December 2008

Hopefully you'll be doing plenty of cooking and eating this holiday season – I know I will. Whether recipes are simple or complex, I have one tip that helps me avoid common cooking mistakes like forgetting an ingredient or a step in the process.

Mise en Place

That's a snooty French phrase that means 'put in place'. In practice, mise en place is just your batch of ready-to-go ingredients for whatever you're cooking. All chopped, all mixed, all prepared for when the cooking begins. As in, you get it all set before the first ingredient hits the pan.

It doesn't sound like much, but I find it makes the whole thing so smooth for two reasons. First, if you've been thinking about your mise en place, then you probably read carefully through the whole recipe, and you're less likely to miss a step or ingredient somewhere. Second, when everything is all set to go, you avoid those hectic moments when the last ingredient has gone in the pan and you realize you've only got 3 minutes to dice 10 onions or whatever. When it's already done you can relax, take your time with the recipe.

Happy Holidays!

I'm not sure you'd find the words 'Esther Dyson' and 'ignorant' in the same sentence very often, but she certainly embarrassed herself in a recent interview with Internet Evolution. On the subject of anonymity on this internet she has this to say:

First, I was a much bigger fan of anonymity then than I am now. I thought it was cool. And it is, but it turns out anonymity really encourages bad behavior. I’m not in favor of the government tracking everybody and so forth, [but] at least persistent pseudonyms and communities and stuff like that makes everything a nicer place.

It’s like a lot of things. I’m pro choice, but I think abortion is an unfortunate thing. I think the same thing about anonymity: Everybody should have the right to it, but it’s not something one wants to encourage. And that’s not weasel words, that’s the reality of it.

[Anonymity] should be allowed. People should be able to make that choice, and there are many reasons to make that choice. If you live in an oppressive regime, you may well want people to be able to remain anonymous or have secret communications. But at the same time, it should not be encouraged, and it should be acknowledged that it’s a response to a bad situation.

So, apparently anonymity, like abortion, is a necessary evil. I think this reflects an extremely dated notion of anonymity on the internet. Freedom of speech under oppressive regimes isn't the only legitimate reason to be anonymous on the internet. Sure, some people use the cloak of anonymity to say nasty things and behave badly. But anonymity also allows people to free themselves from the prejudices, stigmas, and social pressures. I'm not saying anything new here.

I would be willing to bet that the freeing applications of anonymity far, far outweigh the nasty ones. Meanwhile, I think Dyson's views reflect a stark dichotomy that doesn't really exist. The line between anonymous and not is not nearly so clear. Sure, either you have a persistent screen name or you don't. Either your online identity is formally attached to your offline one, or it isn't. But in reality, our identities are more fluid. Even without a persistent screen name, others may guess who I am from context and content. As a poster, I may be completely aware of this, but even a sheer blanket is enough to overcome the pressures that would silence me. In the other direction, what about sockpuppets? Bottom line, online identity isn't so cut and dry.

I'm delving deeply into this topic in my dissertation, too, so it's obviously close to my heart. In my research, though, I look at anonymity of content rather than anonymity of individual, in particular in online collective action situations (think user-generated content). I'm exploring the ways in which the popular notion that everything on the internet should be stamped with an identity is wrong – where the fact that your content can be identified is actually a disincentive for providing it.

Anyway, I think the analogy between abortion and anonymity on this internet is crass and dated. Suggesting that anonymity is 'a response to a bad situation' is only fair if you consider the reality of the world a 'bad situation.' Otherwise, it's just our situation. Even then, I think it's important to start looking at anonymity through a more positive lens, and at the same time try to shake off the all-too-common idea that everything you do on the web, anywhere, should be stamped with an ID.

This morning on KQED's Forum was an interesting discussion about the current financial crisis we're all in. The show's moderator brought up what I think is one of the most fasinating issues in this whole adventure: treading the line between responsibility and bailout. A lot of people have cried foul, for example, at the notion of spending huge sums to bail out banks and the auto industry when those companies have been so badly managed for so long that they've basically run themselves into the ground. I tend to agree with this outlook.

What made me angry, though, was listening to the commentator arguing against bailing out individuals who are in trouble with their personal finances (mortgages, etc.) using a personal responsibility argument like this: Hey, look, I'm responsible, I have a budget, I spend within my means, and I don't take on loans I can't afford. Why should people who were irresponsible get bailed out while I have to foot the bill?

Why? Because deciding to bail out people with bad mortgages is on totally different ground than deciding to bail out the auto industry. On the one hand we have sophisticated industries staffed with executives, lawyers, accountants, etc. who have had all the opportunity and agency in the world, and have chosen badly, irresponsibly, and run their companies into the ground. These are people who should have known better, who were greedy and imprudent, and now have their hand out because they've noticed that the door to the vault is wide open.

On the other hand we have consumers who've made bad decisions. But they have not made decisions on the same playing field as the corporations, and they've also not made them on the same playing field as your adverage upper-middle class KQED commentator. When lenders were giving out loans to anyone who asked, when media messages push imprudent credit practices, when individuals – as a result of personal choice, yes – but also as a result of a huge variety of socio-structural economic issues are less well equipped to evaluate their financial choices and make sound decisions, is it fair to hold them to the same standards as Ford, GM, Bear Stearns, etc.? Is it fair to hold them to the same standards as more privileged, educated individuals? I say: no. We do not live in a world where the playing field is flat and even, and everyone is equipped and informed equally and so we can just invoke a simple argument for personal responsibility. We need a bit more understanding there.

At the same time, personal responsibility is key. I don't know where the line is. But invoking a blanket personal responsibility argument, failing to take the nature of the world into account, is wrong, it's narrow-minded, and its ethnocentric.

Andrew and Coye are big fans of this profound theory of CMC:

Amazon Web Services is making a variety of large data sets available in the cloud. This is great news, as these giant data sets are often difficult to find, compile, and host.

So far the list of data sets includes some biological and chemical data, census info. and labor reports. I'd love to see this list grow to include the complete history of the GSS, for example. In another area, Amazon should keep a complete, unpacked, current dump of Wikipedia in the cloud. The complete XML dump of the English language Wikipedia with all revisions is in the 10s of terabytes, I think.

File this one under 'no-freakin'-duh':

Mobile phone calls distract drivers far more than even the chattiest passenger, causing drivers to follow too closely and miss exits, US researchers reported on Monday.

Using a handsfree device does not make things better and the researchers believe they know why – passengers act as a second set of eyes, shutting up or sometimes even helping when they see the driver needs to make a maneuver…

…They have demonstrated that chatting on a mobile phone can slow the reaction times of young adult drivers to levels seen among senior citizens, and shown that drivers using mobile telephones are as impaired as drivers who are legally drunk.

Check out the Reuters story or the original study.

I know many people who shy away from doing statistic in R for various good reasons. R is hard. Many of the things that make it great are things that only previously experienced coders can take advantage of. If you've never programmed before, learning stats in R means learning statistics and learning to code at the same time. That's nuts.

But if you're already comfortable with basic coding, R is wonderful. Still, the syntax is a lot to remember, and I have a hard time keeping it in my brain when it's been a few weeks since my last R analysis session. I use two wonderful resources to refresh my memory and learn new things:

  1. Quick-R – While the site is branded as a way for SPSS/SAS/Stata users to learn R, it's really just the best all around resource for 90% of the analysis and visualization you'll want to do on a daily basis. The site provides great, simple explanation, sample code, and pointers to packages that have lots of shortcut methods.
  2. R Wiki – The R-project itself has a great wiki with lots of detailed info. and code samples on many R functions. If it's not at Quick-R, this is where I'm going next.