Thursday, October 25, 2018

Getting ahead, one leg at a time

There are three different ways of going about riding a bike.

The most intuitive way is to give it your all and effort to maintain maximum speed, Tour de France style, where it is all muscle all the time. Full speed ahead, legs thumping and whooshing. Oontz oontz oontz oontz. Faster, harder, overtake that Scooter. This usually occurs when you are in a hurry to get somewhere, want the exercise, or simply have not thought too hard about how to go about biking.

Then there is the economical way, where you effort just enough to get the bike into enough sufficiently sustained momentum that you can move forward without additional input. Just keep on rolling, maybe lean forward a bit, until more power is required. Then repeat the process as many times as necessary, alternating between building momentum and effortlessly moving forward. Eventually, you'll get where you are going, minimum effort style.

And then there is the low-speed high effort method, where you effort just enough to get moving, but not enough to actually move at sustained speed, and thus have to continually apply leg power to move at a crawl. Friction and gravity keeps on slowing down the bike to such an extent that every pedal push becomes akin to the initial oomph to transition from standstill to motion. Previous efforts do not accumulate or help you sustain momentum, and every iota of speed has to be reestablished anew every step along the way.

At this point, you might be asking yourself - is this some sort of metaphor for life in general, where the different modes of biking represent different approaches to everyday activities and how to approach them? Or, possibly also, different states of mind that a person might slip into as they go about doing the thing called being alive?

To which I say: yes. Yes it is.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

An analytical poke

Every now and again I come to think of the big disconnect between the act of performing rhetorical communication and rhetorical analysis. Rhetorical communication happens any time you strategically choose your words to get someone to do something (from passing the salt to approving a bank loan). Rhetorical analysis is the act of looking really closely at some sort of rhetorical communication and analyzing what's going on in it. The communication usually happens very fast, and the analysis very slowly. That's the disconnect.

The disconnect is, of course, inevitable. An analysis has to perform many tasks, and be explicit about most of them. It has to provide context, justify the significance of the communicative act under analysis, and describe it in sufficient detail to convey to readers what's going on. This takes quite a number of words, even if only performed with the minimum of surplus verbiage. Even after subsequent revisions with the explicit intent to reduce word count, there will by necessity be a substantial amount of words to it. It goes with the territory.

The communicative act, on the other hand, only has to do what it set out to do. Once done, it's over, and other things can commence. In trivial cases, it literally takes seconds - the salt is passed. In other cases, it can take a bit longer, but tends to be limited by the physical constraints of the human body. A speech can only be so long. All said and done, other things happen. Life goes on.

Thus, analyses tend to end up being much ado about seemingly nothing. On first glance, you might wonder how it is even possible to write thousands of words about something that takes seconds to perform. Then you dig into it and discover that there's a lot going on in that one moment, which indeed needed all those words to unpack. Worse, you begin to look at similar situations for similar implications - the analysis continues inside you. Further communicative acts require at least some thought before they become routine again.

The power of rhetorical analysis lies in this disconnect. A good analysis will disconnect you from a situation, and then force you to reconnect to it in a new way. You think you knew what's going on, but looking back on it you realize that, no, there's more to it. Your perspective has changed, and so you must pay attention to the differences made visible. You have permission to be perturbed.

In all this, life goes on. But you still have to reconnect.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Active listening by the numbers

I like hearing mathematicians talk about doing math things. Usually I do not follow along, but it's nice to listen to. The [name] algorithm passed through the [name] filter and then cleaned up through the [name] process. It all makes sense to someone, probably.

There are different ways to approach discourse you do not understand. One is to simply throw up your hands and declare you do not understand any of it. Sometimes, this is in fact the most useful approach - radical honesty and all that.

Another approach is to take what you do understand and try to parse it using available data. If we know that, in math, procedures are often named after those who formulate them, we can gather that each time a name is mentioned, some sort of procedure is brought into the context. The names themselves do not matter as much as the courses of action they connote; they are shorthand for what to do and how to go about it.

This does not make the specifics any clearer, to be sure. But when someone objects "but what about the [name] conjecture?", you are now clued in to the fact that there is something amiss with the proposed course of action, which needs to be addressed. The content of this objection is unknown, but the form of it is clear. Whatever comes next - be it an "oh, but the [name] postulate solves that" or a heartfelt "shit shit shit shit shit" - your act of active listening has provided you with some insight into what's going on.

The same goes for any context. There are always two conversations going on at any given time, where one might be more prominent than the other. There is the factual conversation where specifics are tossed around left and right, where knowing what's what helps tremendously. These facts are timeless, and can be grappled with later on, on their own terms. There is also a very time-sensitive conversation going on in the now, where everything is specific to the very moment it is happening. This is the realm of moods, postures, physical positioning within the room, hierarchy - everything that affects a situation without necessarily being explicitly mentioned by anyone involved.

Needless to say, the fact that it goes without saying does not mean it is unimportant.

There is an ideal out there that conversations ought to take place solely in terms of the first conversation. Putting ideas against each other and all that. It has the merit of being an ideal, but as an analytic approach to actual social situations, it leaves out too many relevant aspects to generate useful insight. The "shit shit shit" response above might be a response to the fact that the [name] conjecture makes the thing difficult to perform, but it might also be a response to the fact that the person in question was planning on going home early that day, and just had that very plan dashed to pieces right there and then. Merely thinking in terms of content leaves out the very real life implications of form.

Be sure to keep both ears open as you move through life. Arguments are very seldom about the things they are about, and there are cases where losing the argument in the first kind of conversation means winning in the second. You just have to know to listen for it.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Universal literacy and you

Every once in a while, I remind people that writing (and reading) is a technology. This might seem an obvious point, but it has a series of non-obvious implications. One of the most important implications is that no one is born literate, and everyone has to attain it somehow. Writing is not an intrinsic ability of human beings, but a technology that can be mastered through practice. There is no natural age at which literacy occurs; it's all culture.

If you consider this in the context of education, the implications become slightly more tangible. Especially with regards to standardized education, where everyone is supposed to achieve the same goals at the same time. On the one hand, there are organizational and administrative reasons for having a system like that; standardization brings interoperability and routine. On the other hand, it is easy to over time begin to view the goals as natural stages of development. By age x, the standardized child is supposed to know a, by age y b, and so on. Performance becomes both expected and measurable.

The thing about technologies is that they are not one size fits all. Like clothing (another technology), it fits differently on different bodies. Some can just put it on, no big deal, while others have to struggle to even get an elbow in. Everybody is different, and expecting everyone to conform to the same standards becomes something of a contradiction in terms. Or, to invoke Foucault, a power tool.

Literacy has the advantage of having a high adoption rate. A large proportion of everyone can attain some basic level of literacy with effort, enough to process the written word for functional purposes. A high adoption rate is still less than 100%, however, and there will inevitably be those who for various reasons are simply not cut out for it. Not because of personal defects or lack of effort, but because that's how statistics work. Even at an adoption rate of 99%, there will be a sizable number of non-adopters. By feat of statistics, the illiterate walk among us.

To be sure, this is not an either/or issue. There are a significant number of dyslectics in the world, who can do the reading but have to effort for it. This is a result of the same process; the technology simply does not sit right with how their bodies work.

By reminding people that writing is a technology, I perform the slightly violent act of recontextualizing illiterate persons from deficient to unfortunate. Being illiterate in a society which expects universal literacy is a massive disadvantage, no two ways about it. If writing is a technology with less than 100% adoption rate, however, those unfortunate souls who end up being born as non-compatible become an expected (indeed inevitable) side-effect of a policy choice, rather than malfunctioning individuals. It is not their fault that one of the major societal technological choices made happened to have the side-effect of excluding them.

Writing is a technology. It is an obvious point, with many non-obvious implications.

Monday, July 9, 2018

The funny side of systematic literature reviews

I find myself thinking about systematic literature reviews these days. It is an unexpected thing to be randomly thinking about, to be sure, so I guess that means I'm officially an academic now. My habitus is augmented.

The quickest way to introduce systematic literature reviews is through a detour to unsystematic literature reviews. The unsystematic approach is easy to grasp: you simply grab a hold of any books or articles that seem relevant and start reading. At the other end of the reading process, you know more than you did before. This is generally a good way to go about learning (especially if you have a nice local library to draw from), and should not be underestimated.

It is not, however, systematic.

The lack of systematicity is something of a problem, though. Not to the learning process, mind, but to the performative aspect of being an academic. It is not cool or hip to say that you've read a lot of books and keep tabs on new articles in your field, and thus know a thing or two. This is not the image of a structured, rigorous and disciplined scientific mind that academia wants to project (both to itself and to the public), so something has to be done. A system has to be created, to let everyone involved claim that they followed proper procedure and did not leave things to chance. Thus, systematic literature reviews.

Depending on where you are in the process, the systematic approach can take many guises. If you are just learning about science and scientific literature, having a system in place to guide you through the reading is immensely helpful. It gives permission to look at a search result of 2931 articles and cut it down to a more manageable number. If it is a robust system, it specifies that search engines giveth what you asketh, and that you probably should be more specific in your search. Moreover, knowing which questions to ask the articles beforehand gives a structure to the reading, and allows for paying closer attention to the important parts. And so on, through all the steps. Having a template to follow answers a lot of questions, even if you find yourself deviating from it.

When you've been at being an academic for a while, the presence of an adopted system can shield you from the burden of overreading. There are always more books and articles than can be readily read, and every text ever written can be criticized on the basis of not taking something into account. By using the system, the age-old question of "why did you choose to include these texts but not these other texts" can finally be put to rest. The systematic literature review unburdens the load by defining exactly which texts are relevant and which are not. And thus, the rigorous and disciplined reading can commence, conscience clear.

Next up the abstraction ladder, we find another use of these systematic reviews. When research has to be summarized and administrated, it simply will not do to go with something as unscientific as a gut feeling. The scientists involved might know what's what, but this intricate insider knowledge is not easily translated into something outsiders can partake of. Outsiders, such as the non-scientist bureaucrats put in place to administrate the funding mechanisms that determine which research efforts are awarded grants and which do not. By strategically employing review systems that include desired results (and exclude undesired results), funding can be directed in certain directions under the guise of impartial systematicity. Administrators (or their superiors) can claim all the academic benefits of rigorously following the method laid out for all to see, while at the same time subtly steering research efforts without having to be explicit about it. It is systematic, disciplined and impartial, whilst also being ruthlessly political.

The key takeaway here is not that systematic literature reviews are bad (problematic, maybe, but not bad). Rather, it is a reminder that the presence of a system does not in itself guarantee a robust outcome. Like all methodologies, there are strengths and weaknesses to consider in each particular case, sometimes more obvious than not. When a systematic review finds that only articles published by (say) economists are relevant to a particular issue, despite decades of scholarly publishing on the subject on other disciplines, the issue is not a lack of systematicity, but too much of it. A flawless execution of review methodology does not preclude asking what is up with such unrepresentative results.

I find it amusing that strategic and rhetorical dimensions of academia are obscured by reference to systematicity and specialized vocabulary (the terminology surrounding systematic literature reviews is something to behold). Not least because academics are the very people best positioned to problematize the living bejeezus out of just these kinds of subtle processes.

It's funny that way.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

What Marx can tell you about creating youtube videos

The first association that leaps to mind when someone mentions youtube is probably not Marx. In fact, he is probably not among the top five or the top fifty. Which is understandable, given that Marx is something of an 1850s guy and youtube is not very 1850s at all. The line between these things is not altogether clear.

Unless, of course, you are a David Harvey fan, and have listened to his series of youtube lectures on the man.

Those who have dabbled in creating youtube videos know that it is difficult to predict just how many viewers a video will get. There tends to be an average number, and some variations up and down for the most part. Then, seemingly for no reason, there are videos that get far more viewers than the others. Seen in context, they are the same as the other videos, except that something funneled viewers into that one video in particular. With enough sifting through the stats, it is sometimes possible to figure out what's up; if you do, then that is useful information.

Anecdotal evidence has it that it is usually the videos that took the least effort to make that wins this accidental lottery. Conversely, those videos which take hours upon hours to produce tend to remain at their usual levels of viewers - possibly slightly fewer, just out some spiteful statistical quirk. This perceived inverse relationship between effort and outcome is probably just imaginary, but it's easy to feel that it would be better if viewers flocked to the effort-intense video rather than to the throwaway two minute thingamabob. If viewers are only gonna see the one video, then it might as well be one of the good ones.

As it happens, Marx has something to say on the matter of the relation between effort and results. Specifically, he talks about socially necessary labor time. It is a very technical concept, given that you have to understand what "socially", "necessary", "labor" and "time" are defined as in order to really get the full story. The short of it is thus: if it takes you five hours to make a pair of shoes, and your competitor can crank out thousands of those same shoes in the same span of time, the market value of the pair you made does not go up because it took you a lot of time and effort. Consequently, any attempt to sell them at a price that corresponds to your time and energy invested will fall flat, given that there are other shoes sold for cheaper.

This has consequences for your career as a shoemaker, as you might imagine.

It also has consequences for all shoemakers. The competitor who put you out of the shoe business has to face the same dynamic. He can crank out shoes by the thousands, but if someone comes along who can produce tens of thousands of shoes in the same span of time, this is going to be an issue. The same dynamic that made it unfeasible to make one pair of shoes at a time, also make it unfeasible to remain someone who merely produces thousands of shoes. The sheer amount of shoes will drive down prices until it becomes an economically sound idea to either upgrade the production line or move into another line of work.

If you are tempted to say that this is why capitalism is good, seeing the immense amount of shoes it produces, Marx would agree with you.

The main point of the concept of socially necessary labor time is to decouple personal effort from market outcomes. As you can see in the example of shoemaking, the price someone is willing to pay for a pair is not based on personal factors; there is an impersonal dynamic at work beyond any one person's capacity to control. Those who want to compete in the shoe market, have to produce shoes in such a way that it makes sense in terms of price and production capacity. One pair every five hours simply will not cut it, even if you worked really hard at it.

The same goes for youtube videos, in two important ways. The first is most obvious, so let's get at it first: expending vast quantities of time and effort into producing a video does not guarantee that viewers will flock to it. There is always a risk that you are making the youtube equivalent of those five-hour shoes, and it does not reflect badly upon you if this turns out to be the case. It's in the nature of the game.

Less obvious, but equally as important, is what this tells us about those who crank out videos at an alarming rate without investing too heavily into the research or production quality departments. It is easy to become resentful and mutter about the unfairness of it all, where hard work is left unrewarded in favor of these clowns. This is not a useful state of mind, however, nor is it a useful analysis. Instead, it makes more sense to see it as an instance of socially necessary labor time: apparently, this is how many videos you have to crank out in order to remain competitive, even if these videos end up containing easily preventable errors and mistakes.

If you are tempted to say that this is why capitalism is bad, seeing the immense amount of shoddy videos it produces, Marx would anachronistically agree with you.

To reiterate: the point here is to decouple effort and market outcomes. Working hard in the sweat of your brow is not a reward in itself, nor does it guarantee that viewers will show up. Finding ways to streamline your process and make time for other things (or to do things better) is not cheating, it's just efficient. Moreover, being hard at work does not mean viewers owe you anything; being resentful that they are not appreciative enough of your efforts will not help you going forward. Conversely, if it turns out viewers really like that throwaway two minute thingamabob, then that is useful information.

Needless to say, if this goes for shoemaking and making youtube videos, then the notion of socially necessary labor time probably goes for a lot of other things as well.

Marx is sneaky like that.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Musing on being less on Twitter

Over the recent months, I have found myself looking less and less at Twitter. This manifests itself in many forms, the most dramatic being that I nowadays only occasionally turn on my middle monitor, which main use is to display a never ending live-updating stream of tweets flowing like a less stylized version of the Matrix. The monitor just stands there, a black mirror in portrait mode.

The strange thing is that Janetter - my ancient twitter client that new users can not run due to long-forgotten arbitrary API limits - still runs, in preparation for the ever rarer occasions when I turn the monitor on just to see the flow of tweets again. As if closing the program would be some kind of definite gesture, irrevocable once performed.

Less strange is that I find my thinking has changed. This is to be expected - as Byung-Chul Han noted, it is difficult to focus during a noisy party. But it is also more subtle than simply having less input to process. I find that I direct myself towards different company. Even if I were to think about something that happened to be trending on Twitter right this very instant, it would be from a different starting point, with different aims.

"Company" is the key term here, I suspect. Booth uses it to muse on the fact that we spend time in someone's company when we read their words, and conversely become company as others read ours. The quality of our company, both reading and writing, in many ways shape who we are, and who we try to be. Good company inspires upwards, while bad company keeps you down.

In more Twitter-related terms, this manifests as an implicit demand to become company to those we follow and those who follow us. As we think through the issues introduced and reiterated by those in our timelines, we ever so gradually come to feel the pressure to add our own thoughts to the flow. After seeing fifteen tweets about something, it becomes almost a knee-jerk reaction to write a sixteenth. Even if we only just heard about something mere minutes ago, we feel compelled to have said something about it.

This dynamic creates a very specific and other-directed way of thinking. You build up a sensitivity to trends and keywords, and act on what you see. Others see this as well, and react to your reactions; the fact that you both see and react to the same things is an immense sense of community; it is sometimes referred to as social media validation. It is company, good or bad.

This thinking is like riding a bike, though. True, once learned, you do not forget it. But if you've not rode a bike in a while, there is a strong possibility that the muscles used to pedal things forward have become less muscular than you remember, and thus the going is slower than it used to be. You still know what to look for - the trends, the keywords, the subtweets - but it is an effort to care. An uphill effort, to combine metaphors.

Thus, on the ever rarer occasions when I power up my middle monitor, I see what is going on and how it unfolds. The impulse to contribute to the goings on and insert myself into the company, however, is not strong enough for me to do it as often and as energetically as I used to. I'm simply not in that frame of mind any more. My thoughts and words are directed elsewhere.

It is only prudent that I mention this somewhere. For future reference.