Blog in Progress

Musing on Reading: RSS today, Kindle Unlimited tomorrow, and more

I didn’t start my UnSmartphone project as a personal productivity project, but if I’m honest with myself that was definitely in the back of my mind. When I searched for stories on mobile phone use in developing countries, the keywords I used (especially dumbphone use, feature phones) returned dozens of stories about people who had returned to feature phones, people who missed their feature phones now that they had a smartphone, and even people who used their smartphones like feature phones (tl;dr, the iPhone makes a very expensive feature phone, but hey, go for it).

As regular readers of my blog know, I’m constantly grappling with productivity issues (let’s just say I am far more aware of when I’m not working well than when I am), and in my always-online world, the internet plays a big role. Using a Windows Phone has been one way to limit the variety of ways I procrastinate online, even though it probably doesn’t greatly decrease the total time spent. And I knew from bitter experience that novelty-heavy changes don’t stick unless by accident. The novelty wears off, the difficulties become apparent and hard to ignore, and it’s back to the status quo ante. Also, field research should be about the objects of study, not the researcher (you’ll learn plenty about yourself during field research without trying to, so no need to foreground it and ruin the project).

So I consciously set about creating a mobile environment that I thought could mimic the ones in which the people I’m interested in are embedded. Obviously it’s a very imperfect approximation right now, because I don’t know enough about their lives and there are too many differences between them and me. But the point is to help me get insight into what kinds of questions to ask and what kind of data to seek if I pursue the real, field-based project.

As I said in my previous post, I think that a smart, motivated person with a moderately equipped feature phone can access quite a bit of online information and communication. But I’m also learning what seems to be more and less superfluous for my own ICT uses.

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The UnSmartphone Chronicles, Week 1, with bonus readalong update

I finished the second installment of David Peace’s Red Riding quartet, Nineteen Seventy-Seven, this week. It became quite gripping plotwise in the last third, with the two narrators meeting and working out various puzzles. The end is equal parts depressing and sudden and ambiguous. You will not be surprised to learn that the bad guys don’t get what’s coming to them and the more or less good guys (and women) don’t fare well either. I’m totally committed to finishing the series, but I’m taking a break with something less intense and demanding.

I thought The Cuckoo’s Calling would make the perfect break, and I was right. I started it months ago and stopped in the first chapter for no good reason. This time I kept going and once the client showed up in Cormoran Strike’s office, I was in for the duration. Rowling is not the most brilliant writer on the planet, and the difference between her style and Peace’s is striking. A lot of writers would suffer by comparison to Peace, I think, but Rowling’s style epitomizes the competent, enjoyable read: you can see the obvious turns of phrase coming, but she can also place you smack in the middle of Tottenham Court Road, to the point you’re feeling the Crossrail construction blue hoardings at your back. And she can sketch a minor character with a minimum of words. She is very good at what she does. It’s not intellectually demanding but it’s intelligent and engrossing and I’m having a very good time.

I’ve made some headway on the #SummerBFB as well. Claes was just called Niccolò in the middle of a very interesting card game, and the secondary characters are flourishing. Dunnett is so good at those. We talk so much about Lymond and orient the other characters in terms of their relationships to him, but they can absolutely stand on their own. In Niccolò Rising Claes is much less dominating, and the other characters demand your full attention. It’s ensemble storytelling of the highest order.

In other news, I spent the last week getting to know my new phone. If you remember, I decided to embark on a pseudo-experiment to see what mobile technology is like for people who don’t have smartphones and generous data plans. I’m using a Nokia 515, which is a snazzy version of a basic candybar-style phone. The operating system is Nokia’s venerable S40 platform (venerable in both good and bad ways), and while this version has built-in access to Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, email, and the internet, it’s a long way from the Windows 8 phone I’ve been using.

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Writing, reading, and a trip across the digital divide

I’m still mostly on blog hiatus, but when you have a social life online it’s hard to pull the plug completely. At least it is for me.

The World Cup is over, so I have to find other ways to amuse myself during the daytime. My favorite part of the World Cup and Euro tournaments is the group stage, and since the teams I support either didn’t make it out of the group stage or were dumped out of the knockout stage early, I had even less reason to watch the knockout rounds than usual. That doesn’t mean I didn’t, of course; I just wasn’t as invested. I was mostly indifferent between the final two teams: I didn’t really want a European team to win in the Americas, but I don’t care much about Argentina. Anyway, congratulations to Germany (a very fine team) and their fans.

My article writing is going slower than I’d like but it is going. Two papers are about to go out for review and the third gets worked on over the next couple of weeks. Fittingly, one of the papers is on football hooliganism; it was fun to work on it while I was actually watching football, and even better that there was very little hooliganism on display in the real world.

My #summerbfb is going swimmingly. I’m still reading Niccolò Rising and really enjoying it. Claes is growing on my by the page and I’m looking forward to seeing how Dunnett develops all the storylines. Donna Thorland had a fantastic comment on my previous post, which encapsulated the difference between Lymond and Niccolò. Lymond is the ultimate hero: he’s smarter, more handsome, more charming and more tortured than 99.9 percent of humans. I can totally see why he is fanficc’d and shipped so much (and, as Ann Somerville points out, Dunnett tees up the opportunity). Claes/Niccolò isn’t like that at all, at least not in this book. But I feel as if he might wear better in the long run. Lymond is so tiring. Not that I wasn’t as enchanted by him as many other readers. I would just rather have dinner with him than live with him. I think Lymond crossed with Lord Peter Wimsey would be the most exhausting man in human history. Fascinating, but my goodness, it would take a year to recover. At least.

Having met two research deadlines and looking for something to amuse myself that wasn’t another long-running project, I spent some time thinking about the digital divide. I teach classes on the social and political uses of technology and one of the aspects that engages me the most is the gap among different types of users. If you live on social media the way I do, and you are able to take advantage of the latest technological developments as I am, it’s easy to forget that the way technology is experienced by the vast majority of the world is very different.

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David Peace, Dorothy Dunnett, and the #BFB readalong

Despite my complete failure to finish my Big Fat Book in the readalong that I initiated, I’ve taken the plunge once again, thanks to Ros Clarke’s hosting of a Summer BFB readalong. I initially decided I would read David Peace’s Red or Dead; it’s 700+ pages about Liverpool FC’s great manager, Bill Shankly. I had started the book back in the spring and read about 200 pages. I’m also currently listening to the second novel in Peace’s Red Riding quartet, which is extremely dark and depressing, so I thought a book about a truly good man would be a counterpoint. I even went out and bought the hardcover version because to me the prose style fits print better than e-reading.

I started over at the beginning, got to page 10, and put it down. Nothing David Peace writes is quick or easy reading. His prose reminds me of poetry, with rhythms and repetitions that must be savored. And listening to 1977 (Red Riding #2) while reading about 1950s Liverpool is just too much for me.

Hearing 1977 rather than reading it is both a better experience and a more difficult one. It’s better because the rhythms are so striking. The way the novels are written are as important to understanding what he’s saying as the plot and characterization, and with audio you can’t skip over the tough parts. And there are so many tough parts. This series is unrelenting in its depiction of a horrible time in which horrible people did horrible things. At times it’s absolutely painful to listen to, and I listen while I’m out walking or hiking in some of the most beautiful scenery around. The juxtaposition makes it even worse.

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Facebook’s emotion study mess, summarized: still awful [Updated]

A couple of days ago I broke my hiatus to talk about Facebook’s emotion study. I found myself updating the post almost immediately, and the updates have continued unabated as more information trickled out through the weekend, sometimes contradicting, sometimes reinforcing what we thought we knew. Rather than endlessly updating that post I thought it was time to write a new post that summarizes where we are now. I’m not linking a lot in this summary, but I encourage you to read and follow Kashmir Hill, who has been doing superb reporting (and updating) at Forbes.

A quick reminder of the main points: Two academics and a Facebook data scientist published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They reported the results of a study which attempted to manipulate the emotional content of Facebook News Feeds. 600,000 users were included in the study, with some being in treatment groups (their feeds were manipulated according to the study protocol) and some in control groups (their feeds were not).

The two requirements to be included were: (1) posting in the English language; and (2) having posted in the last week. The study took place over seven days in January 2012.

US government-funded research that involves human subjects is required to conform to the Common Rule, which protects subjects from mistreatment and stipulates that they give informed consent before they participate. Informed consent is a technical requirement that places certain burdens of explanation and disclosure on the researcher. Not all studies can provide complete information to subjects before the experiment takes place because knowledge may alter behavior in ways that invalidate the study. In these cases, deception is permitted in initially informing the subject and carrying out the data collection, but the subject must be debriefed after participation, ideally directly after but in all cases before the data are analyzed. Consequent to this debriefing, the subject has the right to have her data removed from the study.

Studies that do not receive federal funding are not required to conform to the Common Rule, but many private and public institutions (and some companies) voluntarily choose to meet these requirements.  Versions of the Common Rule are in force in many other countries but by no means all.

The data collection and analysis for this emotion study were conducted by the Facebook data scientist. The academic authors, according to the notes provided by PNAS, limited their participation to designing the research and writing up the paper (together with the Facebook data scientist). This means that the academics were effectively siloed from the human subject part of the research.

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