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July 2007

Absolution Power Corrupts Absolutely

I was listening to a story on CounterSpin where David Cole, Georgetown law professor and author of an article in Salon on "Bush's torture ban is full of loopholes", was talking about the executive order recently signed by U.S. President George W. Bush. Cole noted that one of the less noticed provisions of the document was that it absolved all present and past intelligence officials from any future litigation regarding any torture "enhanced" interrogation practices in which they may have engaged in their service to our country.

Borrowing from the playbook of Barry Goldwater, who famously argued that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice", it now appears that terrorism in the name of anti-terrorism is no crime ... leading me to wonder about how the "other side" thinks about its actions and justifications. But that's not why I started this post (and I've written about this "us vs. them" issue before).

The Bush Administration appears ready, willing and able to absolve anyone who acts on their behalf from any accountability for their actions. This week's executive order is simply the latest in a series of recent events - including Bush's ordering Harriet Miers to defy a Congressional subpoena and his pardoning of Scooter Libby - that remind me of a quote from Lord Acton:

Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

All these recent absolutions serve to increase the Bush Administration's power - at a time when a decreasing proportion of the people who the administration purportedly serves support the administration's policies. Bush may not yet have absolute power, and may not yet be absolutely corrupt, but it seems that Congress is unable or unwilling to constrain our government's executive branch in any meaningful way (which may explain why a recent poll shows Congressional favorability ratings at 14% while the president is enjoying a favorability rating of 34%). Interestingly, another recent poll reveals that 45% of Americans favor impeaching the president (and 54% favor impeaching the vice president, Dick Cheney). This is particularly interesting given that in 1998, polls showed that only 26% of Americans supported former President Bill Clinton's impeachment.

In another Salon article, "Why Bush hasn't been impeached", Gary Kamiya noted some compelling reasons why the Democrat-controlled Congress probably will not seek impeachment - it may serve to rally and unite the Republicans at a time when they are increasingly fragmented, and impeachment proceedings would likely preclude progress on any other Democrat (and Republican) initiatives through the end of Bush's presidency. He goes on to offer a deeper, more disturbing analysis of why we, the American people, and not just the Democrats, really won't impeach Bush:

To impeach Bush would force us to directly confront our national core of violent self-righteousness -- come to terms with it, understand it and reject it. And we're not ready to do that.

The truth is that Bush's high crimes and misdemeanors, far from being too small, are too great. What has saved Bush is the fact that his lies were, literally, a matter of life and death. They were about war. And they were sanctified by 9/11. Bush tapped into a deep American strain of fearful, reflexive bellicosity, which Congress and the media went along with for a long time and which has remained largely unexamined to this day. Congress, the media and most of the American people have yet to turn decisively against Bush because to do so would be to turn against some part of themselves. This doesn't mean we support Bush, simply that at some dim, half-conscious level we're too confused -- not least by our own complicity -- to work up the cold, final anger we'd need to go through impeachment. We haven't done the necessary work to separate ourselves from our abusive spouse. We need therapy -- not to save this disastrous marriage, but to end it.

So, just as Bush is absolving him self through his absolutions of others, we are, in effect, absolving ourselves through our implicit absolution of - or at least, our unwillingness to prosecute - Bush. Bush's absolvees are simply carrying out his orders, and he, in turn, is simply fulfilling our unconscious - and, at times, unconscionable - desires.

I hate to think of myself as complicit in all this, but I have to admit I haven't done much, myself, to reinvigorate our system of checks and balances. Once again, I have seen the enemy, and they is me.

Progress Report on Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP): Week 1

It's been a little over a week since my platelet rich plasma (PRP) injection for chronic tendonitis; as with my [blog posts about] my wife's anal cancer treatment (which was successful, as far as we can tell, having recently passed the two year milestone of being cancer-free), I've received email and other inquiries about the treatment and how my post-treatment experience is going, from people suffering from other types of tendinopathy (Dr. Mishra's web site suggests PRP can also be used for the treatment of Rotator Cuff, Patellar and Achilles tendinopathy, and his blog chronicles the use of PRP for a variety of disoreders). In case my experience may be of interest / use to others, I've decided to report on a few of my observations, insights and experiences at the end of my first week.

First of all, I neglected to mention that the doctor and his assistant initially neglected to mention that the treatment is not effective if it is administered within two weeks of the use of Ibuprofen (and I think aspirin, which I never use, and possibly other medications I never use), due to its adverse impact on blood thickness. Since this information was not provided at the outset, we had to abort our first scheduled date of treatment. And since patients are advised against flying for 7 days after the treatment, due to the increased risk of blood clotting (which they did initially mention), my travel schedule resulted in having to postpone treatment for 2 months.

The treatment itself was relatively painless - I felt a little burning when the local anaesthetic (Lidocaine) was injected, and a little pressure when the PRP was injected, but that was all. The main problem I had was that I often get lightheaded whenever a needle pierces my skin - I'm not conscious of any fear, but it happens every time - so I had to lie down for the procedure.

The rest of the day (afternoon) and the next day, I refrained from any activity. I felt no pain the first day, but did feel some pain the second day. I took some Vicodin that day, but have since felt relatively little pain - except when I forget to be careful with my elbow - and have taken very little pain medication (acetaminophen).

The primary ongoing challenges are stiffness and reduced range of motion, but these are diminishing over time. I've been doing some gentle stretching exercises throughout each day, and was able to start using my right hand for brief, non weight-bearing tasks after a few days. I was able to bend my arm 90 degrees by Thursday, and can now touch my nose. I started using my right hand for typing again on Thursday, but my arm feels fatigued quickly, and so I've cut back considerably on typing (in general) ... er, and I did not actually catch up on much reading, but that was for other reasons having to with preparations for a big internal launch of next generation proactive displays on Thursday ... about which I'll write separately (though a preview of our proactive display plans can be found on

Among the tricks, tools and [other] behavior modifications I found helpful - bearing in mind that I'm right-handed and the PRP injection was in my right elbow - were

  • Switching from briefs to boxers (for the first week) ... reminding me of a Seinfeld episode

  • Wearing sandals (socks and shoe ties would be difficult), polo shirts (buttons, especially near the top, would be difficult) and cargo pants (with extra pockets on each side that are easily reachable) ... of course, this is my typical "business casual" attire, anyway

  • Extra pillows to prop my arm up while sleeping

  • An electric toothbrush and dental floss picks

  • Using a pump dispenser for soap and shampoo (actually, I didn't do this, but wish I had)

  • Eating more sandwiches, wraps, pizza and other foods that do not require the [coordinated] use of silverware

  • Making greater use of the Bluetooth earbud for my phone (my most painful moment so far has been to reach up to scratch my nose with my right hand while holding my phone to my ear with my left hand)

  • Renting a car with a pushbutton [keyless] starter for the week; in my case, this was a Nissan Altima from my favorite rental car service, Enterprise Rent-A-Car

I'll post another update when there is more significant progress to report. Meanwhile, if others have questions or other observations, insights and experiences to share, please feel free to comment.

Standing on Boxes: Signaling Costs and Benefits in Online and Offline Social Networks (Judith Donath at C&T 2007)

The highlight of the recent Communities and Technologies Conference (C&T 2007) - for me - was Judith Donath's keynote on "Agents and Faces: The Reliability of Online Signals" (based on her course - and forthcoming book - on Signals, Truth and Design). I'd posted a relatively tiny summary of an abbreviated glimpse she'd offered in a short talk at the 2006 Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium, and I was absolutely delighted to get a larger dose of her insights into the application of signaling theory to online and offline social networks.

Fuh2poster Judith began by defined signaling theory as "an economic approach to understanding how certain signals are reliable", focusing on the costs and benefits for signalers and receivers. She differentiated between signals, which are intentionally communicated by an actor, and cues, which are features perceived by an audience - corresponding to Erving Goffman's distinction between giving and giving off in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life - and noted that the signals one intends to transmit do not always correspond to the cues perceived by others. As an example of discrepancies between signals and cues, Judith noted that fur coats are presumably given to and worn by women to signal positive qualities such as wealth, appreciation and/or good taste, but often are perceived as evidence of negative qualities such as cruelty or insensitivity (to animals) or wasteful extravagance; I found myself thinking about similar discrepancies between signals and cues associated with Hummers (the FUH2 Photo Mosaic Poster is an interesting case of an aggregated signal transmitted in response to a set of cues that presumably do not correspond to the [primary] intentions of H2 owners ... though I must admit to sometimes wondering about the intentions of - and the implicit or explicit cost / benefit analyses performed by - such people [Update: all the moreso after having just watched "Who Killed the Electric Car?", in which Hummers were implicated ... and which offers a compelling case study for anyone interested n signals, truth and design ... and/or politics, business and the environment]).

200204085843beraniscratchi Judith differentiated three types of signals: handicap signals, index signals and conventional signals. Handicap signals are costly to produce, and are considered reliable because the quality they signal is consumed in the production of the signal, and the signal tends to be more expensive to produce for an individual with less of the quality; examples include a male moose growing and carrying a rack of antlers (signaling disposable energy) or a male human buying $400 bottles of champagne at a night club (signaling disposable income). Index signals are less costly to produce because they do not consume the quality they signal, but still typically require that quality for an individual to produce the signal. The title of this blog post refers to an observation Judith made about tigers, based on the book Animal Signals by John Maynard Smith and David Harper, in which they note that tigers scratch trees to mark their territory; they stretch as high as they can in scratching, effectively signaling their size to other tigers who may approach these boundary markers. Maynard Smith and Harper mused that if small tigers were ingenious enough to stand on boxes when they scratch trees, they would be able to amplify their signal considerably, with little additional cost (I'll return to the boxes theme in a bit).

Greenpeace Most signals in the world - or worlds (online and offline) - of human behavior fall into the third category, conventional signals, which have no inherent connection to the quality they signal, but rely instead upon extrinsic societal forces for their meaning and reliability through rewards and punishment. Examples include bumper stickers, iPhone email signatures and online profiles of various stripes.

Conventional signals remind me of the distinctions between society and culture made by James P. Carse in his book Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility:

In their own political engagements infinite players make a distinction between society and culture. Society they understand as the sum of those relations that are under some form of public constraint, culture as whatever we do with each other by undirected choice. If society is all that a people feels it must do, culture is "the realm of the variable, free, not necessarily universal, of all that cannot lay claim to compulsive authority."
Society is a manifestation of power. It is theatrical, having an established script. Deviations from the script are evident at once. Deviation is antisocietal and therefore forbidden by society under a variety of sanctions. It is a highly valued function of society to prevent changes in the rules of the many games it embraces. Deviancy, however, is the very essence of culture. Whoever merely follows the script, merely repeating the past, is culturally impoverished.

This distinction between society and culture seems to lie very close to the notion of fashion, one of the dimensions Judith explored in depth (which gave me a greater appreciation for the depth of fashion, which I typically think of in rather shallow terms). Fashion seems to arise in a cultural context, but successful fashions tend to migrate into a more societal context ... thereby necessitating the truly fashionable to seek out new deviations, which then become adopted by society (and thus less deviant) in what strikes me as a perpetual arms race. Judith spoke of the risk of being at the forefront (a mode of playing the edge), and noted how utility / usefulness is antithetical to fashion: if it's useful, it's less risky, and thus less fashionable (which may help explain why there are few - or, some fashionistas may argue, no - examples of business casual cargo pants ... though I keep hoping they will appear, however unfashionable). This fashionable aversion to utility is related to people's general desire to signal a willingness to take risks, evidenced by the risque photos and stories often posted on social networking services (especially by young, fashion-conscious, users), and [perhaps] in the rise of unprotected sex (and HIV infection) among gay men (this was not an example cited by Judith, but one that came to [my] mind during her talk).

One of the points that Judith did make was that signalers and receivers both must benefit, or they'll stop signaling and/or heeding the signals, and thus deceptive signaling disrupts this system (if it is perceived as deceptive). Deceptive signalling got me thinking (and asking) about politics. Ed Schipul, who was sitting in front of me when I asked a question on this topic, pointed me to, as an example of revealing political signals (in this case, campaign contributions), but, at the risk of being (or appearing) cynical, this got me questioning the extent to which people really want to know the truth.

No discussion of politics could be complete without a discussion of wealth (and typing this leads me to wonder whether politics is anything more than the preservation of wealth). So much of signaling seems to be about wealth; we all want to be wealthy (perhaps only differing in the dimensions of wealth we want to enjoy), and nearly two-thirds of Americams still think they are middle class, although most estimates suggest that less than half of Americans are middle-classmates, perhaps refecting the Lake Wobegon effect, where everyone's above average.

On a certain level, our society seems to be practicing mass self-deception, thinking we all are - or can be - middle-class, or better (I suppose this is part of The American Dream, but dreaming is a form of self-deception). I have to wonder about how this impacts the costs and benefits of our signallng and reception - if we don't really want to know the truth, then the "cost" of deception is lowered ...  and the benefits of deception correspondingly increase ... which may go a long way in explaining why deception seems to be so prevalent in the current administration.

Sticking with politics, and returning to the notion of standing on boxes, I'm reminded that during the presentation, Judith's description of real and imagined behaviors of tigers immediately brought to mind an amusing Saturday Night Live skit on the Bush-Dukakis debate during the 1988 U.S. presidential campaign, which poked fun at the height differential between George H. W. Bush (6' 2", played by Dana Carvey) and Michael Dukakis (5' 8", played by Jon Lovitz) by dramatizing the raised platform (a "box" of sorts) used by Dukakis during their televised debates.

Snl8813 Snl8814 Snl8815

As with most effective parodies, there is more than a grain of truth to this satirization of what might seem like an inconsequential difference between the two candidates: as pointed out in a 2004 USA Today article on time-tested formulas for predicting winners in U.S. Presidential races:

Since the advent of the television age, the taller candidate for president has almost always won the election. ...

The reasons are more than coincidental, according to Timothy Judge, a management professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. In a study published in the spring issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, he found that taller people generally tend to receive higher evaluations and be paid more even when the job involved has nothing to do with height.

Taller people are seen as more authoritative and as stronger leaders, he says. That could be a remnant of human evolution, he speculates, when the species' survival in the jungle or on the plains depended on strength and power.

The article goes on to note one exception to this formula - the 2000 defeat of 6' 1" Al Gore by 5' 11" George W. Bush ... who then went on to defeat 6' 4" John Kerry in 2004. But if one is willing to discount the effects of a questionable court decisions and/or question the appropriateness of the electoral college system in modern politics - or simply apply the formula to the popular vote in each election - then the formula appears to be 100% accurate. As much as I'd like to believe that other signals and cues would be more important in future election outcomes - say, evidence of integrity, openness, vulnerability and compassion - I find myself wondering about the heights of candidates in the 2008 U.S. Presidential campaign.

Mending Tendonitis via Platelet Rich Plasma (I hope)

I have been suffering for the past several months with the 3rd episode of tendonitis in my right elbow in 3 years. The first episode occured in November 2004 after excessive raking - I spent every waking moment for 2 consecutive dry days raking the wet leaves that had fallen over several rainy weeks from the Bigleaf Maple trees in our yard. After waiting several weeks for the pain to go away, I started several weeks of physical therapy, eventually coupled with several weeks of acupuncture - neither of which had significant effect (I was told that 30% of people have neuroreceptors that are not receptive to accupuncuture treatment, and I was likely a member of that minority); a cortisone shot finally resolved the problem in the summer of 2005.

The next episode occured in February 2006, when I joined some other fathers in running an informal baseball training clinic for our boys, who would be soon trying out for Minors in Woodinville Little League. I threw pitches in a batting cage for over an hour, after which my right arm felt like rubber ... after which my right elbow felt a great deal of familiar pain. This time, I thought I'd cut to the chase, and started with the cortisone shot. Unfortunately, this has no effect, so I tried physical therapy, but that had little effect, either. Finally, I went to see Becky Beveridge, of Feel the Knead Massage Therapy in Duvall, WA, who practices a rather unique style of massage she somewhat uneuphemistically calls "search and destroy" (as contrasted with the school of "fluff and buff" massage) - and in one session, the pain was gone.

The latest episode started in October 2006, shortly after joining Nokia Research Center Palo Alto. I suspect that the trigger was some combination of a new computer (IBM Thinkpad with a TrackPoint), a new physical workplace environment (Steelcase furniture with Herman Miller Aeron chair), and the inevitable stress that accompanies any significant life event, even one that is positive and welcome - actually, all of these were welcome developments, as I'd missed the ThinkPad + TrackPoint, Steelcase furniture and Aeron chairs I'd enjoyed at Accenture Technology Labs, as well as the opportunity to actually earn money while doing work that I love. Perhaps the stress of the long commute was a factor.

In any case, this time, I started with Becky, but despite three treatments, there was little change. I've been so engaged in my work during the weekdays, that it took me a long while to find - or make - the time to find a new doctor (now that I was spending weekdays in Palo Alto). I wasn't sure how to find a good doctor, but I'd walked by the Agile Physical Therapy office many a time on my way to / from lunch on California Avenue, and figured they would probably be able to recommend good doctors.

As it turns out, one of the doctors they recommended was Allan Mishra, an orthopedic surgeon at the Menlo Clinic who specializes in tendon disorders, and who is pioneering a new, relatively non-invasive, treatment for chronic tendonitis, using Platement Rich Plasma (PRP). The treatment involves withdrawing blood, separating the platelet rich plasma from the platelet poor plasma, and injecting the PRP into the injured area, which stimulates growth factors in the blood to help regenerate and repair the tissue in that area. More details can be seen in a 5-minute video that Dr. Mishra has posted on YouTube (!):

[He also has a blog (!!)]

The new treatment is not [yet?] FDA-approved, and I'll be paying for it out-of-pocket (and, unfortunately, we've never played the HSA game). However, the level of expected disability is lower than surgery, and the expected recovery time is shorter, and so I'll be able to type two-handed again sooner ... and avoid some of the other risks inherent in surgery (not that the PRP treatment is without attendant risks).

I'll be undergoing the procedure at noon today, and there will still be a period of at least a few weeks where I'll be avoiding or significantly reducing the use of my right arm, and so I'll likely be reducing the frequency and length of blog posts (and other forms of written or typed communication) for a while. Perhaps this will give me a chance to catch up on some reading...


Communities & Technologies Conference (C&T 2007): Socializing and Sociologizing on the Web

The 3rd International Conference on Communities and Technologies (C&T 2007) – or cct2007, on Flickr and Slideshare – was held at Michigan State University two weeks ago. [Update: proceedings are now online.] Among the high order bits for me were the growing trend in analyzing data from normal use of large-scale social networking services (vs. designing and testing much smaller but more specialized and heavily instrumented systems used in contrived tasks), the [at times] painful recognition that I’m not really a social scientist (and probably can’t even play one on TV), and further confirmation that Africa is the new black.

Marc Smith (Microsoft Research) opened the conference with a Thursday evening keynote, signaling (and providing evidence) that the Internet is a sociologist’s playground, reviewing some of the work that he and his colleagues at the Community Technologies group have done over the years. Marc claimed that the collection of thread-o-spheres (e.g., postings on Usenet) was [still] much larger than the blogosphere, which may be true (I did not write down the number of Usenet postings Marc provided), but his estimate of 2 million active blogs contrasts sharply with figures from Technorati in the most recent State of the Live Web report, which puts that number at 70 million, growing at 120,000 per day, and generating 1.5 million posts per day. He showed some cool visualizations of newsgroup participation developed in the Netscan project, which help to graphically differentiate among answer people, question people and flame warriors, and discussed aspects of the AURA project, which uses a Windows Mobile device to scan and digitally annotate objects in the physical world.

I always enjoy Marc’s talks, and, as usual, he contributed to the expansion of my Amazon wish list, recommending books I [now] want to read, such as The Evolution of Cooperation (Robert Axelrod), Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Actions (Elinor Ostrom); I feel like I’m making progress, though, in that I’m currently reading one of the books he recommended – The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Erving Goffman) – and  another – The Hidden Dimension (Edwin Hall) – was already on my list. Interestingly, when he asked how many in the audience had Windows Mobile phones – offering free lens attachments for them to use AURA – only a handful of people raised their hands … and I would estimate the proportion of Windows PCs (vs. Macs) I saw at the conference to be at most 25% (of course with all the fashion[able] signaling on, through and about iPhones, Microsoft clearly isn’t the only technology company whose dominance is being challenged by Apple).

Friday morning opened with another engaging keynote, this time by Rob "CmdrTaco" Malda and Jeff "Hemos" Bates, co-founders of Slashdot, on The Life, Times and Tribulations of Slashdot. Rob talks really fast, which reflects his programming style (I’m not a good programmer, but I’m a fast programmer … demonstrated, in part, by his complete rewrite of the system using mod_perl and MySQL – which he strongly prefers over Postgres – over a period of 10 days in 1999), and so he and Jeff covered a lot of ground (10 years) in a short period (1 hour). Their shared Midwest ethic (or Dutch frugality) was evident in the burn rate they described to prospective investors in 1999 – we need to eat and pay rent – and Rob’s gloat quote my day job is cooler than yours highlights important distinctions between the intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations that often differentiate entrepreneurs from employees. Other irreverent and notable quotes include all web statistics are lies, all the real work [in advertising] is done by people who have no idea what they’re doing, Twitter is the Rubik’s Cube of Web 2.0 and give people numbers and they turn it into a game (reflecting other observations about the pervasiveness of games). In the latter context, they noted that all users are playing to win – whether their intentions are positive or negative – so it’s important to know their motivations and resources, and figure out the best tools to channel their energies. Noting that tiny minorities (1-2%) can manipulate a large, heterogeneous group rather easily, they defended their form of representative democracy (via karma) as a way to avoid lowest common denomination, and argued that radical transparency is not always a Good Thing. In addition to learning about their insights and experiences, I also added a number of terms to my vocabulary - webhead diversification, master-master replication, Daddypants systems of moderation, crapflooding and karma whoring - and I will strive to eliminate the use of using "here" as anchor text in all future blog posts.

Nicole Elison presented "Deceptive Self-Presentation in Online Dating Profiles", [the paper in the online proceedings is titled "Small, Strategic and Frequent: The True Extent and Nature of Misrepresentation in Online Dating Profiles"] detailing an experiment in which participants in an online dating service were interviewed and measured to determine how well their cyberspace profiles matched their meatspace selves. Given that [heterosexual] women tend to prefer tall, wealthy men and [heterosexual] men tend to prefer young, slender women, they expected to find discrepancies that matched these idealized profiles. They did find some evidence for the hypothesized deception strategy of frequent, subtle and strategically placed lies, claiming that men were more likely to lie about their height and socioeconomic status, and women were more likely to lie about their weight (but not their age) … although a questioner from the audience claimed that people tend to end each day about one inch shorter than they start each day, and suggested that the threshold (0.5) applied for lying about height may be too narrow.

Meg Cramer (Northwestern University), in her talk on Everything in Moderation: The Effects of Adult Moderators in Online Youth Communities, noted that parents, teachers and other authorities often express concerns about youth at risk (of at least being un[der]productive) in the ways in which they spend their time online, and conducted experiments with the  Junior Summit online community to see how different levels of adult moderation (low, medium, high) affected participation in the community. She and her colleagues discovered that higher levels of adult moderation correlated with smaller numbers of generally more respectful messages. I suspect that adult moderation in a broader online community, such as MySpace, would have a similar effect … in part due to what I expect would be a mass exodus of the participants. Given Robert Epstein’s recent [controversial] book, The Case Against Adolescence, it would be interesting to investigate any differences in the effects of adult supervision on youth communities vs. adult mature non-youth other, less demographically-focused communities (which, given Marc Smith’s earlier talk, often include people who regularly engage in rather sophomoric behavior).

Moira Burke (CMU) investigated the influence of styles of expressions in her presentation on Introductions and Requests: Rhetorical Strategies that Elicit Response in Online Communities. In a series of studies, she and her colleagues found evidence that the use of I statements and asking [very specifically] for what you want were more likely to elicit responses to introductions and questions than other styles of expression in online communities (confirming the wisdom of communication strategies modeled in [my experience of] twelve-step programs and the Mankind Project). She has been applying these findings in the development of an application that will offer feedback to a prospective poster on the likelihood that a message being composed will receive a response; I think such a tool for pre-screening email messages could provide a huge boost to productivity in the workplace.

Scott Golder (HP Labs) and his colleagues looked at Rhythms of Social Interaction: Messaging within a Massive Online Network, analyzing usage patterns among 4.2 million Facebook users from 500 schools who exchanged 284 million messages and 709 million pokes over a 26 month period. Given the transitory nature of the college experience, they investigated both friendship and communication patterns among the users, or more specifically – noting the small overlap between Facebook friends and friends one might invite to one’s wedding – Facebook friending patterns and messaging patterns. Friending patterns seem to be close to the magic Dunbar number of 150 (median: 144; mean: 179), although friend whoring leads to some extreme cases, e.g., 11 users have more than 10,000 friends. Messaging within Facebook was less prevalent than friending, with a mean of 77 messages per user among the sample group. Only 15% of friends exchange messages through Facebook, although 90% of the overall message traffic occurs between friends, and very little of this traffic occurs in the mornings. This research adds to other quantitative studies done by the researchers at MSU and elsewhere; I hope that we will see some complementary qualitative studies to help us better understand the intentions and experiences of [small samples of] Facebook users … er, preferably, more active users than this user. [Oops, this may be a near violation of my vow not to use "here" as an anchor text...]

Anatoliy Gruzd (UIUC) presented "A Noun Phrase Analysis Tool for Mining Online Community Conversations", which, unlike many open source NLP toolkits (NLTK, LingPipe, MII NLP Toolkit or OpenNLP), does not require much knowledge of computational linguistics or programming expertise. After motivating the importance of developing automated mechanisms to make sense of the exponentially increasing amount of digital information – 70% of which will be user-generated, and most of it will be text-based (according to an IDC report) – Anatoliy demonstrated the Internet Community Text Analyzer tool to annotate sample texts on the web, to bootstrap a machine learning system, that can be used to extract representative excerpts (noun phrases) from other web documents. It’s been a long time since I’ve dabbled in natural language processing, machine learning and information extraction; but even then, noun phrase extraction was one of the few areas in which semi-automated systems could achieve high performance. It will be interesting to see whether / how such methods can help users deal with user-generated information overload.

Karsten Wolf (U. Bremen) explored highly, er, engaged players of World of Warcraft in his talk with the strategically question marked title "Communities of Practice in MMORPGs: An Entry Point into Addiction?" World of Warcraft currently has 8 million subscribers, nearly 10% (!) of whom are, on average, online at any given time. Analysis of 1102 responses to a survey of German players (93% of whom were men) revealed a variety of goals and aspirations for playing WoW. Those who aspire to community tend to find it, often while playing fewer hours per week then the hard core gamers, who tended to aspire to knowledge and/or reputation, and they also tend to find what they are looking for, but tend to play longer (and longer) and are [thus] more prone to develop symptoms of addiction (loss of control, withdrawal, [obsessive] mental focus, tolerance, negative consequences for work performance, negative consequences for social life) … they also have a lower tolerance for lurkers. He concluded that WoW appears to be designed to be played 40+ hours per week (I’m not sure whether he would claim it was designed for addiction (perhaps all games are)). Reflecting on some recent thoughts and discussions about passion and addiction, in which I started questioning whether passion is [always] a Good thing, I’m wondering whether addiction is always a Bad thing … and wondering how many Great things were accomplished without a level of engagement that might be viewed [by some] as an addiction.

The last event of the day was a panel on "Connected Lives: ICTs in Everyday Life" composed of Barry Wellman and some of his current and former students. It diverged considerably from my own conception of a panel, which typically includes a variety of people with divergent backgrounds and views. This group was looking at a variety of phenomena relating to online community, but there was not much divergence. I’ll just mention a bit about the people and the high order bits I took away. Bernie Hogan talked about Internet use differences between rural and urban populations (major difference is that rural folks use the Internet less for work); Anabel Quan-Haase explored  the differences between local and distant social ties among students (I remember wondering about how Skype has affected this); Helen Wang presented some results from the World Internet Project sponsored by the Center for Digital Future, concluding that using the Internet has virtually no negative effects on personal relationships (my wife may dispute that claim, given her husband’s addiction devotion to blogging, her daughter’s devotion to MySpace and her son’s dvotion to Runescape).

Saturday began with a presentation by Matthew Wong and Andrew Clement (University of Toronto) on Sharing Wireless Internet in Urban Neighbourhoods. Near the outset, the audience was asked who had ever opened up their laptop looking for an open wireless access point, hoping to connect to the Internet, and nearly everyone raised their hand. I was so eager to find out how many in the audience opened up their access points to others, I nearly shouted out the question myself, but I behaved (but still wonder how many hands would have stayed up). A short time later, I received partial satisfaction: a survey reported in the paper (and presentation) revealed that 65% of respondents who use other people’s signals (access points) without permission feel little guilt, whereas 55% of respondents feel at least a little angry about people using their signals without permission. I'm not sure exactly how to calculate the hypocrisy quotient in this data, but it would have been fun to find out how it compared to the hypocrisy quotient among the attendees of the conference. Fears over open WiFi  are widespread, at least in the press, and I think it would be interesting to investigate regional differences (the survey was of Toronto residents, and I was reminded of Michael Moore's film, Bowling for Columbine, in which he discovered that a large proportion of residents in Toronto do not lock their front doors).

[Judith Donath gave such an inspiring keynote in the next session that I'm going to post a separate blog entry about it. [Update: I've posted my notes on Judith's talk about signals, truth & design.]]

Anita Blanchard (UNC, Charlotte) presented "Technology and Community Behavior in Online Environments: A Work in Progress", in which she and her colleague are studying the correlation between technical features of four different online communities devoted to parenting (BabyCenter, CharlotteMommies, Phantom Scribbler and AskDrSears) and the participant behaviors and outcomes observed in those communities. She offered some engaging examples of the ways that participants present themselves in those communities - via usernames and/or signatures - and how those presentations of selves change over time, e.g., "X’s mommy" (substitute children's names for X), imakemilkwhatsyoursuperpower (my favorite), humanoven (pregnant woman), newmommy, mothersuperior, queenmother. I don't remember if they had reached any conclusions about technical features and behaviors and outcomes, but I wonder whether / how causality will be determined, i.e., do the behaviors and outcomes emerge because of the technical features, or do people choose communities with certain technical features because they desire certain behaviors and outcomes? In any case, I'll look forward to future reports on this work.

The last parallel paper session represented a dilemma for me: one track, on Social Networks, Communities, and Technologies, was very closely related to my current research; the other track, on Communities, Technologies and Bridging Social and Economic Divides, was more closely related to my inexplicable but inexhorably increasing interest in Africa ... and so [of course] I chose the latter.

Liezl Lambrecht Coetzee (University of Stellenbosch, South Africa) started the session with a spirited presentation on "World Wide Webs: Crossing the Digital Divide through Promotion of Public Access" [slides], in which she noted that the Web transcends territorial boundaries, but not economic and class boundaries: North America has 5% of the world's population, but 60% of the world's Internet users; Africa has 14% of the world's population, but only 3% of the world's Interet users (other gaps were also highlighted). Liezl reviewed the progress of the Cape Access Project, begun in July 2002, installing 36 computers in 6 public librarires, and expanded to all 98 libaries in 2006. The 100,000 users (restricted to 45 minutes / day quotas) use the computers to access information, create businesses, find jobs, communicate with relatives/friends, connect with global networks (especially women seeking out battered woman organizations) and provide public input through online surveys. After enumerating the 12 primary factors influencing real access (which involve political, economic and social dimensions at least as much, if not more than, technical issues), she ended with highlights from the Smart Cape Story competition; one of the stories, entitled Dreams are good things, included a segment where the storyteller reported I can now give expression to so much of what is within me. This was a goosebump moment for me, bringing to mind (and heart) some earlier ruminations on unfolding radiance, and helped me begin to unravel the mysterious pull Africa has on me. A Nokia phone was offered as a prize to the winner of the competition, providing yet another inkling that Nokia is a natural benefactor - and beneficiary - of helping to develop the developing world.

Venkata Ratnadeep Suri (Indiana University) talked about "Lateral Connectivity in Development Projects: Correcting the Long-Distance Bias", questioning the conventional wisdom - a metropolitan or long distance bias - that the best use of connectivity for rural environments is to link them with urban areas, and arguing instead for a Prioritization of the Lateral, in which rural autonomy can be preserved by pooling lateral resources to create regional commonwealth. Ratnadeep presented three case studies offering examples of lateral connectivity: Nemonet, connecting 7 rural schools in Missouri; Chancay-Huaral Agricultural Information Network, connecting 17 water management boards in Chancay Huaral Valley of Peru (also mentioned in a BBC report and Howard Rheingold's article on Farmers, Phones and Markets: Mobile Technology In Rural Development) and the Tanami Network, a video satellite telecom network connecting four remote Warlpiri Aborigine provinces to support daily activities such as rituals, ceremonies and classes.

Kylie Peppler (UCLA) shared experiences with High Tech Programmers in Low-income Communities: Creating a Computer Culture in a Community Technology Center, highlighting the use and impacts of the new media-rich programming language and environment, Scratch (that, synchronistically, my colleague Pertti Huuskonen had shown me just before I left for the conference). Scratch was adding a new dimension to promoting the goal of technology fluency as expressed by the National Research Council -  the ability to reformulate knowledge, to express oneself creatively and appropriately, and to produce and generate information (rather than simply to comprehend it)" - in a computer clubhouse in South Los Angeles. One of the most interesting aspects of the presentation (for me) was the notion of "mentor as muse": 36 liberal arts majors / education minors (27 female, 9 male) were assigned as mentors to the [younger] students in the clubhouse, and adopted the strategy of in which the roles of mentor and mentee shifted rather fluidly, with the clubhouse members mentoring the mentors, demonstrating the value of a listen and participate (vs. command and control) paradigm in learning (and life).

The conference concluded with yet another panel that didn't seem like a panel, offering a whirlwind tour of lots of projects on collecting and analyzing lots of data. Among the projects covered were the Internet Archive, SIDGrid, the National Science Foundation's Cyber-Enabled Discovery and Innovation (CDI) Initiative, the Structure of Population, Levels of Abundance, and Status of Humpbacks (SPLASH), the Genetic Association Information Network (GAIN), and perhaps others - I was already suffering from information (and inspiration) overload (and perhaps discontinuous partial inattention) at that point, and so my notes are rather sketchy. In any case, it looks like there will be plenty more data for socializing and sociologizing about at future Communities & Technologies conferences.

[John Kuner has also posted some interesting notes from the conference]