Monday, August 23, 2010

Man, I wish I had an easier way to share my reading lists.

I realize that it has been a while since I last updated my little "about me" blurb.  No, I am not still reading the most recent (English-language) edition of Diogenes.  But, since I do read numerous periodicals (bimonthly and quarterly publishing) and weeklies (the Economist, for one) it is pretty onerous to try to update my reading status each time.

I think that for the next little while, I will try to find a tool that will help me to easily share what I am reading.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Water: the Reality of Scarcity

In a recently published special report, the Economist discusses the issues and problems that will arise because of the need for clean, drinkable water for a growing global population.  In the report, the author(s) argue that "water is the new oil", and that the word (water) rarely appears in print without being followed by crisis.  I found the report very informative, touching on all aspects of drinkable water on Earth.  It starts with a straightforward analysis of what percentage of the Earth's water is drinkable, and goes on to look at a variety of topics: agriculture, global distribution issues, business, technology (conservation and power generation), and politics.  As usual, the Economist does not shy away from admitting that providing clean, drinkable water to the global population will be a difficult and, potentially, explosive (or, charged) task.  Nonetheless (or, "as usual"), the authors are optimistic that political cooperation, technology, and markets will spare the future from the very conflicts that they fear might arise.

What I found most interesting about the Economist's take on the political dimension was that the authors assumed that conflicts between nations would arise because of the scarcity of drinkable water.  The tone suggests, to me, that flashpoints between states will ignite because there is not enough water, or one party is reducing the access to water of the other.  This reminds me of an article by Samer Alatout published last year in Social Studies of Science, called "Bringing Abundance into Environmental Politics."  In this article, Alatout illustrates how arguments for the abundance of a resource (in this case, water) are often overlooked as the opposite of scarcity. Instead, he argues, debate about the abundance of water deserve to be considered as a separate category apart from the arguments about scarcity.

This leads me to think that the political dimension of "water" does not revolve around the real or imagined scarcity of the resource.  Rather, the more important factor to watch in conflicts (current or coming) about water is the extent to which one actor argues for its abundance.  The conflict will occur over how and to what extent another party rejects the arguments for abundance.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Contrastive Explanations and Debates about the Strong Programme in the Sociology of Science

In a recent issue of Sociology of Science, Jeff Kochan examines the use of "contrastive explanations" in critiques of the Strong Programme. I really enjoyed this article because it explains the Strong Programme methodology in a clear, understandable manner. And, it makes some very interesting methodological arguments.

The article is a pseudo-response piece to critiques of the Strong Programme methodology that were advanced separately by Nick Tosh and Tim Lewens (referred to in the article as "TL", and the same herein).  Kochan starts with a description of contrastive explanation with the simple information request: "Why choose B, rather than any of the other alternatives in which A is true?" In this statement, "A" denotes the range of alternatives available from which "B" is chosen, which Kochan calls the "contrast space." The interesting thing about the idea of the contrast space is that it imposes structural conditions on an explanation. My take on it is that it is more than just "you cannot explain "B" without explaining "A"". Rather, the explanation of "B" can only be described within "A". That is, B, from the original information request, is a subset of A.

Methodologically speaking, this is fascinating because it very neatly explains how sociologists (especially my own teachers) examine scientific controversies and competing theories. My professor, Thomas Schlich, used to say that the most important step in any analysis is to show that you understand (or even assume) that your subject's perspective is internally consistent. Meaning, the scientist, physician, quack, holds to a countervailing opinion because, although they all see the same phenomenon, they "understand" it in the context of their own emotional-philosophical-social epistemic. If we return to the original information request, it means that different people will each have a different "A".  Thus, two people (1 and 2) can see the same thing, "X", but come to competing conclusions ("B1 and B2"), because their "A" is ultimately different (A1 and A2).

I did not know anything about the "Strong Programme" methodology before reading this article, but Kochan makes it into an accessible topic by offering brief explanations and by returning to the main text critiqued by TL, a book written by David Bloor.  Kochan's critique of TL also returns to Bloor's work, which used the electron-charge debate between Milliken and Ehrenhaft to explain the Strong Programme method.  Kochan's critique starts by identifying where he thinks TL misunderstand the Strong Programme as outlined by Bloor. In a bizarre twist (IMHO), TL's misunderstanding of Bloor's text is highlighted, in a Freudian slip, where Tosh omits a key set of scare quotes in his citation. For Kochan, this indicates that TL believe Bloor is a scientific realist, which is a clear contradiction of Strong Programme assumptions (relativism).

The section of the essay that I find most interesting comes after Kochan's critique of TL (unconscious) scientific realism, where he examines the contrastive approach itself. Kochan examines TL's approach to the contrastive explanation and discovers a methodological "short cut". Apparently, TL structure a contrastive argument that is really a conjunctive statement: Why did A choose P rather than Q? Because A believes P and not Q. In other words, his explanation actually avoids contrastive format by using a conjunction: meaning, he should have answered "A believes P rather than Q, because A rather than Q". This is particularly interesting because, as Kochan points out, you don't really need to use a contrastive explanation in order to achieve the same point. As I understand it, your argument can demonstrate the same goal by using a conjunctive structure instead of a contrastive one (ironically said using a contrast).

To me, this means that, if we return to our original information request (modified per above), "Why choose P rather than any other item in A (e.g. "Q")?", we can say "because P and not Q", instead of (quoting Kochan) "P simpliciter".  This returns to the earlier description of the contrastive space: we can explain why a scientist believes P rather than Q by explaining why P and why he does not believe Q, rather than explaining every single possibility in the contrastive space (A). Of course, this only works if your goal is to explain P and not Q. For instance, why did Milliken conclude that the negative charge he discovered applied to the electron and not the subelectron? This way, you do not have to entertain all of the other possible particles or explanations that could have won Milliken over.

Kochan's methodological argument is a fascinating one, and it works particularly well when examining the case made by different sides in a controversy. 

Monday, May 24, 2010

New Developments in the Net Neutrality Debate

In a recent issue of the Feliciter, two articles discuss issues and problems concerning the "net neutrality" debate in Canada and the United States. In the first article, Bruce Harpham gives a brief summary of the issues surrounding how net neutrality is "debated" in Canada and the United States. That is, he identifies some of the main arguments made in the American context, and contrasts them with how the Canadian context is taking shape. This issue is particularly interesting to me because it may impact, IMHO, how a "service" like the internet becomes a utility.

In the second article, Devon Greyson provides additional details about how the arguments about net neurtality will affect library professionals.

From these two articles, I gather that there are two main issues at stake in the general discourse about "net neutrality". One is the notion that data packets should travel with equal efficiency across the network of servers and network routers that make up the infrastructure of the internet. The other is that anyone should be able to access any content that they want on the internet, regardless of the source. In the second article, Devon Greyson seems to conflate the two issues. That is, she seems to imply that the ability to access information and the restriction-free transfer of information are the same thing. I disagree.
The reason that I think that these are two issues and not one is about the way that actors are involved. When it comes to the transfer of information (in the form of data packets) across the network, we are talking about a passive characteristic. Meaning, there should not be an active regulatory mechanism that gives certain data "priority" over others. In Ms. Greyson's article, she outlines a model of corporate interference in hte free-flow of information, where advertising and paid-content is more valuable than free and open-source content. I believe that, though the argument is a little sensationalist, it is a valid fear of the potential of corporate interest in the flow of information. Ms. Greyson argues that internet providers (ISPs) should be held to a "non-interference" standard. I agree with this argument insofar as it relates to the transfer of information across the network.

In the second issue: the ability for any user to access any content equally, there is a similar implication that there should not be a regulatory mechanism assigning priority to some data and not to others. However, I believe that in this regard we are missing an important aspect: users are actively seeking and accessing information. That is, there are two decisions being made by users: the type (category, keywords, database name) of information being accessed, as well as the size, meaning the extent, of the data. When looking up information about using Adobe Dreamweaver, for instance, one could look up information and access individual content pages (which are relatively small) or try to download the entire guidebook (which is potentially quite large). As she does with regard to the first issue, Ms. Greyson argues that users should be able to access any content of any size found on the internet. However, in both of the articles, the internet providers in Canada and the United States, allege that they should be able to “throttle” certain users who, by using peer-to-peer sharing networks, are “consuming” more bandwidth and server capacity than casual internet browsers. In other words, ISPs are throttling users accessing large amounts of content that has been deemed “low priority” (or, pirated).

In my opinion, Ms. Greyson's model of internet providers requires users to be able to access whatever they want and as much as they want, while burdening the providers with the cost of treating each user equally. This is troubling because it is not sustainable. If anyone, for personal or business/industrial purposes, could consume as much electricity as they want whenever they want to, the electric grid would be put under undue strain. Despite generous caps on the cost of utilities, users are limited by the cost of their consumption on the available supply of power.Link

A recent article by the Economist outlines a model that provides a middle ground. In the Economics Focus section, the implications of a recent FCC ruling are described. Apparently, the FCC has ruled that the internet providers in the US are subject to the common carriage protocols affecting telephony and railroads and hoteliers. I will not outline what “common carriage” describes here, but I will explain why I think it is an important ruling.

First, by subjecting ISPs to common carriage restrictions, it denies them the ability to regulate the priority given to certain packets of data being transferred. And, it denies them the ability to restrict the types of data accessed by users. So, the first half of the issue has been satisfied, as well as part of the second.

In my opinion, this leaves room for coming up with a model of internet use that is sustainable because the only “wiggle room” for ISPs is too charge more for higher volumes of usage, that is greater number of data sent and received.

I'm not sure how the FCC ruling might impact the Canadian debate on net neutrality, but I think that it is an important step towards encouraging a more mature “internet” market.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Some Reflections on Marxism's Paradoxes
Oizerman's "Paradoxes in the Communist Theory of Marxism"

I read this recent article by Theordor Oizerman today, and found it terrifically interesting. Oizerman identifies numerous paradoxical statements in the works of Marx and Engels, and provides analysis that demonstrates that the paradoxes are central to Marx's theory of communism. Normally, I'm not very interested in this sort of topic, but a few points really grabbed my attention. The first is that the paradoxes that one encounters in Marx's work are deliberate. The author explains that the paradoxes are in fact dialectic tools intended to foster the understanding of the theory. Marx did not just use Hegel's concept of dialectic to explain world history and class relations: it is pivotal to his theory of knowledge as well. So, for Marx, true understanding of his theory can only emerge from an appreciation of its dialectic, and seemingly contradictory, elements. Very cool and a little zen, non?

The next thing that grabbed my attention concerns Marx's "globalization/internationalization". Marx, back in the mid-nineteenth century, described a process he refers to as "the internationalization of production and capitalist transformation of society." This is particularly fascinating, because Oizerman suggests that Marx's theory of communism depends on what we, only recently, have called "globalization." So it seems that Marx could have "envisaged" the modern developments that we are only just beginning to understand. However, I am not so sure that our understanding of the globalization phenomenon and Marx's "internationalization" are completely connected.

The two concepts can be used to describe the creation of supply chains that span the globe. Products created in China, for instance, are created with materials from all over the world and sold in the United States. Thus, "international capitalism." Just as importantly, globally connected supply chains include the exchange of culture and ideas. Since Marx's theories rely on a strict materialism, cultural can be produced and traded in the same manner as machine parts. As Oizerman explains, the global exchange of cultural artifacts and ideas (what Marx calls "intercourses") eventually creates a homogeneous culture. And, since Marx also relies on Hegel's dialectic principle, this means that there should be two global populations: the bourgeoisie and the workers. Therefore, human existence is pointed to the inevitable emergence of global communism.

This is where I think that Oizerman's observation about the connection between globalization and "internationalization" starts to fall apart. Based my own understanding of the topic, globalization is about the "interactions" between nations, peoples, and cultures. No, the better word is "intersections". Globalization describes all of the new ways in which people interact with other people around the globe, and the platforms used to do so. In my opinion, it does not describe a movement towards homogeneous identity, but an awareness of how so many different "things" are connected. Of course, one could argue that globalization fosters development and that, in turn, encourages Western-style consumption habits. However, it could also be argued that as societies become more developed and people attain more disposable income (middle class), they also have the means to "want" more out of life. Although this seems a bit circular, I think that our understanding of globalization as a process of development and exchange of materials and ideas is more concerned with the increased interactions of a heterogeneous solution, rather than the transformation of heterogeneous elements into homogeneous ones.

When did this become a discussion of chemistry?... Moving back to the discussion:

The next thing that really grabbed my attention is that Oizerman explains why Marx and Engels were proponents of a radical movement. This may need some room to explain. Earlier I mention that Marx's notion of societal evolution puts global communism at the apex of human development. Well, if we put this another way: why would Marx and Engels become proponents of violent revolution if society will inevitably become communist? Again, a paradox in the theory of Marxism.

Oizerman is very effective in his explanation. In the article, he argues that Marx and Engels contradict their assertion of an inevitable evolution of global communism because of the gravity of the plight of the working class. In other words, this paradox arises from Marx's sense of social justice, and his belief that the workers should preemptively establish global communism to escape their horribly misery.

I found this point very compelling. First, because the paradox had never occurred to me. Second, because the depth of Marx's philosophy leads a reader to understand by appreciating these paradoxes - back to my original description of the "fullness" of the dialectic philosophy. Oizerman pointedly explains that everywhere Marx saw the working class in Europe, he saw men and women whose earnings were pitiful and beneath the minimums needed to achieve basic necessities: food, shelter, and clothing.

Overall, the article is a fascinating read and is, IMHO, the most interesting in this issue of the journal.
Team Awesome's Newest Member!
Crate Training Cesar's Way Is Not as Easy as Cesar Makes It Look.

Yes, this is a post about a puppy. Since he is set to take up quite a lot of my time over the next few months, to say nothing of the years of friendship, I think that it is impossible to not write about him. His call name is Bifteck, and pictures of him will doubtless follow. The registered name has not been decided, since She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed conveniently left town for the last few days.

That said, this post is about some of the advice out there about dogs and puppy training. I read the Dog Whisperer's book about puppies a couple of days ago, and I was really sold on the crate training idea. My first disclaimer: I in no way have any pretensions of knowing how to raise a dog better than Cesar. However, I'd like to talk about how difficult some of his "easy steps" are to follow.

The only problem seems to be making the puppy see it that way too. The Dog Whisperer has this whole "calm assertive energy" thing throughout the book. I guess that it really underlines how much of an art his techniques are, as opposed to a science. Back to the crate training: the book explains that puppies should be introduced to crates at a young age, so that they will have a "den"- a place to be calm and relaxed. The added benefit that really impressed me is that it will be easier to house-train the dog, because a dog will do everything that it can to avoid being on or near its own waste. In an ideal situation, that means holding their bladder until they go outside.

So how does the Dog Whisperer recommend you go about introducing your dog to the crate? There are a couple of anecdotes about new owners who follow [the Dog Whisperer's] advice by "bribing" and "encouraging" the dog to enter and relax (and remain) in the crate by using their "calm assertive" energies.

I've got to get me some of that calm-assertive west-coast juice, because getting Bifteck (the puppy) to stay in his crate has proven difficult, if not impossible. The best that I seem to be able to do is to open all of the doors, and let him wander in and out of the crate. If I close the doors, he just freaks out on me. Of course, the book recommends that you "never try to crate an excited dog". But, what do you do when a "calm relaxed" dog becomes excited when he goes near the crate?

So far, my only hope is that Bifteck will start to relax in the crate. So I'm following the program of offering bribes and praise when he enters and settles into the crate. Maybe by the time he is 12 weeks old or so, he'll be more comfortable in there, and I can start to take down the maze of baby gates that my apartment has become.

Monday, April 26, 2010

New Blogs and New Directions

One of the concerns that has long been in the back of my mind is "how can I manage a professional and a personal web presence at the same time?"

For a while, I wondered if there was any need to keep the two separate. After all, tagging and category settings can be used to separate "professional" from "private" posts. However, as the number of posts, of any kind, increases the blog starts to look more like a mess of clutter than the "balanced mix" of types of post that I originally envisaged.

This is why I am going to create another blog... This one will be used to post ideas and experiences related to work, or the sort of activities and ideas that relate to my work. The specifics have not yet been fully planned

However, I am certain that my work is taking me more and more towards training and instructional design. So, I am going to blog about topics related to ID, elearning, and elearning implementation.

I'm also planning on launching a Twitter account. If I can make it accept image files, I will share the random pics from my day that way. Otherwise, I'll be using it as a daily journal, without images.

The new blog is called "Operations Theatre" and, as mentioned earlier, it will focus on topics related to: elearning design and deployment; topics of professional interest; and, website design and deployment (I am a beginner on this one).

A note about coming topics: Team Awesome is getting a new member. Puppy pictures and stories will doubtless follow.

Edit: 29 April 2010 - The original title of the new blog, "Learner's Craft" was replaced with "Operations Theatre". I could not use "Learner's Craft", so I scrambled to come up with something new.

-- This post was sent fom a mobile device. I apologize for any spelling and grammatical errors that may have gone unnoticed.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

An ode to lost blogging...

It has been quite a while. The funny thing is: I don't really have an explanation. Did I fall off the planet? Might as well have.

Notice that I did not say "I don't have an excuse." It may seem a semantic difference to some, but if here is one thing that has started to irk me, it is explanations delivered as excuses. Delays, lateness, failing to respond... I seem to get a lot of comments that come down to "I'm just too busy and your tasks are too far down on my priorities." Actually, I like that explanation. Especially if it was followed with an estimate of when the situation will change.

So what is my own explanation? Working long hours, courses, playing computer games, swimming... the list can go on indefinitely. The main thing that I notice, upon reflection, is that I have not blogged in some time because I put something, anything, else ahead of writing.

I guess a lot of other people can sympathize. Especially when your job involves a lot of writing, and if you are taking a course that requires writing in the evenings, more writing just seems onerous and soul crushing.

But, I'm returning to the blog. My main motivation: to keep writing and updating my own personal thoughts. I came to realize that with so much "work writing" and "school writing", I was limiting the kind of thinking and discussion that I can focus on to those two areas as a function of the time devoted to both.

That is to say, I've read so many more things and had so many more ideas that I have not yet put to paper because all of my writing time is devoted to topics that are not personal.

Thus, my return to blogging. I've realized that I need to try to write and update this area regularly, because it is (right now) my best place for expression.

So I guess this is more of a paen to blogging than a real statement or post.

-- This post was sent fom a mobile device. I apologize for any spelling and grammatical errors that may have gone unnoticed.