, here’s Monday:

It does not get better than this. I am very lucky.

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August 4, 2013

Paradata

Hanan Cohen points me to a blog post by a MLIS student at Haifa U., named Shir, in which she discourses on the term “paradata.” Shir cites Mark Sample who in 2011 posted a talk he had given at an academic conference, Mark notes the term’s original meaning:

In the social sciences, paradata refers to data about the data collection process itself—say the date or time of a survey, or other information about how a survey was conducted.

Mark intends to give it another meaning, without claiming to have worked it out fully. :

…paradata is metadata at a threshold, or paraphrasing Genette, data that exists in a zone between metadata and not metadata. At the same time, in many cases it’s data that’s so flawed, so imperfect that it actually tells us more than compliant, well-structured metadata does.

His example is We Feel Fine, a collection of tens of thousands (or more … I can’t open the site because Amtrak blocks access to what it intuits might be intensive multimedia) of sentences that begin “I feel” from many, many blogs. We Feel Fine then displays the stats in interesting visualizations. Mark writes:

…clicking the Age visualizations tells us that 1,223 (of the most recent 1,500) feelings have no age information attached to them. Similarly, the Location visualization draws attention to the large number of blog posts that lack any metadata regarding their location.

Unlike many other massive datamining projects, say, Google’s Ngram Viewer, We Feel Fine turns its missing metadata into a new source of information. In a kind of playful return of the repressed, the missing metadata is colorfully highlighted—it becomes paradata. The null set finds representation in We Feel Fine.

So, that’s one sense of paradata. But later Mark makes it clear (I think) that We Feel Fine presents paradata in a broader sense: it is sloppy in its data collection. It strips out HTML formatting, which can contain information about the intensity or quality of the statements of feeling the project records. It’s lazy in deciding which images from a target site it captures as relevant to the statement of feeling. Yet, Mark finds great value in We Feel Fine.

His first example, where the null set is itself metadata, seems unquestionably useful. It applies to any unbounded data set. For example, that no one chose answer A on a multiple choice test is not paradata, just as the fact that no one has checked out a particular item from a library is not paradata. But that no one used the word “maybe” in an essay test is paradata, as would be the fact that no one has checked out books in Aramaic and Klingon in one bundle. Getting a zero in a metadata category is not paradata; getting a null in a category that had not been anticipated is paradata. Paradata should therefore include which metadata categories are missing from a schema. E.g., that Dublin Core does not have a field devoted to reincarnation says something about the fact that it was not developed by Tibetans.

But I don’t think that’s at the heart of what Mark means by paradata. Rather, the appearance of the null set is just one benefit of considering paradata. Indeed, I think I’d call this “implicit metadata” or “derived metadata,” not “paradata.”

The fuller sense of paradata Mark suggests — “data that exists in a zone between metadata and not metadata” — is both useful and, as he cheerfully acknowleges, “a big mess.” It immediately raises questions about the differences between paradata and pseudodata: if We Feel Fine were being sloppy without intending to be, and if it were presenting its “findings” as rigorously refined data at, say, the biennial meeting of the Society for Textual Analysis, I don’t think Mark would be happy to call it paradata.

Mark concludes his talk by pointing at four positive characteristics of the We Feel Fine site:? It’s inviting, paradata, open, and juicy. (“Juicy” means that there’s lots going on and lots to engage you.) It seems to me that the site’s only an example of paradata because of the other three. If it were a jargon-filled, pompous site making claims to academic rigor, the paradata would be pseudodata.

This isn’t an objection or a criticism. In fact, it’s the opposite. Mark’s post, which is based on a talk that he gave at the Society for Textual Analysis, is a plea for research thatis inviting, open, juicy, and is willing to acknowledge that its ideas are unfinished. Mark’s post is, of course, paradata.

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August 1, 2013

Progressivism implies we’re never done

Now, as part of the settlement, the school district has agreed to treat the child as a boy. Thus does an entire institution find itself compelled to accept the cultural left’s moral categories and priorities. This is why the Times labels transgender “the next civil rights frontier.” There’s always one, isn’t there?

This is from Ron Dreher’s post at The American Conservative about “Progressivism’s Next Battle.”

But what interests me is his comment, “There’s always one, isn’t there?” You can practically hear the sigh.

Well, yes, Ron, there is always one. Progressives are progressive because we believe in progress, and we believe in progress because — generalizing, of course — we believe three basic things.

First, human understanding is conditioned by history, culture, language. We are products of our times.

Second, our understanding tends towards some serious errors. For example, we tend to prefer the company of — and to trust — people who are like us. Worse, we go seriously wrong in judging the relevant ways people are like us, giving far too much weight to differences that make no real difference.

Third, we humans are capable of learning. When it comes to policies and institutions, the great lesson that we keep learning and need to keep learning is that few of the differences actually matter. Put positively, we need to keep learning that people are actually more like us than we thought. The great progressive impulse is to find more and more common humanity, and to adjust our policies around that truth. (And, as an aside that I both believe, and I hope Ron Dreher will find annoying: Nope, it doesn’t end with humans. We need to stop torturing and killing animals because we like the way they taste.)

So, yes, there always is a next frontier. But it’s not because progressives are sneaky land grabbers who are never satisfied. It’s because we are committed to the endless process of discovering our common humanity, and thus becoming fully human.

I’m ok with that.

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