Methodology and Bootstrapping Intellectual Practice

Continuing from the discussion regarding intellectual practice, I've been talking with a number of people (my father in particular) about graduate school and the prospect of "bootstrapping" a scholarly practice using "new media," like blogging, and wiki making. I want to explore both my thoughts graduate school and bootstrapping with new media, and as you'd expect both of these ideas are rather intertwined. My initial gloss follows:

Bootstrapping for Success

The "new media," even 10 or more years on, is still quite new. The media shift and technological changes have had a pretty clear impact on economic and industry practices. At the same time, reading, participation, and writing are still in flux. People say, "oh look, blogging and wikis; we can use this as a teaching and learning tool!" and then there are classes, tools, and software to integrate blogging into courses and learning management systems, but the media itself is still in flux and I'm not sure that anyone has blogging and wikis (as an example) figured out.

While the changes in new media are important, the changes to education itself is probably more important. Educators of all kinds have begun to take this we begin to think about the was that traditional education has changed and will change. Given new media, a changing job market, and the shifting economics of education it's hard to think that education isn't changing.

I'm not sure it's changing that much.

There are cases of successful auto-didacts, and people who've been able acheive success

I'd love to be wrong about this, but I'm pretty sure that the only people who blog/wiki and have found real success in fields are people with some other more conventional route to success: people who are already successful and figure out how to use new media, people who have conventional training or have achieved success in traditional media and then moved to using blogs:

Some examples: Cory Doctorow began publishing fiction conventionally and doing freelance work for Weird magazine, and became a blogger and used that to multiply existing success. John Scalzi (and Tobias Buckell) published non-fiction and had successful professional writing careers before beginning to blog and write and publish fiction. The Valve is a successful academic blog/publication/forum, but as near as I can tell all of the contributors have traditional literary training, and all/most have academic postings. Bitch, Ph.D. has/had a formal background.

Samuel Delany doesn't have formal training but has had a scholarly career, and while his is an inspiring story there's not much that's reproducible from it given some historical constraints: he started publishing before the demise of SF pulp magazines and Ace Double, because creative writing hadn't been established when he entered the academy, etc.

I'm certainly willing to believe that my sample is skewed, and that people have been able to move in the other direction (from online success to conventional success, or been able to bootstrap their own success online,) but I can't think of a single anecdote. I'd love to be proved wrong here.

Disciplining and Formal Education

I think that working as a technical writer is something to which I am very suited, something that provides a great deal of value, gives me access to the kinds of people that I'm interested in talking with (software developers, admins.) And writing experience and skill is largely fungible, so the skill I'm honing and developing is very transferable.

So, while I'm not opposed to doing academic work eventually, I'm pretty sure that no matter what kind of industry work I end up doing (product management, community management/organization, training, etc.) I'll sill basically be a technical writer. And here's the thing, if graduate school has no effect on my career except dominating my time and earning potential for a few years? It becomes very difficult to justify.

The equation that keeps going through my head is: two job searches within a few years years [1] and a hundred thousand dollars or more, [2] for what amounts to a personal betterment project. It's not getting any easier to justify.

Here's the catch: I'm a decent writer and I'm getting better all the time can I write or help people write books, articles, essays, stories, and a whole host of more specific forms. I'm not really sure that I could write a quality academic paper without an unreasonable amount of effort. I don't know the process, I don't know how to start, which literature to look at for resources, or for models, I'm not sure where the line between concision and complexity is in academic prose, and so forth. That's the kind of knowledge that I'm certain I could get out of graduate education. And perhaps I've been a technical writer for too long, but I think not being able to "write like a scholar" makes it hard to participate in scholarly discussions.

The Remains of the Practice

I'm not sure where this leaves me. I'm thinking about seeing if I can take a seminar and a methods class at CUNY in the next year I might be able to get what I need. The right collaborative project might be a good way to build the required skills, but that's even more complicated. As far as using the blog/wiki to build and participate in a conversation about new media practices, collaboration, and digital labor practices... there is much work left to be done.

[1]i.e. getting into graduate school, getting a post-graduate school job.
[2]the 100k number is mostly opportunity costs, and assumes a funded/cheap 2 year masters program.

The Meaning of Work

I've started to realize that, fundamentally, the questions I'm asking of the world and that I'm trying to address by learning more about technology, center on work and the meaning and process of working. Work lies at the intersection of the all the things that I seem to revisit endlessly: interfaces, collaboration technology, cooperatives and economics institutions, and open source software development. I'm not sure if I'm interested in work because it's the unifying theme of a bunch of different interests, or this is the base from which other interests spring.

I realize that this makes me an incredibly weird geek.

I was talking to caroline about our respective work environments, specifically about how we (and our coworkers) relocated (or didn't) for our jobs, and I was chagrined to realize that this novel that I've been working at (or not,) for way too long at this point spends some time revolving around these questions:

  • How does being stuck in a single place and time constrain one agency to effect the world around them?
  • What does labor look like in a mostly/quasi post-scarcity world?

Perhaps the most worrying thing about this project is that I started writing this story in late August of 2008. This was of course before the American/Financial Services economic crash that got me blogging and really thinking about issues outside of technology.

It's interesting, and perhaps outside the scope of this post, but I think it's interesting how since graduating from college, my "research" interests as they were, all work them into fiction (intentionally or otherwise.) I suppose I haven't written fiction about Free Software/open source, exactly, but I think there's a good enough reason for that. [1]

I'm left with two realizations. First, that this novel has been sitting on my plate for far too long, and there's no reason why I can't write the last 10/20 thousand words in the next few months and be done with the sucker. Second, I'm interested in thinking about how "being an academic" (or not) affects the way I (we?) approach learning more about the world and the process/rigor that I bring to those projects.

But we'll get to that later, I have writing to do.

[1]I write fiction as open source, in a lot of ways, so it doesn't seem too important to put it in the story as well.

why tiling window managers matter

I've realized much to my chagrin that I haven't written a post on about the Awesome Window Manager in a long time. It's funny how window managers just fade into the background, particularly when they work well and suit your needs. Why then, does this seem so important to me and why am I so interested in this? Funny you should ask.

Tiling window managers aren't going to be the Next Big Thing in computing, and if they (as a whole) have an active user-base of more than say 10,000 people that would be really surprising. While I think that a lot of people would benefit and learn from using Awesome (or others), even this is something of a niche group.

As a result, I think something really interesting happens in the tiling window manger space. First, the project is driven by a rather unique driving force that I'm not sure I can articulate well. It's not driven by a desire of profit, and it's not driven by some larger Utopian political goal (as a lot of free software is). This is software that is written entirely for oneself.

That's the way most (ultimately) free software and open source projects start. A lot of emphasis in the community (and outside) is made on the next stage of the progress, where a project that was previously "for oneself" becomes something larger with broader appeal. Lets start with the git version control system which started because the kernel development team needed a new version control system, but in the past couple of years has become so much more, by way of phenomena like github and flashbake. The free software and open source worlds are full of similar examples: the Linux Kernel, Drupal, b2/WordPress, Pidgin/Gain, Asterisk, and so forth.

But Awesome, and the other tiling window managers will, likely as not never make this jump. There is no commercial competitor for these programs, they're never going to "breakthrough" to a larger audience. This isn't a bad thing, it just effects how we think about some rather fundamental aspects of software and software development.

First, if developers aren't driven by obvious "us versus them" competition, how can the software improve? And aren't there a bunch of tiling window mangers that compete with each other?

I'd argue that competition, insofar as it does occur, happens within a project, and within the developer rather than between projects and between developers. Awesome developers are driven to make Awesome more awesome, because there's no real competition to be had with Aqua (OS X window manger,) or other Kwin and Metacity (GNOME and KDE's window mangers), or even other alternate X11 window managers like OpenBox.

Developers are driven to "do better," than the people that preceded them, better than their last attempt, better than the alternate solutions provided by the community. Also, the principals of minimalism which underpins all of these window managers towards simple, clean, and lightweight code, inspires development and change (if not growth, exactly). This seems to hold true under anecdotal observation.

While there are a number of tiling window managers in this space, I'm not sure how much they actually compete with each other. I'd love to hear what some folks who use xmonad and StumpWM have to say about this, but it's my sense that the field of tiling window managers has more to do with other interests. Xmonad makes a point about the Haskel programing language. Stump is targeted directly toward emacs users and demonstrates that Lisp/Common Lisp is still relevant. Awesome brings the notion of a framework to window management, and seems to perfectly balances customizable with lightweight design. While Awesome is a powerful player in this space, I don't think that there's a lot of competition.

Second, if there's no substantive competition in this domain and if there's a pretty clear "cap" to the amount of growth, how are tiling window managers *not entirely pointless.*

I think there are two directions to go with this. First I think we're seeing some of the benefits of these window managers in other projects like xcb (a new library for dealing with X11) and freedesktop benefit both directly and indirectly from the work being done in the tiling window manager space. Similarly, Xmonad is a great boon to the Haskell community and cause (I suspect).

The other direction follows an essay I wrote here a few months ago about the importance of thinking about the capabilities of programing languages even if you're not a programmer because languages, like all sorts of highly technical concepts and tools create and constrain possibilities for all computer users, not just the people who ponder and use them. In the case of the tiling window manager, thinking about how the people who are writing computer programs is productive. In addition to the aforementioned thoughts about competition and open source.

So there we are. I'll be in touch.

The Obvious and the Novel

I've been working a bit--rather a lot, actually--on getting myself ready to apply for graduate school (again) in a year to eighteen months, and one of the things that I'm trying to get figured out is the "why" question. Why go? Why bother? Questions like that. For starters, I hope to have some of the youthful angst regarding education knackered by the time I go back, and second, I think I'll be able to make the most of the experience. This post speaks to one part of this challenge: about what research is productive and worthwhile (that is, novel and original), and what research is by contrast merely an explanation of the obvious.

This is all predicated on the assumption that there's some sort of qualitative divide between the kind of causal observation and theoretical work that is what I do, (already), and "real work," productive work that productively contributes to a discourse. (Too young for impostor syndrome? unlikely!) Now this might be a ill conceived separation but, nevertheless the thought is on my mind.

The trains of thought:

  • There's some fundamental difference between blagging and productive "knowledge production." Blogging is a practice that doesn't lead to systematic investigation, and thus, while interesting and a productive tool for the development of my thinking, it's a lousy end in and of itself.

    As I wrote that above paragraph, I remember that it resonated with a thought I've had about this website (in it's previous iterations) many years ago. Interesting.

  • Fiction writing has (and continues) to be the most satisfying output of this impulse that I've been able to have thus far. While I do worry that my fiction isn't novel enough, that's a technical (eg. plot, setting, character) issue rather than a theoretical (eg. the science, and historiography) concern.

    Fiction writing also has a long publication cycle. My blog posts, from inception to posting, aren't particularly time intensive. Fiction, even/especially short stories require a bunch of extra time, and being able to immerse myself in a collection of ideas for a long time has a bunch of benefit.

    Also, there's a credential issue that I rather enjoy with-regards to Science Fiction. There's no degree that I could possibly want. I mean, sure, there are popular fiction writing programs, but that's not a requirement, and I suspect that I'll (try) to go to viable paradise sometime in the 2010s (or Clarion if I am somehow, ever, able to spare 6 grand and the ability to take 6 weeks off of my life), these would just be "for me," and there's nothing other that the quality of my work and the merit of my ideas that are between me and acceptance as a science fiction writer. That's really comforting, somehow.

  • Most of us read literature of some sort, and talk about literary texts of one stripe or another, but I don't think that these activities necessarily make most of us literary critics. The art and project of literary criticism is something more. The difference between reading and talking about a text and practicing literary criticism is an issue of methodology. One of the chief reasons I want to go back to school is to develop an additional methodological tool kit, because my current one is a bit lacking. I'm pretty convinced that the difference between "thinking/doing cool things" and "doing/thinking important things," is largely an issue of methodology.

While I don't think this would short circuit the gradschool plans, but I think working to develop some sort of more rigorous methodological companion to the blogging process that goes beyond the general "so folks, I was thinking about foo so I'm going to tell you a story" (did I just give away my formula? Eep!)

Fact File Code

In my post about my fact file I said that I was going to "try things out and see how it goes" before I posted code to see how things work in the system. Well, I think things are pretty stable (I haven't tweaked much), so I'm going to post my remember template, for the system described in that post.

(setq org-remember-templates
   '(("data" ?d "* %^{Title} %^g \n :PROPERTIES:\n :date:
       %^t\n :cit e-key: %^{cite-key}\n :link: %^{link}\n
       :END:\n\n %x %?"  "~/org/")))`

If you want to tweak further, check out the relevant section of the org manual.

Enjoy and collect facts with abandon!