Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Even I Must Weigh In On Google+

You might call me a Google 'fanboy', akin to the completely zealous Apple counterparts, but it's not because I find sublime joy in using Google products (some would say this is the *main* problem with Google).  It's because the products simply work well for the type of online life I lead.  I have an Android phone (Epic 4G) and use Gmail for all my correspondence- even this blog is hosted by Blogger!  All of these services play well with each other and that makes me a happy user indeed.

Yesterday Google unveiled their new take on the social scene- Google+, the new uberproduct that will, hopefully, change the way you engage with the web.  I won't go into a breakdown of what Google+ is and is not, mainly because I have yet to receive an invitation so evaluating a service I can't even see doesn't seem prudent.  Yet the response generated by the announcement justifiably brought out some questions and concerns.

I would like to look at one particular opinion (provided via Daring Fireball, thanks!) espoused by Dave Winer on his blog, Scripting News.  Here is a quote from his post:
The thing that makes Facebook great is that it incubated in the market with real users. It was made by real users. It was formed by actual use. One day at a time, one feature at a time, in public, every home run visible, and every mis-step.  Permanent link to this item in the archive.Products like the one Google just announced are hatched at off-sites at resorts near Monterey or in the Sierra, and were designed to meet the needs of the corporation that created it. A huge scared angry corporation. What little is left of the spark that created it in the first place is now used to being Number One, and wants to feel that again. It's being created to make that person feel better. Permanent link to this item in the archive.
Well I can't disagree with the first statement.  Facebook has, for better and mainly worse, made several changes in the midst of actual use by actual users.  Not that they care much what people think, as every design change (and there are *so* many changes made all the time) is implemented via fiat and there is little opportunity to push for any significant deviations from what they set out to accomplish.  There have been very minor kerfuffles over privacy issues, but those are almost always supported by the technology intelligentsia and, without fail, do not catch on with the larger public.  I agree with Dave above, that Google+ has not been developed with real users and might suffer fatally from the echo chamber effect.  But to say that Google will fail because it hasn't developed amidst user involvement is quite simply wrong.  Despite the kudos from Dave above, Facebook has several issues that plague its use for me everyday.    

Here's the deal- Facebook isn't much more than over-glorified email. Sure, it used to be a wonderful way to connect with people over large geographic distances or among those with shared interests- but now so many other services have cropped up- including smart phones a la iPhone and Android- that Facebook is becoming about as useful as a yellowpages telephone directory. Twitter has, for all purposes, supplanted Facebook for my gathering of news and interesting links.  Thanks to better data connections and front-facing cameras, I can Skype and connect with anyone.  Photos are probably the only thing I use Facebook for, but even this has largely degraded as many of my friends cannot post anything close to how they live their real life, thanks in large part to corporate sniffing and HR managers who are willing to judge candidates solely on their posted pictures instead of basing an evaluation on the skills and expertise of the candidate presented.

Another problem I have with Facebook is that the very nature of the service means that I must share my 'profile' with anyone I select to be my friend.  I'm currently finishing my PhD studies in Russian History and have given a lot of thought to how I'm going to use social technology to engage my future students.  One issue many academics possess with Facebook is that they do not always want to share their thoughts and activities with any 'students' who might be their 'friends'.  They make a choice- either they censor what they post or they simply don't allow students to friend them.  This seems like hardly a choice to me, especially given the numerous advantages social networking technology can bring to the higher educational setting, but this issue alone has kept many I know from entering the brave new 'social' world.

Do I use Facebook?  Sure- to communicate with older people who, understandably, are not hip to Twitter or Smartphones.  However, even this is slowly falling away.

Now Google+ may suffer from all the same issues I have with Facebook.  But I'm willing to check out a new, perhaps innovative way to engage in the ever popular 'social networking' scene, if only because Google already works well with the services I use.  Because Facebook, as it stands now, holds very little appeal to me.   

(Editors Note:  Upon reflection I realize that my reference to Facebook being where I interact with 'older people' came across as insensitive and perhaps rude.  This was not my intent when writing that statement- I should have extended my remarks to state that Facebook is the popular choice now because it is familiar and widespread, so that is why I continue to find value in its use.  There are certainly numerous people, old and young, who use Twitter or have Smartphones- I just wanted to make the point that new social network platforms, providing a diverse set of services, are becoming more widespread and used by an increasing number of people.) 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Watching a Flashmob Develop...on Twitter

I am big fan of Twitter.  Right before the Egyptian Revolt really took off on mainstream media outlets, I saw tweets from journalists and others I follow indicating that something was really taking-off in the streets of Cairo.  Today I participated in a 'Twitter Seminar" started/moderated Adam Winkler, a specialist of Constitutional Law at UCLA, on the recent Supreme Court decision that video games were protectable under first amendment rights.  There was an interesting cross-section of ideas and contributions- it really was precise and  concise thoughts on the topic at hand that was as informative as many pieces on the ruling already posted on the various blogs and websites.  It was information, engaged in a high-speed circulation process that produced mutations of the overall product many times over.  It would have been one of the best 'cultural effects' I'd seen Twitter produce.
Would have been, that is, because yesterday I saw a tweet by LeVar Burton (@levarburton) that, it would turn out, sparked an intense reaction of something I called pure joy.
That's right, a Reading Rainbow Flashmob.  It started off as just an innocent, frivolous twitter request.  But it grew, over the course of hours, into an actual reality.  People everywhere wrote in asking about what cities it would occur in and generally giving a 'hells yeah' shout-out.  How could you not?  This tweet all but sealed the deal.  
I was lucky enough to see this Twitter effect unfold in real-time.  Watching the sheer variety of people who voiced their hearty support grow with every tweet, I realized that when this flashmob occurs it will be a testament to the powerful effect of public television on the cultural education of a whole generation of American youth.  In a time where cuts to the publicly funded arts and media are being bandied about as a means of scoring political points, here will be an event that, through its very spontaneous creation and implementation, will demonstrate that real good is being done through their offering- that the love Reading Rainbow cultivated went beyond political ideologies and, instead, instilled a sense of improving one's self through reading and education.

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Fragments of the Gaze

Earlier I posted about my ongoing research into the settlement of Russian Old Believers in Woodburn, Oregon.  The Oregon Historical Society provided me with some very interesting material related to the Old Believers, although from a source base I would not have originally thought to investigate- the records of the now defunct Valley Migrant League.  Part of the much larger 'War on Poverty' initiative begun under President Johnson, the Valley Migrant League (VML) was one of the first projects of its kind to be funded through an Office for Economic Opportunity grant.  The VML initially sought to provide migrant laborers, then streaming into Oregon during the spring and summer months, a means by which they could improve themselves via adult education, health information, and establishment of child care facilities to take care of the migrant's children.

While the primary ethnic group the VML concerned itself with was the growing Hispanic migrants, curiously the Russian Old Believers also came into the new bureaucratic organization's gaze- this despite the fact that the Old Believers were certainly not a migrant population and their numbers paled in comparison to the Hispanic 'majority-minority' group.  Mostly they were farmers, who practiced their craft in some of the poorest conditions in Brazil and Turkey, and had no tradition of engaging in migrant labor patterns as found, then,  in the United States.  Nevertheless, the Old Believer immigrants shared some common characteristics with Hispanic migrant workers that made them visible to the eyes of the VML; few spoke english, few possessed skills (at least in the appraisal of the VML) that would lift them out of subsistence farming, and they almost all practiced an insular lifestyle that would keep them (again in the estimation of the VML) from truly integrating into American culture.

Often in the VML documents I surveyed, there is the expressed desire to provide all needy populations in the Woodburn area with opportunities to advance themselves, but often these desires were tempered around a belief that economic empowerment would transform these populations into good 'tax-paying' citizens and speed along their acculturation process.  Yet transformation of a group from one set of cultural norms to another is an especially difficult process, particularly if the assimilating group has little to no knowledge of the culture with whom they are attempting to transform.  The VML, to this end, commissioned a few reports on the Hispanic and Russian groups then living in their intended work area.

For today's post I would like to look at some fragments from one particular report drafted in 1966 by Paul F. Griffin PhD and Ronald L. Chatham PhD, entitled "Comparative Analysis of the Mexican-American and Russo-American Migrant in the Willamette Valley, Oregon".  It is a hybrid sociological/anthropological report, focusing on the cultural traditions of the populations surveyed.  It is 216 pages long, with the Russian component of the report containing 70 of those pages.  Again, it is interesting to note that the Russian immigrants took up one-third of the report despite being a very small group as compared to the Hispanic presence.  Forty-five of these pages are devoted to three areas: case histories of two specific Russian immigrant families, some perceptions of the American citizens in the area of the Russians and a listing of known Russian immigrant families.  While the two case histories and the listing of Russian immigrant families are invaluable sources for my continuing research, the responses by American citizens really piqued my interest.

Take this response, given by a 23 year-old clerk at the U.S. National Bank branch in Woodburn:
This type of complaint was common among citizens quoted in this report.  What strikes me in this comment, easily one of the more virulent, is that the 23 year-old clerk assumes that learning American culture is 'even more simple' than engaging in monetary transactions.  

Not everyone was so quick to judge, or assume that the Russians immigrants would remain ensconced in their isolation.  This next response, from a 26 year-old teacher, was one fragment among many I found in educational materials that indicated the teaching profession was much better informed as to the history and tradition of the Russian Old Believers- indeed, this teachers acknowledgement that the Russians practiced a different form of Christianity was one of the first instances I came across in which the distinction was even made:
Note how the teacher states that Russian children are picking up english with greater rapidity than 'Spanish background children'- other sources I came across made similar comments in that the Russian immigrants were quick to pick up some aspects of American culture, such as the language and acquisition of material goods, while still managing to hold on to their religious beliefs.  The 'flexibility' in cultural practices of the Old Believer's, a characteristic noted in their history but largely missing from the early 60's assessments, came to the fore in Woodburn over time.

The first two fragments presented above were from the Urban standpoint- if you could call the small town of Woodburn in the 60's urban- while this last selection comes from a member of the community who probably had the most in common, in terms of work and lifestyle, with the Russian immigrants:
This was one of the few responses found in the report that actually engages in some empathy.  Many responses centered on the 'unclean' nature of the Russian immigrants- that they 'stank' or did not manage to keep their property in tidy order.  Few actually concentrated on seeing the issue for what it was- this was a new group of immigrants whose experiences beforehand differed greatly from that encountered in the United States.  The farmers last comment, that "we would maybe look bad in Russia", was certainly not indicative of many respondents attitudes.  

What makes these observations so interesting is that this kind of information is what the VML would base its 'engagement' policy upon towards Russian immigrants.  Since the perception was that the Russian immigrants were 'dirty', programs that targeted distributing health information were emphasized.  Adult education classes, held at night, attempted to get Russian adults to enroll in order to learn english.  This report, and several others commissioned by the VML and the local government, not only helped fix the gaze of the bureaucracy on the Russian immigrants but they also gave indicators towards directions where the gaze could shift.  However, like many of these early reports, little attempt was made to reconcile the larger questions regarding the practice of Old Belief and the assimilation of these practitioners into American culture.  In failing to do so, acculturation  programs would be met with little enthusiasm and, in some areas like education, outright conflicts developed.  

Next time I would like to take a look at an education source- the 'Manual for Educators of Old Believer Children', drafted by the Marion County (where Woodburn is located) Independent Education District.    

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Wednesday Videos: The Future of Books

Update: I've posted two additional videos of TechCrunch interviewing Gleick about his work, The Information.  They are shorter in length (around 10 minutes total) so if the hour long talk just below isn't your cup of tea, keep scrolling and watch the two shorter videos)

Today's selection for 'Wednesday Videos' is author James Gleick speech given at the conclusion of the Sydney Writers' Festival on "The Future of the Book".  I posted a little review of Gleick's most recently published work, The Information, and it's great to see him here articulating his views on a subject near and dear to my heart.  Personally, I have been increasingly thinking of buying an e-reader seeing as how I've actually just finished my first e-book- and I read it on my phone!  It was Tom Clancy's chock-full of Cold War nostalgia 'The Cardinal and the Kremlin', and I'm currently reading Gleick's Chaos in e-book form thanks in large part to Amazon's 'deal of the day' = cost me a total of three dollars.  But enough of my reading rambling- watch the video below, provided so kindly by The Monthly and its 'SlowTV' collection of videos.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

I'm Not Dead....Yet!

Well I certainly didn't mean for the Muse to go inactive this long.  Truth = I've been very busy finishing up some essays desperately needed for my Graduate Portfolio.  I'm glad to report great progress on that front, so much so that I should be able to post drafts this week.  I have also been working on a few posts for the Muse (shock! gasp!), so if you are a frequent visitor please hang in there and know more words are coming your way.

I will, however, leave you with this little tid-bit of a review on a book I recently purchased from Powells- The Ask by Sam Lipsyte.  I'm not quite finished, but what I've read so far has me pretty impressed.  How could you not, with the main character being a all out loser-ish reject who works, gets fired from, and returns to work again at a small, mostly insignificant Art College in New York.  (Oh the soft spot I have for misguided souls locked in academia's seedier basement of the Ivory Tower)  I've never read Lipsyte before, but based on this work I would probably be inclined to pick up one of his previous works.

Here is a New York Review of Books, umm, review on 'The Ask' if you want a more official take on the novel.  I will say that if you like hijinks in academic settings, then another novel that I have read and highly recommend would be 'Lucky Jim' by Kingsley Amis.