June 2009


Lately, Michael Arrington at TechCrunch has been on a crusade against handshakes, which he thinks are gross, 'medieval' and germ spreading. He suggests we ought to do away with hand shaking.

This is very stupid. Sure, you could accuse Arrington of being anti-social or a germophobe. You might be right on both counts. But I'd like to accuse Arrington of making no sense. Here's why. I'm sure that handshakes spread germs, especially when people don't wash their hands. You touch your nose, your face, and then you shake, and that seems gross when you focus on it. But people touch their noses and faces all the time, and then they touch lots of things. They touch the bus rail, the conference table, the shopping cart, or the pen you loaned them. They pat you on the back, or they bump your fist (let's not single out the palm – backs of hands can be gross too).

Their germs (and yours) are literally EVERYWHERE. That's why not washing hands is such a problem – germs that go anywhere but down the drain with soap can be a public health hazard.

But here's why Arrington's crusade is just a pet peeve, and nothing like a sensible argument: if germs are everywhere, compared to the baseline rate, how much more likely are you to be exposed to something by shaking hands than not? I'd argue the additional danger is infinitesimal, if it exists at all. Does anyone know of studies on this? I bet you'd have to shake A LOT of hands, and then suck on your own hands, to be at any increased risk at all. And even then, the answer is to wash YOUR hands, not stop shaking hands. Or else stop touching things altogether, get a plastic bubble, and die alone.

That said, there are clearly a lot of people who think it's gross and don't want to shake hands. They shouldn't have to. I understand it's not always (or even usually) a rational thing. But those folks can't hide behind some false claims about germs. They should just admit that they don't like the practice, and deal with the awkward situations it will produce. That means you, Arrington.

The term 'Social Media' is the 'Web 2.0' of 2009. The power of social media. Let's leverage it. But what is it? Just like Web 2.0, a marginally useful buzzword with no real definition, social media allows us to refer to a class of things without referring to anything at all. I'm not even sure that the popular notion of social media is any different than Web 2.0 (in its usage, anyway). Google Trends reveals that Web 2.0 is so last year, and social media is on the rise:

web-2.0-vs-social-media
(Click for a larger image.)

Looking for clarity, I typed 'define: social media' into Google:

Google-Social-Media-Def
(Click for a larger image.)

Wolfram Alpha is supposed to be great at these sorts of direct questions, but:

Wolfram-Social-Media-Def
(Click for a larger image.)

I can see how ideas like this are useful. To say that Company X needs a 'social media strategy' means a few things: interactive, user-generated, viral. These days, it means Facebook and Twitter. But next year it'll be another set of web darlings. When it comes down to brass tacks, talking about social media doesn't get us very far in thinking about what we'd actually like to be doing, or in the case of academics, studying.

Anyway, I'm not sure how much closer this gets to answering the question that I started with. But having grappled with the notion of Web 2.0 for a long time, I'm comfortable with the idea of social media, as long as it keeps its place. Here's an analogy I've used in the classroom: Web 2.0 is like talking about culture at a national level. Do the Japanese or Americans have a culture? Well, I would say yes – culture exists as long as there are two people, all the way up to billions. There are a few things we can say about Americans or Japanese in general, but they're not very accurate or detailed, and they don't allow us to say anything good at all about anyone in particular. Talking about American culture is a shorthand for large and complex phenomena. It's just a convenience, and in that role it's useful. Go further, and you're talking gibberish, fool. So, keep your place, social media, and we'll be just fine.

Another case of a lost day and some failure of Google. Here's what went down (going back a bit):

  1. A few weeks ago I installed the latest Vista service pack. The installation apparently reset my preferences for automatic updates. I always choose 'Download updates and notify me' rather than the 'automatic install' option. But, SP2 reverted it to the auto. install option, with the time set for 3am.
  2. Vista wakes my laptop from sleep in the middle of the night, installs updates that require reboot. The nag comes up, counts down, then force quits all of my open programs, notably MS Word, and reboots the computer.
  3. I wake up to find that my copy of Word is completely and totally shazonked. There are a variety of bizarre symptoms. It starts, then hangs. It starts, doesn't crash, but I can't move the mouse. It starts, lets me access the options menu, but crashes when I try to change anything. You name it, I saw it.

Here's the failure of Google. What do I search for? At first, I think it's about the EndNote add-in. I remove it, no dice. I try to repair the install. I try to repair the install from the original DVD. Nothing. I'm trying to disable all the templates and add-ins, but it crashes when I try to change anything. And here's the kicker… you can start Word from the command line with the '/a' operator to load it without any templates and add-ins if you think one is corrupted and causing a problem. But when you do that, it's not like booting in safe mode where you can view and change the normal configuration. You go look at the options and find out that no add-ins or templates are there. Argh!

Anyway, enough back story. To the solution: create a system restore point, and then delete the registry key at HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\version number\Word\Data. Word will regenerate it automatically the next time you start it. Apparently, force quitting can cause the data stored in that key to be corrupted and cause all manner of crazy problems. Sheesh.

I just noticed a story in the NY Post (via Slashdot) about a New York City program to pay 4th and 7th graders for doing well on assessment tests. $250 for 4th graders, $500 for 7th graders. This is an awful idea, for a whole bunch of reasons spelled out in Alfie Kohn's excellent book Punished by Rewards. I'll spell out two of my favorites:

  1. The question isn't what happens when you pay for grades, it's what happens when you stop. Kohn's book is all about what economists call Crowding Out and social psychologists call the corruption effect of extrinsic incentives. The basic idea is that when you pay someone to do something they might have their own reasons for doing anyway, you remove the intrinsic incentive (i.e. curiosity, love of learning) and replace it with the extrinsic one ($$$$). You create the expectation of being paid for grades and school work. That would be fine if we could pay kids indefinitely – and, for that matter, if we could pay for all the hard things that you learn to stick to because school is hard. But we can't. So I don't really care how kids do when they're being paid. I care how they do after they stop getting paid. I would put big money that the results of a longitudinal evaluation (which I'm guessing no one will ever do) would show few appreciable gains as a result of the program once the $$ is gone.
  2. Paying for grades is exploitative. The kids in this program are almost all in low-income schools. They're people for whom $250 or $500 could be a lot of money. I realize that's the point – if it weren't enough money it wouldn't be motivational. But it's also taking advantage of poverty, and putting kids in a position of stress. Parents may put pressure on kids, and kids may put pressure on themselves. Again, I realize that's the point. The program is built on the (false) notion that paying for grades is okay because it leads to educational improvement. But, as I explained above, it doesn't, and it won't. So then it just becomes exploitation. If we're gonna pay poor kids for grades, why not find under-achieving kids with medical problems, and trade health care for grades? Or find kids with immigration problems and trade citizenship for grades? Oh, do those ideas sound too sleazy?

What's interesting is that this program is the brain-child of Harvard Economist Roland Fryer through Harvard's EdLabs. This guy clearly knows his stuff, is generally a rising star, and he should absolutely know better. This is the worst kind of narrow-minded economics. I was hoping we'd moved beyond it.

As part of my foray into LaTeX, I started to check out Zotero. I've been a happy EndNote user for years now. Love the Word integration. But it really doesn't play well with LaTeX. The RIS and Bibtex export filters are crap. And, obviously, it doesn't integrate with a LaTeX GUI editor the way it does with Word.

I know many people who sing the praises of Zotero, and I know it does a better job of exporting to Bibtex. But after a few days of using it, I'm done. Granted, I haven't put it through as rigorous a test as I might have, but here are my first impressions:

  1. Wow does it slow down Firefox. At least for me, there was a noticeable snappiness hit and a big increase in memory footprint with Zotero running.
  2. It does not seem to do the magic I want it to. I tried to get it to import cites using the "Create New Item from the Current Page" feature, expecting great things. No dice on ACM Portal, IEEE Explore, or ScienceDirect. Maybe I'm not doing it right. The only way I could get it to import a cite was to export a citation for EndNote. Zotero intercepts it and imports. But that's no better than EndNote.
  3. Zotero still doesn't solve the problem of integration with my LaTeX editor. I have to gather cites in Zotero, export a Bibtex file, then go back to my editor.

So, Zotero is out. I think I'll try JabRef next, which integrates with LatexEDitor.

I thought I would write a short post to satisfy anyone who has some curiosity like mine. Working on CHI and CSCW papers in the past, I've always used the Word template, but I've now finally had enough torture, and I'm never doing it again. I'm switching to LaTeX.

I've also heard from a few folks that the different templates will render very differently, leaving you with more or less space to write. According to David, there's even substantive differences between versions of Word. So, out of curiously, and also as a learning experience, I moved a recent CSCW Note over to LaTeX. I'm using the LeD editor with the latest CSCW 2010 LaTeX template, and I have this to report about the differences in length as a result of rendering: there are none. Word and LaTeX seem to be about the same, with a few more words on some pages, a few less (fewer?) on others. YMMV, I'm sure. But for me the greatest benefit of LaTeX is going to be the content/presentation separation. I can write a paper in plain text with tags, and just forget about the formatting part, about wrangling multiple columns and cranky headers and everything. Woo hoo!

A little old now in Internet time (May 29th!), but The Register is covering the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee's decision to ban edits from all IP addresses that are known to be associated with Scientology. Apparently there were systematic efforts by those nutty Scientologists to propagandize Wikipedia pages, paper over criticism, etc.

Now, I'm no fan of Scientology, though I admit I think the whole thing is more laughable than anything else. But for Wikipedia this is a bad decision that leads down a bad road. There's two big issues here.

First, if Wikipedia starts to ban whole organizations rather than policing malicious individuals (who Register writer Cade Metz calls "Wikifiddlers" – love it!), how does it draw a reasonable line between protecting Wikipedia and social engineering? Wikipedia is already a horribly slanted body of knowledge, mostly as a function of the types of knowledge that its user communities value highly – natural sciences, computer science, engineering, popular culture. Picking and choosing organizations to ban will make this bias worse. Does Wikipedia only ban organizations that are easy to hate – Scientologists, neo-nazis, etc.? If this is about the policy, and an attempt to thwart coordinated propaganda, then shouldn't we also be banning IP ranges for, say, baseball teams, celebrities, and Congressmen, all of whom engage in organized propaganda attacks to gussy up their Wikipedia pages?

There's also a more fundamental problem with this – it breaks the model of "Wisdom of the Crowds." The whole point of WotC in the Smith / Surowiecki sense, is that a person is dumb but people are smart. When people are diverse, their biases cancel each other out. Picking the number of jelly beans in a jar isn't that different from making Wikipedia. We need all manner of biases. We need people to be wrong in all ways, and to coordinate propaganda in all ways. That doesn't mean we should allow all kinds of malicious activity – going after individual Wikifiddlers makes sense to me. But banning whole groups is a slippery slope that could hurt Wikipedia's reputation and quality in the long term.