söndag 24 april 2011

On my nerdiness

This is an introspective text.

I don't think I read enough academic literature when I was a ph.d. student. Sure, I read quite some now and then, but the problem, as I identified it later, was that I read quite some now and then, but at other times I didn't read very much at all. So, on average, I'm not sure that that much got read. After having finished my ph.d. I worked in industry for a while, and when I went back to academia, I felt that I needed some new reading habits and I devised a scheme that rested on three principles:

- Read an average of 50 pages of academic literature every day (seven days per week).
- Pick out a package of 10 next-to-read books according to allocated quotas (1 out of 10 books is a ph.d. thesis, 3 out of 10 books is fiction etc.)
- Keep track of how many books I read, and buy three new books for every four books I read (I had a stock of about 100 unread non-fiction books at the time).

I more or less followed these three rules for a period of several years, although I fiddled a little with them now and them. In terms of "academic literature", books, academic papers, student assignments or master's thesis drafts all counted towards the 50 pages. Fiction counted as half. I kept track of how much I read and I actually did read 350 pages of text each week (by reading on the subway and then also for an additional hour or so in the evening).

In the end it proved to be a little too much. I abandoned the system, but later devised a new system that is a little bit less stressful:

- Read 25 pages of non-fiction/scientific books each weekday (for a minimum of 125 pages per week).
- Read 15 pages of fiction each day (for a minimum of 105 pages per week).
- Every second book should be work-related (media, Internet, online communities, social media etc.) and every second book is related to my non-work interests (energy, peak oil, sustainability, climate change etc.).

With this system, around two non-fiction books get read every month and so I have select the new books I buy very carefully. If I only read a dozen books in each category each year, I just can't run out and buy whatever happens to catch my attention right this moment. I also do spend a fair amount of time thinking about which books to buy next and which books to read next (I have books for the next couple of months already lined up, although a book that should be read urgently can jump the queue).

Books in the fiction category has tended to swell in length during the last couple of decades, but if I find a page-turner and finish it in a few days, I don't put reading aside for a month, but rather start to read a new book directly. While it is possible for me to be "behind" in reading fiction, it isn't possible to be "ahead" of the quota as it is "reset" every day.

These rules probably sound reasonably insane to most people, but they do get the job done and they do get the books read. I am sure these rules and my adherence to them says something fundamental about me, but I can't myself figure out exactly what. I think they do have something to do with my need for control, and there are probably some mildly disturbing parallels to monomania, obsessive-compulive distorder, Asperger syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders. Or not. I don't know enough and I'm not so sure I'm that interested in knowing. It's not like I'm going to run out and buy a book about it anyway :-)

I have similarly elaborate systems in place for how to choose, mix and spend time consuming other sources of media such at podcasts and moving images (television, movies etc.). I'll give you just one more example.

I really like the TED talk videos. But despite my liking them, I just didn't watch them that often. I then checked out how many TED talks were published during the last couple of months (I subscribe to them through Itunes) and came to the conclusion that I was lagging and just getting more and more behind all the time. So I set up a new system with rules for watching TED talks:

- I will watch 10 minutes of TED talks per day and keep track of whether I'm ahead or behind (e.g. the status as of today might be "110424 +4", e.g. I'm right on target, or rather, I'm even four minutes ahead of where I "ought to be" today).
- I check out all the TED talks of, let's say, the first quarter of this year and then choose half of them based on which titles I think sound most interesting.

I'm actually a couple of years behind the running production of TED talks, but I have come to the conclusion that I will eventually catch up if I keep to my rule of watching an average of 10 minutes of TED talks per day. With this system, TED talks get watched. More specifically, they get watched at a pace of 300 minutes per month. Without the system, my TED talk consumption would be much more random (and most probably much lower).

That's the scope and the state of my nerdiness (see also this previous blog post that touches on the same issues and that complements this text).

Anyway, how weird, or how reasonable are these systems of mine?

torsdag 21 april 2011

How the media (unfortunately) works

This week I have unfortunately gotten an(other) insight into the shallowness of how media works. I am both the advisor of (a handful) of students and the examiner of (20 or so) students in a course where they write their bachelor's theses over the course of the spring term. I was taken aback earlier this week by a KTH press release that was based on an unfinished bachelor's thesis that as of now is being written by students at our department and in this course.

It seems the two students in question were quite hot on marketing their own personal selves, jumped the gun and went public with the results of their survey of (no less than 891) Swedish iPad users. Unfortunately, their thesis is not yet finished and will not be presented for another month. I (and everyone else involved in the course) thus have no insight whatsoever into the quality of the results - although the quantity might in fact be pretty impressive. But - and it is a big "but" - that quantity is of little worth if the quality is lacking in terms of exactly how the survey was conducted, what the results are, how these results are being interpreted and what conclusions are reached based on the results and the analysis. It is entirely possible that a substantial part of this has not even been written yet. I happen to know the students in question and they are very focused and goal-oriented, so I'm sure they haven't done a bad job - but the problem is that I (and everyone else) don't really know how good a job they have done - since their job isn't finished and noone has had the chance to have a look at it yet. And that is a problem.

The students themselves seem to think that since they have received almost 900 answers to their survey, their survey are three times "better" than an earlier survey that received less than a third as many answers. But the raw number of respondents of course has little impact on the quality of the results if the survey itself is flawed in any way. In this particular case (and as far as I understand), they have reached out to iPad- and Apple-lovers' Internet discussion spaces with requests for answering their survey. The people who hang around these fora are most certainly not representative of Swedish iPad-users, and it is to be expected that the persons who furthermore actually answer such a survey are the most enthusiastic of the enthusiasts.

It is therefore highly doubtful that (for example) Swedish iPad users in general spend more than 16 hours per week using their iPad, that almost 40% have the music-related application GarageBand on their iPads and that almost half of them own a Macbook Pro computer etc. Some people have furthermore misunderstood the fact that 95% of the respondents were men and now think that 95% of Swedish iPad owners/users are men...! So the question is to what extent a survey like this (and the ways in which the results have been disseminated) reveals new information about iPad users and iPad uses, and to what extent it spreads misinformation and infobabble about the same issues. It for sure says something about how quite a few people (891 persons) use their iPads, but it is still unclear what it says about (Swedish) iPad users in general. We are all eagerly awaiting the finished thesis, where these and other answers will hopefully be revealed...

To summarize, the survey is "only" part of a bachelor's thesis (e.g. a relatively limited investigation), it has not been reviewed by anyone yet - perhaps including the students' advisor (!). It is furthermore not yet finished, but is still being presented as representing "important" research results from KTH and originating from our department. Other teachers that I have talked to at our department don't really feel comfortable about this situation and think this course of events is unfortunate. I hope this won't affect the judgement of the students' finished thesis and affect their grades negatively when that time comes around some weeks from now (I'm not the one who will examine the thesis in this specific case)...

That might be as it is, but what really troubles me deeply is that the person responsible for press contacts at KTH made the judgement call of choosing to "make news" out of this as-of-yet unfinished bachelor's thesis. It seems like a remarkable misjudgement that could easily have been handled by just postponing the press release a month, until the thesis was finished and it had been reviewed. What instead happened was that a press release was written which soon found its way to the front page of KTH's website. It was then picked up by major Swedish morning newspapers and trade press and blown out of proportion by being uncritically (of course - who would expect something else nowadays) reported by so-called journalists. Anyone with some sense would have picked up on the fact that it is after all "only" a bachelor's thesis (limited work/effort) and not even finished or reviewed at that. This makes it difficult to understand of frame the reported results beyond parroting the press release and it is a dismal witness to the poor state of our media and to the triumph of surface over depth and speed over correctness in today's media landscape and in today's society.

The absurd part though is that after expressing my misgivings to the KTH press officer, it seems he took offense and came back with a request for me to "clarify" my actions. My actions in question consisted of sending an internal mail to my colleagues expressing my doubts (same as here, see above), requesting more information and questioning the use of university funds for hyping unfinished student "research" over actually using that same money to spend more time meeting and advising our students when they write their theses - and then forwarding this mail to him as a curtesy. The press officer also received an official rebuke (complaint) from the head of our research group, which was a much more diplomatic and toned down version of what I had previously written in my mail.

Now, the press officer obviously felt no need to clarify his own culpability in this process of "manufacturing" news of questionable (or at least uninspectionable) quality and "selling" an unfinished student research project as bona fide "KTH research", and he furthermore obviously did not even understand that his actions in this specific case might be questionable or objectionable, or at least counterproductive for KTH and its "brand". The world we live in can sometimes be truly absurd. His complaint was basically that we (me and the head of our research group) were making his job more difficult by "spreading rumors" about the fact that the emperor might not have any clothes...

The technical expressions for what has happened is:
- The students were fleecing the bear before it was shot.
- The press officer was making a hen out of a feather.
- The so-called journalists were uncritically parroting a press release.
- I expressed critique over the course of events and the actions of the press officer in this specific case.

The press officer felt that I questioned the quality of his work (in general) and he tried to bully me and squeeze an excuse (a "clarification") out of me. He did not and has not addressed the more important underlying question of whether his actions were perhaps a wee bit objectionable, misguided, or premature. I rebutted his request for an "clarification" (excuse) and squarely put the blame for this (in my opinion) "mess" where I believe it properly belongs - at his footsteps. I have not heard from him since although I have received some (mild) critique for being too frank about expressing my opinions.

Comment (April 2012): Here's a great blog post about the same (or a related) topic.

tisdag 12 april 2011

Climate change online

I have a (pretty ambitions) private blog/hobby that pertains to issues about sustainability, resource challenges, peak oil etc. and in that role, I participated in the third annual Environmental Blog Forum (Miljöbloggforum 2011) this past weekend (I've also participated in the previous two).

I would not write about it here if it were not for the fact that we this year, for the first time, were visited by a researcher who was studying us. More specifically, Jutta Haider is a senior lecturer ("lektor") in Library and Information Studies at the University of Lund in southern Sweden and her project Climate change online "investigates people's appropriation of social media to tell about their everyday life efforts to lead climate friendly lives".

True to the topic of her research, she has a project blog where it is possible to follow her project. The blog (and presumably the project) started during the autumn, and she switched from Swedish to English on the blog at the beginning of 2011.

I only had time to talk to her a little at the event itself, but it seems we have overlapping interests and I hope we will bump into each other some other time. Or, I might get in touch with her at some point in time if it seems to be justified.

söndag 3 april 2011

Unleashing our cognitive surplus for a better future

There has been a very informal call for "visionary" proposals that involve researchers belonging to different research groups at my (huge) department of Computer Science and Communication. I presume this is in order to get us to cooperate and work together better outside of our small cells/research groups. So I got together with my friend Cristian Bogdan who is an assistant professor in the Human-Computer Interaction group and wrote the following (one page long) application:

TITLE: Unleashing our cognitive surplus for a better future

TIMEPLAN: starting date: Aug 1 2011 - July 31 2012


Are open source Mozilla contributors really not more than non-paid employees? How will the tension between free-flowing grassroots idealism vs. harnessed and managed production play out in the 21st century and in a world where cognitive surplus (Shriky 2010) could herald the arrival of unparalleled creativity and generosity in a connected age. Is the future of open source software becoming a cog in the corporate machinery, or a fundamental threat and a radical alternative to business-as-usual in the world of computers, programming and participatory interaction design and development (see for example yr.no)? Does the future of the internet belong to distributed society-oriented generative technologies (Zittrain 2009) that improvise and build on each other (Wikipedia), or to the centralized business- oriented “tethered” applications of today (XBLA, Apple!s App Store) and the “walled gardens” of yesteryear (AOL, Genie)?

concrete and measurable research goals: What are we going to do?

We will publish a book based on this research project! This project will accomplish the first step: we will collect material though surveys, focus groups, interviews and case studies of both “free-flowing” as well as “managed” open source projects. We will also use and develop relevant frameworks and theories to analyze our empirical material.

impact: Why is this research important?

How should one of the most important strategic resources of our time be used – the cognitive surplus of literate educated members of western and other societies? In what kinds projects should it be used and for the benefit of whom? How could our collective cognitive surplus lead to better applications and better use of the Internet by the people, for the people, and for creating better societies?

motivation and justification for the involved personnel: Why are we the right people to do it? Daniel and Cristi have both been interested in, and studied on- and offline communities for 15 years. Both our Ph.d. theses concern these issues, but we haven!t taken an interest in this specific angle before. Cristi has practical experiences of open source software, accounts of which where also published. Daniel has given a Ph.d. course on virtual communities as well as cultures of programming/hacker culture at KTH.