Monday, June 27, 2005

The Social Uses of Photographs

I'm still struggling to complete my article on blogs as a research methodology, but one of the side benefits is my looking around for examples to include, and coming across some really nifty studies. Here is a pretty nifty site: Professor Nancy Van House, School of information Management Systems, University of California, Berkeley is working on The Social Uses of Photographs and trust, credibility, and the internet. Here is her paper on Weblogs: Credibility and Collaboration in an Online World

Friday, June 24, 2005

Blank Page Syndrome

This week I've been struggling with writing a chapter on blogs for a research methodology textbook. It's frustrating because I have a pretty good idea of what I want to say, and even how I want to say it, but I'm still finding it difficult to get past the blank page and get down the initial paragraphs. I have made several false starts -- the first too informal, the second too boring, the third too obsolete (I realized that by the time the chapter saw print, and especially after it had been in print for a while -- since textbooks of this type hang around for a long time -- explaining what blogs are and how they work would be as redundant as explaining the benefits of word processing or of using a search engines to find journal articles) and I am finding it difficult to motivate myself to go back for try number 4. Thankfully, I'm up against a deadline, so motivated or not, I'll get it done sometime in the next week.

Writer's block is pretty normal, of course. I've only met four or five people who do not suffer from at least that initial blockage as they face the first blank page, and I know a lot of academics and professional writers. But it is not part of the writing process that anyone sees or talks about. Most academics would like you to believe that they sit down at the keyboard and simply hammer out the finished product that you see in journals or books first draft. In reality, the material that sees print has usually gone through 5 to 10 major revisions; by which I mean, torn up and start over kind of rewriting, not just copy editing.

The problem with the pretense that we 'just write up our findings' without sweating over it, is that students or new faculty who are struggling to get something down on paper and failing, often feel like there must be something wrong with them, and believing that no one else is experiencing this level of angst, gives it up. I have on innumerable occasions seen thesis supervisors provide detailed guidance and support to their student in the formulation of the research question, the search for relevant research literature, data collection and data analysis, but once the student has their data ready to write up, they say, "well, go to it!" as if the writing process were not in fact as difficult or more difficult than all the other stages. We assume that because students have been writing papers for years as undergraduates, they should have no problem writing up their thesis, but the research I've seen suggests that it is at this stage that approximately 50% of graduate students in thesis or dissertation programs drop the ball and disappear from the program.

I am very grateful to Howard Becker's book, Writing for the Social Sciences in which he explains that the writing strategies necessary for the successful completion of a thesis, dissertation or published piece of research are almost the exact opposite strategies necessary to efficiently completing an undergraduate paper. To be successful thesis writers, students have to unlearn everything they think they know about writing. But since hardly anyone every tells them that, when their successful strategies from their undergraduate years fail them, they view it as their personal failure, and thinking they have lost it somehow, announce "I can't do this!" and throw in the towel.

I once had the opportunity of shadowing SF writer Candas Jane Dorsey for a couple of days to see how writers actually write. This was back when I was struggling to finish my dissertation, and I was working 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, yet found myself repeatedly bogged down in writer's block. So here I was following Candas around for the day, waiting for her to start writing, and waiting and waiting. First we had breakfast. Then she did some errands. No problem, I’m imposing on her time, I can wait. Then we go for lunch with friends. This takes half a day. Then we go to a movie. Then coffee with other acquaintances. Then supper…which turned into a bit of an impromptu party as other writers in the neighbourhood (Candas then lived in an artists’ co-op) dropped in. Finally, at about 8PM, Candas announces she has to go upstairs for a few minutes. She comes down maybe 80 minutes later and says, “Phew…that was a long slog!” I ask her to what she is referring, and she says, “Oh I felt it was time to get some writing out of the way. I did about four and a half pages of finished copy just then, That’s a lot for one day.” And went back to the party.

Considering that I was getting only one to two pages out per day, this was a bit of a revelation. “How can you spend all your time goofing and still be more productive than me!” I asked. (Okay, “wailed” might be a better adjective there.) And Candas explained to me that she had been working all day -- that for a writer, going to a party, listening to conversations, picking up ideas from peers, and so on, qualifies as her research. “You can’t have output without input, you know!”

The party/luncheon/movie research may not apply too directly to my writing (though as a sociologist, listening is a pretty useful skill), but I now certainly get the “no output without input” line. So if my brain has shut down the last couple of days on this article, instead of sweating it, I’ve learned that it is more productive in the long run to just take a day off. (*Went to see The Interpreter which I would recommend as a nice little thriller.*)

Of course, the trick is knowing when to take the day off to recharge, get a fresh perspective, and start over; and when to stop procrastinating and to exercise some self-discipline. My favorite NFB short is Getting Started, a painfully funny cartoon that hits way too close to home…

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Hitchhiker Disappoints

Saw Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy this week, and was disappointed.

I confess that I often have trouble seeing the point in remaking something that has already been done, and expect that if someone is tackling a classic they do so in the belief that they can do it better. I'll reluctantly concede that there may be a certain logic in remaking classic B&W films since modern audiences are often impatient with B&W and have difficulty relating to the styles and issues of other times with which they are unfamiliar, though I feel this reflects badly on the media literacy of our graduates. But where is the purpose in remaking a recent TV series?

Of course I am perfectly aware that the answer is "to make money". The producers have cast around for some popular product and then asked themselves how they can carve out a piece of that pie for themselves, regardless of the relative merits of the proposed remake. But hope springs eternal, and so I had opted for optimistic explanation that the producers loved the original books, and after seeing the cheesy production values of the original BBC series, decide to invest in Star Wars level special effects to 'do it right'.

The reality, needless to say, did not live up to this expectation.

There were some nice elements here and there, including decent casting. Alan Rickman is perfect for the voice of Marvin, for example, though I hated the new robot itself -- which looks like the annoyingly enthusiastic robot from Power Rangers -- a bad piece of 'casting' rendered even more distracting by the appearance of the original Marvin as an 'extra' in the waiting line in the Vogan bureau...

But the fundamental problem was the slobby abridgement of the original scripts... it often seemed like the producer /director just didn't 'get it.' Many of the memorable lines were there, but with all of the lines that build up to the punch line absent, the jokes fall flat. This was even more the case with the lack of character development -- Hitchhiker may never have been great literature, but it did develop a certain movie two-dimensionality through the repetition of predictable characteristics, e.g., Dent’s search for a cup of tea, or his resentful, whining, pessimistic “this is it, we’re all going to die” or Marvin’s “brain the size of a planet” theme or whatever. Instead, the abridgement left almost nothing to hang on to… By trying to cram in too many of the original scenes, each individual scene was necessarily so abbreviated as to lose its coherence and significance, with the result that the whole movie is reduced to pointless silliness.

Worst of all, the Guide itself only puts in a few random appearances; without the guide narration tying the pieces together, the whole premise of the movie is undermined.

My recommendation: get the original BBC production on DVD and watch that over again instead.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Hilarious Satire

Okay, this satire, forwarded to me by Thomas Phinney, destroys PBS documentries and NASA. I particularly loved the white academic who has to rephrase/qualify every word as he goes....

As Phinney notes: it's video, requires broadband, and the audio content may not be completely work-appropriate.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Research Tip

So I'm doing a chapter on Blogs for a research methodology textbook this month, but was frustrated by the lack of established literature in the area; the obvious disadvantage of being an early adopter...but the thing is, I knew people out there were doing studies in the area in which I was interested, and that these were in the pipeline, but it might be a year or more before those studies see print in journals. I needed to know what was happening now, so that my article would not be obsolete by the time itsees print...

So, I used a trick taught to me by Holly Gunn, which is to do a Google advanced search set for PPT documents. And bingo, I hit maybe a hundred relevant power point presentations, mostly done for conference papers but also some inhouse stuff, by the various researchers in whom I was interested. Motherload! Some great stuff here which probably won't show up in articles / journal indexes for another year or three. With the added bonus that the pointform allows one to scan information even faster than in an article format, often with detailed notes in the 'notes' section of the slide if I need to pursue the matter more deeply.

Of course citation becomes a bit trickier....but most of the ones I'm citing are from clearly designated conferences, a few from course lectures; there are only a couple that are by "Mike and Judy" and no other clue as to identity...though I can always track down their server and sometimes backtrack from their to an institution and therefore faculty list, etc.

Of course, the other great source of information has been various research blogs...these are quickly becoming the way to develop and diffuse new ideas...journals now have to be thought of as secondary sources, solidifying material originally discussed (peer reviewed and anointed) previously in research blogs. With RSS feeds, keeping up with latest research developments is possible for those in the loop, but the digital divide is leaving a number of my colleagues somewhat behind the bleeding edge... I sometimes suspect my course content is two or three years ahead of some colleagues because I can google and blog, whereas they are waiting for the journals to come out.... Of course, the risk is that I will include some early data that will subsequently turn out to be in error, but it is a reasonable trade off....

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Toy and Dissertation

My wife gave me a new toy for Father's day... a swiss army knife with a 64 meg data chip as one of the attachments!

This is amazingly cool. In the one "knife" I have a knife blade, a screwdriver, a pair of sissors, a nail file, a flashlight, a pen, and the USB 64 meg memory. It is way cool! And I am literally the first on my block to get one, since Mary had to import it from the UK (took only a week) as it is not available in Canada yet.

I got my Father's day gift several days early because I actually needed the 64 megs to facilitate transfer of the files Mary and I were working on last week: her dissertation. (I was helping her copy edit her first complete draft, due Friday June 16. No one can find the typos in their own writing, and I was glad to do it as it was the first time I had read the dissertation through from start to finish, though I have seen the various bits regularly over the last several years. But finally assembling everything into one complete draft gives a very different impression....!) When we printed out the hardcopy and put it into a binder, we were very gratified by its bulk -- it really felt like a book. At 250 pages (and that doesn't count the references, probably another 30-40 pages) it is a nice size for a doctoral dissertation.

I am obviously biased, but I think Mary's dissertation one of the very best I've ever read -- its of publishable quality, IMHO. And in the opinion of a bunch of editors and referees too, because she has already published 2 chapters of it in significant journals, and is sending out two more in the next couple of weeks. It is very very good stuff.

I am a little in awe of my wife's scholarship, both in comparison to the light weight stuff I've been grinding out lately on cyberculture (I think her stuff matters and has the potential to revolutionize her discipline, if her positivist male colleagues can put aside their ideological prejudices long enough to read it -- she actually got heckled at one conference by a group of 60 year old men who did not like her critique of their work, though all the women scholars in the audience subsequently came up to her and apologized for their behavior....), and that, well, that I got to marry her.... I mean, somehow you expect great scholars to be out there somewhere, probably at Harvard or Standford or, at least Queens, not lying next to you in bed. It's like one of those K-Tel commercials: "How much would you pay for this product? But wait, there's more!" Not only is Mary incredibly good looking (initial motivation for interaction) and willing to put up with me (astounding! ) but I find out a few weeks into the relationship that she is a fabulous cook and then a few years in she turns out to be a great mom to my kids (who knows this or even thinks of it as a criteria in the early days of a relationship?) and then I find out that on top of all that she is a significant scholar too. I'm telling you, it just doesn't get better than this!

I just wish I could go back in time to visit myself in my twenties and tell myself to relax, it all works out in the end. Because at the time, I was very envious of all my friends who seemed to be having much better luck then me....Turns out, I wasn't mistaken to wait until I got exactly what I wanted..... though of course, I have to admit in the end, I just lucked out....

Friday, June 10, 2005

Niagara Falls

Thursday afternoon, we drove to Niagara Falls; Kasia thankfully slept the whole way. We checked into the hotel (the Hilton) to get our "adventure passes", freebie entrance to most of the major attractions as part of the hotel package. We immediately made our way to the Maid of the MistsTigana was less interested in the scenery then in seeing how wet she could get ("Is it wetter over where you are Dad? How wet is it?"), no doubt a result of having listened to how wet she had gotten as a toddler when we were last here. Kasia seemed to tolerate the spray reasonably well, but holding her for the tour was taking a toll on Mary's back. We began scouring the tourists areas for strollers, and eventually found one for sale. (Our previous stroller had been a loaner from the hotel in Toronto.)

We then made our way back to the hotel, stopping to observe a glass-blowing demonstration, and then hit the swimming pool. Tigana and Kasia had gone swimming every day of our trip, but at this hotel Mary observed that their were very young kids using the waterslide, so encouraged Tigana to try. Tigana was initially terrified at the prospect, since it is one of enclosed ones those that loops around and round like a rollercoaster, but having polled every other kid in the pool on "How fast is it? Is it scary?", eventually allowed herself to be talked into it by another father. Then, of course, there was no getting her off it.

The next morning we started with breakfast in the hotel which overlooks the falls. We then made our way down to the "behind the falls tour" (which I found fairly ho hum, since all there is to see is a wall of water - no real sense of 'falls" as such); the "White Water Walk" (formerly the "Great Gorge Adventure", but there isn't anything very adventuresome about walking along beside it - the adventure would only be if you were out on the water, which basically isn't allowed. But the scenery is great, and if it were not for the kids, Mary and I would have found it very peaceful and restful. I was again struck at how most tourists seem to just rush from one site to the other, the objective apparently being to take a picture of themselves in front of whatever it is, and then move on. People did not seem interested in sticking around and appreciating the grandeur of it all. I was also struck at how the prices in attraction gift shops were extremely reasonable, no sense of price gouging at all, in sharp contrast to the privately run shops up the road. (Though to be fair, there were big signs ups saying "Tourist Area" when leaving the public park for the private attractions, which is a pretty clear message from the park authorities that buyer beware.)

From there we ended our day in Niagara by going to the Butterfly Conservatory, which was a big hit with both kids. Tigana had been there before when just slightly older than Kasia is now, and had had a butterfly land on her, so it was crucial that she be able to recreate that memory. Fortunately, Mary was able to coax a butterfly to land on Tigana, and once there, it stayed with her for over half an hour. Kasia mostly entertained herself by opening and closing the straps on her stroller, but would occasionally pause to look at a passing butterfly.

All in all, a good day trip!

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Casa Loma

Thursday, Mary took the kids to Casa Loma while I stayed at the hotel to pack, pick up the car rental, and so on.

Photo by Tigana

Mary was afraid that Tigana would quickly become bored touring what is basically a big house, despite the fact that she has a personal connection to the site: Tigana's great-grandfather was in charge of the stables, back in the day. But Mary headed off any problems by handing Tigana the camera. Tigana became totally engaged in photographing rooms and gardens (particularly the secret garden) and so constructively engaged the whole time.

More problematic was Kasia, who had the toddler's typical difficulty understanding that fenched off areas of the house were out of bounds, as seen here...

Toronto Zoo and the ROM

Wednesday, Mary took Tigana and Kasia to the Toronto Zoo, thus giving me five hours to explore the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). I was particularly keen to see the featured exhibit and spent about four hours working my way through that.

I mostly had the place to myself, as various busloads of students or gaggle of tourists would flood in, then recede again a few minutes later to leave me in peace and quiet. Most people would look at a few skeletons, watch 30 seconds or so of one of the 7-10 minute videos, and move on. I feel sorry for the curators who spend so much time working on those little cards attached to the exhibits that nobody (well, besides me, I mean) actually reads. I found it fascinating to read the arguments, then get to look at the actual evidence -- sitting right there in the display case -- for myself. One is certainly struck by how difficult much of the task of reconstruction is, as I'd view the 10 foot enlarged photo, and then look at the actual 2 inch fossil under discussion and know that I would never have detected, let alone been able to correctly interpret, the evidence being put forward.

The exhibit opens with a diorama created in the late 1980s, and then a second diorama with the same three dinosaurs in the same poses, but this time depicted using the best information as of January 2005, and the difference between the two scenes is startling, to say the least: Suddenly one is looking at a flock of flightless birds a la ostriches or emu, (albeit significantly scarier) and not dinosaurs at all… Fascinating stuff -- and once again proves that everything my Grade 3 teacher taught us was wrong.

Once having satiated myself on dinosaurs, I joined a 50 minute tour of the natural history floor, which was moderately interesting, if too fast to get more than a glimpse of a small selection of the exhibits. Here I was the tourist in a hurry, though I'd hoped an overview would allow me to focus in on the most relevant exhibits in my remaining time. In the event, I ended my visit with a quick tour of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco exhibits - some really great furniture design there! - and the obligatory half hour in the giftshop. Much of the rest of the ROM was undergoing renovations, and the addition of a Cyrstal Courtyard, a new wing that threatens to dwarf the older buildings, though I do rather like the design.

Meanwhile, at the zoo, Tigana was getting to ride the camels

and Kasia was falling in love with the zebras and giraffes.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Ontario Science Center

Tuesday I chaired a session in the morning for the Gender and Diversity Division, and then took Tigana with me to the Ontario Science for the afternoon. (Mary took Kasia with her to the afternoon sessions since she was not presenting, and as an audience member could slip out when Kasia got too fussy.)

The featured exhibit was on the physics of roller coasters, complete with a "build your own" kit that allowed kids to experiment with different heights, sizes of loops and so on to see which designs would work, and which would not, and why.
Tigana and I particularly enjoyed the human centrifuge where they demonstrated circular motion -- we got quite a bit of time in the 'ride', as they demonstrated walking against and with the motion, walking towards the center and back, giant steps verses tiny ones, bowling (having to take curve created by circular motion into account) and so on. It was great!

Tigana with the mural she created.
The second highlight was the kids area, including an intriguing art board consisting of thousands of pins that could be pushed forward various lengths to create impressions/pictures of people or objects pressed into the other side.

Finally, Tigana loved playing in the 'supermarket', an area designed, I believe, to teach children how to select from the four food groups to achieve a balanced diet, but Tigana of course ignored the educational 'grocery lists', and just stuffed her basket with random items -- a stack of carrots, for example, even though she never eats them. So someone explain to me why, when we take Tigana grocery shopping, she whines for a minimum of two hours before, the entire time during, and at least another hour after, about how boring shopping is and how we are torturing her with it, but she will happily role play shopping for an hour and resent having to stop?

Ontario Science Center gets an 'A' for hands-on kids activities, and probably rates another 'A' for its other displays, had I had a chance to see them as more than a blur as Tigana pulled me past them....