Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Writing in bits and pieces

I am currently trying out the writing software Scrivener, to see if it is a better system for a type of writing which might fit how I think. It has a lot of very seductive aspects, such as several good ways to visualise chapters, a lot of ways to introduce meta-data which can also be used to outline or summarize the work, different tags and connections. But after years of handling text as massive monumental pieces, like a scroll growing mainly in one direction, it is very hard to wrap my head around another writing paradigm.

This is of course why I am doing it.

I have always felt that  my thinking happens in leaps and bounds, that my thinking is like a puzzle where nothing fits at first. I have a piece here and a piece there, but not really the whole picture. Then I start seeing how it needs to be organised, and I keep moving it around - a piece of sky there, a bit of fence here, until I have it more or less filled into a whole picture. Using Scrivener I realised that while this may be the metaphor for my thought process, it is not the metaphor of my writing process.

When I write, I visualise not a puzzle, but a river. Everything flows into the force of the direction I am moving in. Little thoughts and ideas flow into the writing and get caught up and carried along, until it's grown wide and heavy, powerful and overwhelming. Sometimes it falls into the ocean in a dramatic waterfall, splendid and catching rainbows, sometimes it works its way painfully through a muddy delta, but on it struggles until its conclusion.

Those are two very different processes, and while it may be due to the force of habit, it feels like Word is the river, while Scrivener is the puzzle.

At the same time, writing is a puzzle even when it feels like a river. I pause and put in references, I search for books, I write in qoutes. I use systems to organise the reference process - if I managed to figure out how to do that more efficiently in Scrivener, I might be over a big hurdle. All of this makes me feel old, tired and lazy when I can't get the different technology to work for me. Still, my understanding of well designed technology is that it makes me feel smarter, not more stupid. The technology I adore eases my everyday life, it doesn't make it harder. It fits in smoothly, without abrasions, because if I have to fiddle around every time I use it, I can do the processes quicker and easier by hand. On a piece of paper. With some scissors and glue.

So, no conclusion, just frustration. I still have a lot of other systems to mess around with - the perfect one may be out there.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Waiting for the barbarians

I am writing on European culture, and it's still early in the process. Hence I am googling random phrases, looking for the words, the articles and the books that can push me further. And there it is, suddenly, a poem that grips me, makes me think and also laugh, at this Europe in which I live, this odd, ancient, and also new and raw place. I found it in the beginning of a book that is available as a PDF: David Morley and Kevin Robbins (1995): Spaces of identity; Global Media, Electronic Landscapes and Cultural Boundaries, London: Routledge.

It is a poem by the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy: Waiting for the babarians. A snippet from the poem:
Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

I think we are, all over Europe, still expecting the barbarians. However, we have forgotten who they are.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Non-hedonic what?

After having written a few articles on hedonism and pleasure in relation to games, I was interested when I found, in the latest issue of Journal of Communication, two articles discussing hedonism in relation to communication. While saying you are a hedonist today means saying you are focused only on indulging yourself, hedonism in the original meaning was not about indulgence, but about taking pleasure in your life. This pleasure could be had from many different sources, and one of the frequently discussed topics in antiquity, was if this pleasure was in itself a virtue to be strived for, or if it involved and possibly even was dependent on virtue. Plato, Socrates, Epicurus and Aristippus, among others, did not promote senseless indulgence, what they discussed was a life free of fear, and low on pain, and rather more filled with good things. If they came out on the less fear and pain, more peace and joy side, they argued this had been a good life. The rest was a matter of how to get there.

One of the discussions involved eudaimonia. Since this involved Aristotle and the stoics, both parties high on the virtue scale, we popularly tend to read this as the opposite of hedonism. This is also how Hofer, Allemand and Martin defines it:
From a process-based point of view, Oliver and Bartsch (2010) introduce the concept of appreciation, which is defined as "the perception of deeper meaning, the feeling of being moved, and the motivation to elaborate on thoughts and feelings inspired by the experience" (Oliver & Bartsch, 2010, p 76). This nonhedonic gratification is conceptualized... (Hofer, Martin & Allemand, 2014, p 62)
Hofer and friends here makes the leap from something being different from hedonism to something being not hedonism, and defines it by the absence of something, in this case, by defining hedonism as pleasure, as the absence of pleasure. This is not the Aristotelian nor the stoic definition of eudaimonia. Let us go to what we, for simplicity's sake, can assume is an authority, and check Encyclopædia Britannica: "eudaemonism, also spelled eudaimonism, or eudemonism,  in ethics, a self-realization theory that makes happiness or personal well-being the chief good for man." Encyclopædia Britannica's descriptions of both epicurean hedonism and utilitarian hedonism, they are obviously not such strong opponents that they exclude each other. Rather, eudaimonia is a way of experiencing pleasures that are closer to utilitarian hedonism than to epicurean hedonism, but which is still a pleasure-based ideal of the good life.

This also makes reasonable sense if we look at the definition of eudaimonic vs hedonic entertainment as used by Iliver and Raney, cited by Hofer et. al. Here eudaimonic entertainment is driven by a desire for insight and meaning, while hedonic entertainment is more purely for the pleasure. We are back to what appears to be related to the virtue-discussion of the old Greeks, where in this case insight and meaning is deemed more virtuous and hence nore in the line with the teachings of the stoics.

The error that got me started on all of this is the idea that eudaemonism and hedonism exclude each other to the point that the one becomes not hedonic. That is a leap too far. Just consider the viewing habits of those who watch so-called eudaimonic entertainment, that is entertainment that makes you think, where you learn something and understand something about yourself. There is personal growth and there is a sense of meaningfullness. Doesn't this bring pleasure? Even if the movie is sad, don't the viewers enjoy them? Personally, while I thoroughly enjoy silly movies, comedy and easy television series I can fall asleep to, I also love being challenged and forced to think and question. Actually, I will claim that when I take time to consider a very difficult concept, read a book that I need to read and reread to understand, and then perhaps even get so far as writing a scholarly article about it, I am extremely happy! I experience a very high level of pleasure, and feel like I have indulged indeed.

To me, that is a hedonistic experience. I am quite willing to claim it is also a eudaimonic experience. I am not, however, ready to say it's non-hedonic. For it to be non-hedonic, it would have to be pure pain. I occasionally do those things too, it's normally called "chores". But even those have an aspect of utilitarian hedonism, as me finishing my chores tend to lead to other good things, like the happiness of others (more hedons for the world!) and future happiness of myself. And so it goes, as a professor expressed it at a vaguely recollected lecture on philosophy more than 30 years ago: "If you ask why we do something for long enough, the final response is - because I want to be happy." And there it is.

By the way, the other article mentioning hedonism in that journal issue, the one about how narratives persuade, the suspension of disbelief and didactic vs hedonistic processing? That one made me very happy, and I will most likely be citing it in a hopefully soon to be seen article. Don't hold your breath though - academic publishing is very close to creating more dolors than hedons all around.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Facebook, grandparent generation edition

I am one of the early Facebook users, and over the years I have used it in a lot of different ways. First, to stalk the students who invited me and discuss with other scholars how to use it as teachers, later - and for a very long time - to follow those other scholars and catch their news and their links, a mix of playful and serious, like a lunch table at a huge, international university.

Over the last year this has changed though. Facebook has seen a shift, and my personal past is suddenly also there. It started very nicely and casually: people I had missed showed up, we connected on Facebook, and it was just great. Then this group started to play games - innocent games, but surprisingly emotional. One of them was called "you know you are from XXX if..." - and then they started posting things only people from our part of the world, at a specific time, would know. It was surprising how painful that game turned out to be. Pictures of people and places once so important to me opened something I never though was so sensitive. I started to remember how deeply unhappy the girl who walked those streets was. Oh, I remember laughter and friends and fun - that was how I got into that circle of conversations in the first place. But underneath that was fear, loneliness and grief, loss and impotent anger. The Norwegian group Dum-Dum boys says it better than me:
GÅR MED EN HÅND
I HVER SIN LOMME
GATENE HER HAR VÆRT LENGRE
EN AV SVINGENE ER DEN SISTE

NABOLAGET HER ER FULLT AV SKRØMT
HAR ALDRI FLYTTA JEG HAR RØMT
NABOLAGET HER ER FULLT AV SKRØMT
HAR ALDRI FLYTTA JEG HAR RØMT
JEG VAR EN ANNEN DEN GANG DA
SLANG HEKK OG HAGELANGS
To translate: Walking with a hand/ in each pocket/ the streets here have been longer/ one of the turns is the last one. // This neighbourhood is full of ghosts/ have never moved I escaped/ this neighbourhood is full of ghosts/ have never moved I escaped/ I was another way back then/ slinking along the hedges and gardens.

And now I find myself carefully wetting each invitation. Do I want more of that? How do I deal with  those who think of me as a person they can easily approach, a friend lost to them, while to me they are part of a landscape of ghosts? Also, it's not that simple, I do long for some of those connections, to keep in touch with a past which is both slipping away and coming closer. And some of those people; I know that my presence on their feeds, that very tentative connection, is extremely important to them. While I may never be able to be what they would like me to be - a loving friend, a warm presence in their lives - I can give them this, a little sliver of closeness through digital media. Is it that much to ask?

I am starting to see how the popularity of Facebook may be its end. There is a point too close to the bone for me. The more people who connect with their ghosts, the more people reach that point. If I am suddenly absent from Facebook, that is what happened. I was eaten by the ghosts - or escaped, again.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

PhD course at ITU: Citizenship in the Digital Republic 2014 - call

Citizenship in the Digital Republic 2014:
Mundane counter publics in the digital age

March 12-14, 2014, at the IT University of Copenhagen

Lecturers: Prof. Klaus Bruhn Jensen, Copenhagen University; Prof. Peter Dahlgren, Lund University, Prof. Maria Bakardjieva, University of Calgary, Associate Prof. Bjarki Valtysson, Copenhagen University; Associate Prof. Lisbeth Klastrup, IT University of Copenhagen; Assistant Prof. Jun Liu, Copenhagen University; Christina Neumayer, Postdoctoral Fellow, IT University of Copenhagen.

Organiser(s): Christina Neumayer, Maria Bakardjieva

Date(s) of the course: March 12-14, 2014

Course description:
This course is the second edition of the ‘Citizenship in the Digital Republic’ course with a focus on ‘Mundane counter-publics in the digital age’. Citizenship, broadly defined, includes any form of democratic participation in social systems – political, technological and expert. The digital republic, for its part, is understood as a political community where the governance of the people is performed by creative utilization of communication networks. How is such governance realized and how can it advance participatory democracy? What opportunities for involvement do citizens have in a densely mediated polis? Can technological development itself be democratically steered? The goal of the course is to critically explore the new forms of democratic participation that the pervasive presence of digital media in contemporary societies affords and requires. The course aims at attracting and giving a forum to students whose interests focus on participatory forms of design, political and civic engagement, counter-publics and social movements, technological politics, regulation and education. The themes comprising the course take up the concept of citizenship and counter-publics in four distinct contexts:

first theme: counter publics in the digital age
second theme: civic activism, participation, and digital media
third theme: mundane citizenship, digital media, and everyday life
fourth theme: co-creation and participation in policy development and technology design

Counter publics in the digital age
The focus of the first theme is on counter publics in a society characterized by the thorough penetration of digital information and communication technologies (ICTs). Counter publics refer to the individuals or groups marginalized or excluded from the mainstream public sphere who contest, negotiate, and struggle against the hegemonic discourse, form spaces of political opposition, or establish alternative forms of community and identity. With the growing presence of digital technologies in all areas of social life, the internet, mobile phones, and social media are transforming the way people express themselves, interact with each other, engage or form communities, and perceive the world. How are digital communication technologies generating and facilitating opportunities that allow for the establishment of alternative political and cultural identities and communities that define themselves in opposition to established norms? What are the characteristics of the counter-publics in the digital age and how do they differ from those of the past?

Civic activism, participation, and digital media
The second theme will look at the uptake and appropriation of digital media technologies for the purposes of civic action and political participation. It will review the advances made by social movements and civic activists in rallying support and making an impact on political life and the political establishment through the creative use of digital media. The new civic cultures emerging from these processes and their relation to digital technologies and uses will be examined. This theme includes notions of media practices, media-based agency, web journalism and civic cosmopolitanism, which are according to Dahlgren essential elements of civic cultures in the digital age.

Mundane citizenship, digital media, and everyday life
The third theme will be centred on the notion of ‘mundane citizenship’ and ‘mundane counter-publics’. So far a relatively large amount of research is devoted exclusively to use of new media in particular moments of alternative or antagonistic mobilization, failing to associate these specific uses with a larger living context—the mundane, everyday experiences of new media users. In particular, current approaches largely neglect the power dynamics in the mundane use of new media technologies. Consequently, the heavy emphasis on the role of new media in specific eruptions of contentious politics overlooks the cumulative changes in civic agency associated with the mundane use of new media. Accounts narrowly focused on specific events fail to capture, reflect, and assess the political potential embedded in the new practices of civic engagement furnished by new media (e.g., "subactivism") that are submerged in everyday life.

Co-creation and participation in policy development and technology design
The fourth theme takes the notion of citizenship to the terrain of cultural and educational institutions, and cultural practices. It discusses the liberating and repressive forces at play in the way users co-produce culture online both within and outside formal cultural spheres. Co-creation and participation became buzzwords in policy development, technology design and use of digital media, in particular the so-called ‘social web’. Despite the creative potential and the possibility for engagement, a critical perspective on these developments also needs to take unintended consequences such as privacy issues, surveillance and limitations for the development of counter-publics and cultural practices into account.

By looking beyond “eye-grabbing” events (e.g., revolutionary moments), this course probes into the political implication of mundane use of new media in people’s everyday life. Addressing mundane use of new media in people’s everyday experience will help us to understand the cumulative effects of new media and their gradual evolution, but also shed light on the deeper impact of digital communication technologies on social and political changes both today and in the years to come.

How to sign up:
Sign up by sending an e-mail to Christina Neumayer (chne[at]itu.dk).
All students must submit with their application to the course a short abstract of their work as it relates to the course (not more than 500 words). Applications should be submitted by January 27, 2014. Enrolment is limited to 20 participants.

Please find more information about ECTS, etc. here: https://learnit2.itu.dk/course/view.php?id=1974436
and at the PhD school website.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Growing older

I am collecting links, quotes and references for a presentation in Leusden next week. Together with my scientific assistant I am off to the conference Games of Late Modernity, where we - or he mainly - will present a co-written presentation on play with identity. Now the games and play part - including the part about Huizinga - I am fairly confident about, but modernity isn't exactly what I have been spending the last 30 years on... I thought.

But here I am, letting myself sink into Giddens and Bauman, only to discover how familiar this is. No, I am still not an expert, and if I try to claim that the real modernity geeks will shoot me down like a sitting duck. But the more I read the more I realise how much of this development of paradigms I have lived. The seperation of space and time, disembedding and reflexivity - I have seen it happen, and the everyday reading, watching, writing, in general, living with eyes and ears open has led me to an understanding which is almost more like lived time - the argument becomes embedded in my lived experience, not disembedded and learned as mediated experience.

Or is it?

It is refreshing to sit and ponder the ambivalence of experience, and feel the contradictions like an ache in my bones, like the wrinkles of my skin. I feel both ancient (I have to be, in order to feel I have lived modernity), and surprisingly young (I feel transported back to the early eighties, as I try to figure out where I lost All that is solid melts into air. And the only reason I remember that phrase is because it is so poetic.)

Yes, I know, I write as if I am 80 years old. But the truth is that I feel like I am at a perfect age: old enough that I have decades of experience as a thinking, analysing being to draw on when I need to contextualise new knowledge, young enough to have energy, strength and an immediacy of presence needed to learn new things. At this point in life, growing older is still a good thing. At least as long as you have a really good hairdresser, and don't worry too much about having to wear glasses.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Happiness is an idle game

A while ago, I got a request from a journalist. I want to thank him, because he pointed me to something new and interesting, even if I didn't have a good answer to him. What he did was to point me to what so far is called the "Idle game" movement, represented mainly by Cookie Clicker, A Dark Room and Candy Box.

So much for that day - it turned out jet-lag and what I rather want to call "slow reveal" games are a perfect combination. I spent the day clicking back and forth between A Dark Room which soon became a firelit room, Cookie Clicker and Candy Box, revelling in a play experience I didn't know I had missed.

My favourite was A Dark Room, which is probably the reason why I prefer "slow reveal" to "idle". A Dark Room doesn't really let you idle. I have to open that pane regularly to click to gather wood and meat, check if my villagers are sick, build stuff and later go on quests. It has a certain "idle" quality in that once I have clicked a few boxes, I have to wait until resources fill up again, and if I die while questing, I have to wait until I can quest again. But it is not idle in the manner of Cookie Clicker and Candy Box. Right now I am waiting for 379,562,151,938,677 cookies, so I can buy another antimatter converter and make more cookies. I am aiming for 100 antimatter condensers (for now), and the main work I have to do is to wait. To give you an example, while writing the paragraph above, I built a house, three traps and a workshop in A Dark Room, I ate 647 candies in Candy Box (in one click), and waited through another few billions of cookies in Cookie Clicker.

So what are these games? My first immediate thought was Ian Bogost's infamous Cow Clicker. Cow Clicker was designed as a casual game parody, and was quite good at it. So good actually, that people refused to give it up. When Bogost took the cows out of the game, people clicked on the empty box, and wrote about the emptiness of a life without the mooing sound of the virtual cows in the non-game. (Btw - there I hit 379 562 billion and something, and could buy another antimatter condenser.) Like Cow Clicker all the games are highly playful and ironic, and they play with genres as well as with their own progress: layers of meta on top of actual, functional game engines.

Unlike Cow Clicker, they play with much more than one genre. All games are to a certain degree resource allocation games. Cookie clicker is definitely one, where the main goal of the game is to gain resources. It is also about gamification, as what you do is wait for the resources to build up, gain achievements and register progress. There is no risk - even the wrinklers, the monsters that eat at the cookie world, don't really delay the progress that much. I can miss clicking on the occasional golden cookie, but - well - perhaps it's me, but that doesn't feel all that risky.

Candy Box has more action. The candy box part at the beginning feels like Cookie Clicker in that it just allows a very few acts, but in this case, you don't have to click. All you need to do is wait, and while you wait you gain candies. Then you eat some or throw some away or save some, and you wait some more. After a lot of waiting (we see where the "idle" comes from), it's possible to play, and slowly, as you gain more and more resources (candy and lollipops), you can start exploring. This is where the game changes to a more regular old-fashioned adventure, with action! Candies can be used to by gear and upgrades, and by and by you can start outfitting your little avatar and go on adventures all the way to hell. This game even lets you learn how to craft, and crafting is a vital part of making it through the levels.

A Dark Room is my favourite though, with it's almost poetic minimalist beginning, and the explorations into a world that is slowly revealed to the player. This too includes a lot of waiting, but now there is a risk to waiting. My first settlers were deeply troubled by raids, and their traps were constantly ruined, forcing me to rebuild over and over again, for instance. The exploration part of the game was a little slow-reveal game within, as the map was totally unexplored until I started to walk into it - and so I died and died and died again. The game had four phases, one which was just waking up and waiting, one was allocating the initial resources, one was exploring the landscape, and then there is the space flight.

Slow reveal games are perhaps the essence of adventure games, at least Candy Box and A Dark Room. At the same time they are extremely casual, as we don't have to go out and actually do that much of the resource allocation work. No killing of chickens to gather enough feathers for the arrows, no emptying the secret hiding places of every inhabitant in the village for coins. All you need to do is wait, let it run, chck once in a while, when you need to pause anyway, to see how the game progresses. If you're smart, you make a little routine out of it - stretch, check game, back to work. Unlike smoking, it's a casual habit that lets you get out of a rut, take two minutes to reset, without giving you and your environments lung cancer.

And they are not trying to make you spend a lot of money on them. Unlike games like Candy Crush (which I have been playing for a few months now, hardcore mode, which for me means not buying any help), you can just play. The game isn't trying to trick you into anything. It is incredibly liberating after all those casual games on Facebook, where the genius of a small horde of graphic designers is dedicated to making you lust for those micro-transactions.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Work or Play?

Yesterday I caught fractions of an ignite talk here at IR 14.0 in Denver. I say fractions, because ignite talks in English are too quick for me. No matter how much I read, write, speak and listen in English, it is still a second language. Now, give it to me in Norwegian, and I'll be fine, I might even try the genre myself, but...

Anyway, that was a digression. Back to the topic. The talk was given by Jaime Banks (University of Toronto), and was called "Pixel-assassination: Protecting work and play in internet research". So, what did I catch of the stream of words with pictures? She was concerned with how, studying games, her fun became work, and she mixed the two. Mainly, she felt her fun was suffering because she was studying it, and it became work. So she claimed we need to think about how to protect our fun. Then, this morning, colleague Jonas Linderoth's Facebook stream contained a picture of 7 different digital games, with the comment "work or play? That's the question."

Game scholars are not the first with this problem. It has been an issue for literature studies for instance, for ever. Who ruined the humanities, writer Lee Siegel asks in the Wall Street Journal:

But once in the college classroom, this precious, alternate life inside me got thrown back into that dimension of my existence that vexed or bored me. Homer, Chekhov and Yeats were reduced to right and wrong answers, clear-cut themes, a welter of clever and more clever interpretations. Books that transformed the facts were taught like science and social science and themselves reduced to mere facts. Novels, poems and plays that had been fonts of empathy, and incitements to curiosity, were now occasions of drudgery and toil.
And still, there are literature professors who love their jobs, and still love literature. Probably even the very professors who did not manage to make the study of it come alive for Lee Siegel. Loving the study doesn't automatically mean you're a great teacher. But it is obviously a problem that by studying your passion can kill your passion.

I don't know how to fix that though, and I don't think my method will work.

After almost 20 years of studying games, I have to admit this problem stumps me, mainly because I love my job as much as I love playing games. Possibly more. Several of my game adventures are just work, and the most fun part of them is the work part. Now that isn't as horrible as it sounds, because that moment when I start seeing how things connect, how a game unravels or a social platform function, how a text is put together and theory unfolds and connects the dots - it feels better than almost anything. I have ignored family, food, health, kittens and sunsets for that sense of being in the flow, in the rush of analysing and understanding. Sadly it's a rush I have to work very, very hard to reach. I have play, to read, to interview, to observe, to discuss and then read a bit more to reach it, to touch that point within when it feels like my brain is using all available capacity on this one thing.

So - ehh - no, I don't find it a problem that my fun suffers for my work. As a matter of fact, my challenge is to find a past-time that is as fun as my work, something which is sufficiently challenging that I don't get depressed from not working. Television puts me to sleep. I have no musical talent. Crafts like knitting works if I can do other things at the same time, so knitting, watching television, chatting with family and analysing the plot of what ever we are watching in a jam of textual analysis (yeah, we do that in our family, media critique is social literacy when we have a cozy evening watching television. And don't ever watch the news with us. You'll hear more about politics, local and global, than you might want to know.). I guess I am the wife and mother of hopeless nerds.

(Now that I read the previous passage again, it looks like I am bragging about our brains. I do want to point out though, that the analysis and the discussions aren't always particularly good. They are often banal and common-place, and loaded with assumptions only a certain methodological rigour and easy access to Google can save us from.)

This way I can take the work-mode into everything. It may make me a horribly boring person for non-digital-media-researchers. But it makes me feel alive. I can sit on top of a mountain, exhausted by the climb, admiring the view, and there I can think about the connectedness of modern man. And no, it doesn't keep me from experiencing the moment, it doesn't disconnect me from the present. Quite the opposite, it connects me to all that I am, body and mind, social and professional. Studying what I love, and loving the study, I feel alive.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Life as a female academic

I just found this list, directed at male academics who want to promote equality in the workplace: Don't be that dude. It's a blogpost on Tenure, she wrote, written by Acclimatrix.

I agree that there's a lot men can do in order to make environments more welcoming for women. I spent 19 years in a male-dominated workplace, and came away from it with very few friends and not a lot of self-respect. I loved a lot of the guys there, but the general environment needed some serious tweaking to make men and women just humans together, rather than humans and women. And I think that is what lists like the one in "Don't be that dude" are supposed to achieve.

I would however feel a lot less human in a culture that followed that list slavishly. Also, the list is extremely culture-biased in what it asks for and what it doesn't ask for. Let's read it from my point of view, a female associate professor in a male-dominated field in Scandinavia:

1: Titles - we don't use them much. It's useful when we need the ethos in particular contexts, but otherwise it's not a done thing. Equality is more important than hierarchy in everyday situations. This also means that mrs, miss, ma'm and all those other little titles are absent too. I like that a lot better than suddenly being "professor Mortensen" or "Dr. Mortensen". I am simply Torill Mortensen, or Torill, and that is enough.

2: If nobody commented on my appearance when I put in an effort, I'd be really unhappy about it! And yes, we comment on it when the guys dress up too, and I get compliments from other women, and give them to women and men. It's recognition for an effort, and I think it's perfectly appropriate.

3, 4 and 5 are important in this culture too. I do appreciate how difficult 4 can be though, when cracking jokes and not watching every word, so in certain settings it's not such a bad thing. It's all about timing though, as manners and humour so often is.

6, 7, 8, 9 - this is where being Scandinavian kicks in. I will happily let men open doors for me, partly because a lot of doors are bloody heavy (getting into and out of the IT department is a struggle, every time!), and partly because I just like a little bit of role-playing with my everyday life. I will also gladly let fit young men carry crates, or macho men who rebuild cars in their spare time have a go at that tire. But the men I hang out with are good at thinking of gifts for occasions, they take their own notes, and they run off to fetch their kids, so they have to run from meetings. I think the last of that particular brand of everyday inequality in Scandinavian Academia is there because there are still more single mothers than single fathers. This means that no matter how hard the guys work at equality, there will always be more women in Academia who are tied to the routines of families than men.

10, see 3 and 5.

11 - benevolent sexism. This explains why the author feels that 2 is a problem. I am still not quite there though. I find that the problem with benevolent sexism isn't that we talk about women like that (great cook AND great scientist), but that we don't talk about men like that. Women are rewarded for having a good life/work balance, men are not. We don't see it as a quality for men to be considerate of their families while also maintaining healthy careers. Yes, women have to work twice as hard as men for the same recognition, partly because we are expected to have this life/work balance, or else! But men who have it may be complimented on doing dishes (what a good guy you are...), but it's not very acceptable when they consistently leave meetings early, avoid overtime or scale back to 80% workweeks because they need to spend more time with the family. It may harm female careers, but I suspect it hurts men more. So rather than less benevolent sexism, I am in favour of more benevolence all around. Give credit where credit is due, and I know several guys who should have "great cook and great dad" in their obituaries.

I am editing point 11 to put in the "top five regrets" from Bronnie Ware's book on the regrets of the dying. It's cold comfort to know that in the end, what people regret not doing are the things women are supposed to do, but it may teach us to read obituaries differently. At the point in life when they become relevant, the good obituary will talk of a person who did not worry about what people expected of them, worked less, spent more time with their friends, expressed their feelings and allowed themselves to be happy.

12 - mansplaining. In Norway we just call those "hersketeknikker" and cite the scholar Berit Ås, who studied the master supression techniques of Ingjald Nissen and popularised them. Read up on it. It's brilliant, and you don't need to use that silly and imprecise word again. 13 and 14 falls under this.

15 to 18 are mainly calls to action, and not a problem. It's also important. Now that gender equality is less about survival and more about quality of life, it may be a good idea to consider that there's more to life than a career. Perhaps that "more" isn't the same "more" for you as for your female colleague, but working towards a system that gives everybody more liberty in how they live their lives is not a bad thing.

19, see 12.

20 - a cookie? But of course you'll have a cookie at the end of this! You may even know how to bake it yourself! How does the saying go - "give a man a cookie, and he has something with his coffee, teach a man to bake, and he will redesign the kitchen to do it more, better and faster." So in the end, you can have all the cookies you like, and you can offer cookies to others. And that's what this is all about. More cookies to go around, for all of us.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Pull the plug

Recently, there's a rash of books giving advice on how to achieve the good life. The authors regularly appear on radio, talking about their books. I am still not reading them, but since I have spent a lot of this summer driving around in Scandinavia, I can't avoid hearing all about it.

They all talk about how the key to the good life is to unplug. Turn off the smart-phone, stop logging on to Facebook, keep from immersing yourself in technology, leave the lap-top at home and let the Ipad battery run low. Listening to them, the worst thing you can do is to use modern technology.

This is all very up-to-date, and in a way, it feels right. Going offline to most of us means putting away the day-to-day demands of the regular routine. Avoiding routine is a way to discover new things about ourselves, it helps us gain new experiences, and even think some new thoughts. It looks like there is a strong causal relationship between unplugging and new experiences.

I claim this is a very superficial connection, and that what connection there is relies on routine, not on technology. This kind of self-help books are much older than technology. It's all about paying attention to the moment, rather than acting from habit. There are whole religions built around this:
  • Zen is more of an attitude than a belief.
  • Zen is the peace that comes from being one with an entity other than yourself.
  • Zen means being aware of your oneness with the world and everything in it.
  • Zen means living in the present and experiencing reality fully.
  • Zen means being free of the distractions and illusory conflicts
We have always known that in order to relax and be at peace, we need to let go of the day-to-day concerns that keep nagging us, all the little things we don't master, all the demands we can't meet and desires we can't satisfy. That didn't enter into human lives with Facebook. This means that unplugging won't make us instantly happy, either. I do however believe that in order to achieve some kind of happiness, we need to cherish moments of no intrusion from routine demands, and yes, sometimes that is easier if you don't check Facebook.

Personally, I find a lot of those free moments of no other intrusion when I am very engaged with technology, and I achieve a sense of being free of distractions and illusory conflict that way. But I don't think anybody will buy a book that says: "Stop worrying about how to achieve inner balance, and start enjoying the moments when you do." First, it's a very short book. Next, it doesn't give people an easy, physical way to feel they are doing it right. Third, your Facebook status won't show that you haven't posted in a week. You will just have to blog about it if you want people to know how happily unconcerned you are.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

D or F?

Some time ago, I assessed a master's thesis at a Norwegian university (I do so regularly, at different universities). It was a half-assed piece of work, and I gave it a low mark, as I should. This didn't happen without discussion or resistance; the other assessor disagreed initially. We went through the thesis very thoroughly, and also read the descriptions of the use of the different grades in the Norwegian system. At the end we agreed that the grade was the only possible one, from the content and the descriptions. The internal assessor had hoped for a better grade for the student, but that's why we use external assessors in this system: in order to have qualified, unbiased readings.

In this process, the other assessor said something that stuck with me. "But when they apply abroad, they look at this grade, and our students don't have a chance, because in the US, the grades are used differently." The implication was that this paper would have gotten a much better grade in the US. Now, I can't grade according to a hypothetical standard in another country, so the argument didn't change anything. But it triggered a curiosity about the performance of American students vs Norwegian, because one of my impressions is that in the US, there is a much higher general failure rate. In Norway, if you start an education, you may not always excel, but you have a very high chance of finishing. My impression was that in the higher education in the US, the drop-out rate is much higher.

Today I read about the failure rate in MOOC - Massive Online Open Courses - in California, or more precisely, San José. Now, comparing regular teaching with MOOCs is unfair. Any teacher with a tad of experience knows the difference between seeing the students face to face and writing them. However, a sentence in the article caught my attention:
Gov. Jerry Brown had lauded the goals of the program to allow students to graduate faster and reduce their debt loads at a time when only 16 percent of California State students graduate in four years.
 16%

Almost all Norwegian students are state students. The education is free. How many graduate in four years? From SSB, the state-owned statistics bureau (which, by the way, has been noted as being more critical of the educational system than the private agency paid to assess it.):
Av de om lag 30 600 studentene som startet på bachelorutdanning for første gang i 2006, fullførte 45 prosent innen tre år. Etter ytterligere to år hadde 62 prosent fullført. Sammenlignet med studentene som startet i 2005, har andelen som fullførte innen fem år økt med 4 prosentpoeng. I løpet av denne femårsperioden var det 23 prosent som avbrøt studiet. 9 prosent av disse avbrøt etter første året. Bachelorutdanningen i økonomiske og administrative fag hadde høyest andel av studenter som avbrøt i løpet av fem år, hele 33 prosent.

45% have finished in three years. In five years, 62% have finished. 23% have quit, and didn't finish over five years. We don't know if they resumed/will resume their education later. Now, discussing which universities and colleges we should compare our universities with is a bit useless. Norway doesn't have the private Ivy-league schools, but we have a pretty solid state-run educational system. We can't really compare either way, but we do tend to compare our system with the Ivy-league schools, as these are the goal for many of our students who go abroad. But who are the Ivy-league students? They are the children of the educated and well-off, and what does statistics tell us about academic success and social background?

If we look at the figure in the article from SSB, it's pretty clear. Children of parents with higher education finish more higher education. Children of parents with no education finish less. (Considering that none of my parents finished high-school, I am an anomaly according to this statistic: a person from my background should not have a doctorate. Yes, I thank the Norwegian welfare state and the miracle of our educational system regularly.) We compare a system which encompasses students from all backgrounds, with a system which exclusively caters to those with the best chances. We expect our students to compete with the very top of the heap of an extremely competitive system, where failure and dropping out is more common than completing an education.

There's no real conclusion to this. I am not saying which of these two systems is the better (although, see above, I know where my loyalty lies.) What I am saying is: They can't really be compared. The Norwegian educational system needs some serious tweaking, I agree. But I don't feel bad about giving a low grade to a student who doesn't perform well. They are still miles ahead of the large numbers of US students who do not get a grade at all. If we are to compare our students with the American ones, we need to compare both ends. And when it comes to making sure the population is educated, we perform very well indeed.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Grandmother in the age of the internet

I have been a grandmother for more than 6 months. The girl in question is very much the child of a modern family: the daughter of my daughter's wife, legally my daughter's daughter, emotionally, socially and in every possible way a child of this family. She smiles like my daughter, looks like my daughter-in-law, and explores the world like her unique self.

Sadly, she's in Bergen and I am in Copenhagen. That's however nothing new. My kids were born and lived in Bergen, while their grandparents lived in Ålesund and Oslo, a similar distance and a much longer travel time. I fly to Bergen for 400,- nkk and in 90 minutes. We used to pay what felt like a lot more while we had a lot less, to spend a night either on a train or on the coastal steamer, to get from Bergen in the days when we travelled with kids.

The real difference is in the day to day communication. My daughter keeps skyping us when she wants company - and we keep insisting that she skypes us. Or use google hang-out, or what ever other technology we have available. Sometimes it's my husband from one place, my daughter with her family, and me. And occasionally the uncle, our son, looking in from a fourth location. And then we chat, wave at each other, admire recent tricks and I sing, very badly, to the admiring audience who is my daughter's daughter. Internet, be happy you don't have to be part of those hang-outs.

The closest thing in the eighties was long and expensive phone-calls. The cost was a constant drain on a student economy, and the grandparents weren't all that interested in paying their end of it, so it would happen perhaps once a month. Then there would be the occasional letter. These were mainly in order to send pictures back and forth, and those were really expensive: film, process and copied, so there would be enough pictures for both set of grandparents, and then a hand-written letter in there. Yes, so much more exclusive and so much more labour-intensive, if you want to feel that communication matters. But also so rare, and so formal.

Now, I can watch that darling baby, as she listens to out-of-tune scales sung to her, and she tries to respond. It's almost enough to make me go pick up a little flute, to see her face when I play to her. It's a little marvel, and I get to enjoy it instantly. But it doesn't end there. My daughter and daughter-in-law got themselves a pretty good digital camera, and they use it frequently for little movies and a lot of pictures, posted to their pass-word protected weblog. I check my email only slightly more often. I get to see her grow, sometimes day to day, always once or twice a week, and I can comment, and then I get comments on the comments. All my colleagues know this, because it offers another benefit: I am ruthlessing making them admire the day-to-day development of this miracle of normal extraordinarity which is a grand-child.

I am still not sure if she actually responds to the person on the screen as a human being, or just odd sounds and images, but when I visit, she isn't afraid. It may be because I sound so much like my daughter, or she may actually get it - I am something familiar and non-threatening. It certainly makes me feel very close to them, to my children, their friends and loved ones, and now this little miracle of a girl. Not to mention the cat. It isn't the internet without a cat.

Of course, a lot of other things have changed too, from our parents' time to us. We are generally healthier and more fit. We have more education, and expect to be able to keep learning new things all the time. Education never ends these days, and communication technology changes so quickly, a constant stream of something new is the stable normality. Not all of the changes are necessarily to the better. It's important to learn to protect ourselves from the anxiety born of potentially constant connection. But when I log on to the little darling's blog and see a new picture of her crawling, chasing the tail of their cat, information technology is nothing but wonderful. I am a grandmother in the age of the Internet, and I love it.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

More on pink and princesses

If you have read my blog a bit, you know how I feel about hyperfeminisation, particularly when it happens to little girls. The big Lego-debate can stand in for every time I have said: Feminine is OK, but give the poor girls more than one option!

So, imagine my interest when Merida, from Brave, has become a Disney Princess. She is already part of the Disney brand, as Brave is a coproduction between Disney and Pixar. Merida is the ultimate tomboy, the girl who resists with everything she has when her mother tries to make her a copy of herself. In the fight for power between the two women, their real love for each other is revealed, and turned into mutual respect. The story is grand, funny, beautiful and contains some of the best descriptions of feminine strength that I have seen targeted at children - both female dignity, motherly love, and strong-willed passion and dedication. Loving Merida and her mother doesn't mean loving men, it means loving the strength of women. And so taking her into a Disney universe where femininity so far means such things as sleeping until the Prince wakes you up, finding love together with the right shoe or giving up your voice for love was a bold and interesting move.

However not everybody likes the make-over she had to go through in order to fit in. Not that Merida ever wanted to fit in. That was what the whole film was about, Disney! Don't take away her bow and arrow!!!

The scariest readings are the comment fields, though. It looks like asking that one princess out of eleven remains a normal teen-ager and not a hypersexualised wet dream is a frontal attack on femininity and masculinity, simultaneously. That aggression just underlines the desperate need for more Meridas, girls willing to fight for the right to not conform to restrictive norms. You go, Merida. As for me, I aim to become a skinwalker, to show off how my inner bear wakes up when somebody threaten the freedom and safety of my kids.

Teacher evaluations - can we learn from them?

A quick Facebook comment from a fellow professor made a very good point in a permanently ongoing discussion among teachers: can we learn from student evaluations? His point was that he could very easily create a course that would make the students happy and ensure good evaluations, but he didn't feel it would be an ethical act. Why? Because he would not act according to his standards of good teaching, but according to the format for the evaluations used at his University.

One of the discussants in that thread pointed out that high scores in evaluations depend on managing expectations. If my friend had made a standard course, according to the expectations of the students, the score would quite likely have been very high. A standard course makes students feel safe, it helps them deal with the insecurity of being in a learning process. For good reasons students abhor insecurity. They know they will be graded according to their performance, so they need to minimize the risk for bad grades. And so they have learned strategies for this, by learning how to score well on certain standard tests, how to learn well in certain environments, and how to study by using certain tools. When they are asked to use new tools, they react very negatively, and try to control the situation by managing our expectations. And their main tool for managing our expectations is the evaluation: if we are bad teachers, them failing will be our fault, not theirs.

I find that students who are stressed and afraid give much worse evaluations than students who feel reasonably secure. Also, students who have a wide range of experiences, and know that they can learn in very different environments, give much better evaluations when they have to relate to something new, than students who have only experienced a narrow range of teaching/learning styles. Whether or not the students are used to doing well, if they can expect to do well, or if they eventually do well doesn't matter, it's their experience of stress at the moment which influences the evaluation they give the teacher.

One term I taught the same course in three different classes. That gave me three different evaluations to read. One class was extremely negative in their evaluation, and several of the comments were pure character assassination of me and the other teachers (there were three of us). One class was critical, but not personal, and while they didn't all love the course, they didn't set out to trash the professors either. One class loved the course, loved the topics, and loved the teachers. All three classes had received the exact same lectures by the exact same teachers. The difference between them was in the dynamic in the room, how the students related to each other.

In the negative class, when we discussed something there would be two responses: The loud, main one was a demand to change things, mainly the teaching, in a way that they liked better. My experience from several years of trying out what would work didn't matter, their experience with what made them feel comfortable was more important. In the same class, several people who never spoke in class would later come up to us and say: "I love the way this is done. You are all great teachers. Don't change things just because of this. It works for us." The group obviously had an internal dynamic that was killing the openly spoken diversity. Some strong voices made the others feel afraid of speaking up, and when I did not submit to their pressure, it made them increasingly aggressive. Now I made a few errors with them - rather than saying "no" to the changes they wanted, I should have let them know that if I did what they wanted, I'd have to stop doing something else, which I knew they also wanted. I didn't have the resources to do both. Instead I just said "no, not going to happen." That was bad management of their demands, from my hand. After that, they didn't see the changes they wanted that we did make: they were all convinced I would never listen. Interestingly, the same group decided among themselves that a letter did not contain what to them was vital information, and afterwards they were not able to read that information when they read the letter. I had several students make the claim that they had not been told A, and then, when we read the letter together, I could show them where the letter said A. This kind of selective perception is interesting, and quite daunting when such a large group suffers from it. It does say something of the power of self-deception inherent in group dynamics, and the power of the negative thinking I was unable to break up.

In the fairly neutral class, the students were outspoken, vigorous and active, they took charge of the tasks they were given and approached them with a positive attitude, and worked hard at making things work. They tested out new things, asked questions, participated in discussions. When they came up after class, it was to talk about examples, ask questions, be to-the-point. They didn't think we were god's gift to teaching, but it didn't matter, they managed, they responded and they helped each other figure things out. The main characterestic of that class was that they were not afraid. They were not afraid of laughing, being laughed at, being sanctioned by each other. Their group dynamic was positive and generous, and they also addressed each other while in class, and not just us.

In the extremely positive class, they were all very quiet, but it was a contemplative silence. This group took it all in. Their questions were reasonable. They read not just the readings, but also the emails and the material describing the course. They smiled when they talked to us, and they approached us with questions about what they felt was unclear, rather than with demands to change things the way they wanted it.

So, how can I get a better evaluation, based on this experience? Obviously, the main errors were made with the negative class. I should have managed their demands better, given them a feeling of influence rather than saying "no". But both cases of "no" were based on my previous experience. The first was due to several years of positive feedback to how I presented the readings. If I was to do it the way this class wanted it, I'd have to give up the way I was doing it, a way I knew worked from several previous evaluations and conversations. The second was due to experience with student results. When I had previously done things the way these students wanted it, certain errors were a lot more prevalent than they ended up being. Sticking to my experience helped the class as a whole to maintain their focus on the correct task at the time, rather than mixing up the tasks, as bad timing had caused earlier.

I was in a situation where I knew that not giving in would make the students annoyed, but giving in would cause their results to deteriorate. At that point I chose to get a lower score on their evaluation of me, in order to ensure that they performed better in the long run.

And this is the reason why my friend on Facebook doesn't want to design the "perfect score" course. While the students are experts on what makes them feel they control their individual learning process, we, the teachers, know a thing or two about how to manage courses. Sadly, some, like me, also have a temper, and will in a stressed situation answer directly and honestly, rather than pause and consider how to make students feel good about what I am about to tell them. And this is actually a bad thing for a teacher, because students are genuinely nervous, with good reason. They are in a tense situation, and I need to address that fear as much as I address my own truth. I need to make them feel that I am on their side, and my choices are made to help them, not to make their lives more difficult.

Sadly, that doesn't always work. But all I can do is to try again. Redesigning the course to get a good score on the evaluation of me is not going to happen. Everything I do is intended to make sure the students get a good grade, and that, in my experience, they do. If it means they have to be angry with me to do it, well, so be it.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Pink blogs, money and professionalism

Several of my students have decided to write about fashion blogs and what we in Norway call "pink blogs". In relation to that I want to link to an interesting article that indicates a bit about the economic realities of blogging. It's originally published in the Norwegian newspaper VG, but behind a payment barrier.

Some interesting parts of it:
She was so young when she started, she didn't think about what getting money for her blog meant. That is probably very common in this field.

This indicates a very unprofessional approach to writing, ethics and the knowledge she spreads.

Both of the above topics indicate that the firms who use these bloggers also have no ethical and very few professional considerations on how they spend their publicity budgets.

Last: her parents didn't notice she was making 5000 - 30 000 n kr each month.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Effort is the real real

By way of a Facebook contact, Jesper Tække, I found this article on what the author calls the IRL fetish. Jenny Davis, one of the editors at Cyborgology, describes the sense of importance that comes with old-fashioned birthday greetings, and she gives this a name: the IRL fetish.

This resonates with Sherry Turkle's book Alone Together, which I have written about earlier. As I expressed in that post, the communication efforts before and after the internet have changed so much of the framework, that to be nostalgic for the analogue past, romantic as it may feel, blurs the hindsight.

Jenny Davis is however on to something, even if I think she errs when she appreciates one thing over the other, as if a handwritten card is more "real" than a birthday greeting on Facebook. Where she is right is that the specially made greeting is more significant of the connection between her and her loved ones than the quick Facebook greeting from that guy in the dorm 15 years ago. Of course it it, and, seriously, would you want it any other way?

Back before Facebook, if you knew about somebody's birthday you'd congratulate them. The effort you'd put into that gratulation depended on the closeness of the relationship. It also depended heavily on reciprocity, and carried with it expectations. If I knew about a colleague's birthday, or heard somebody else congratulate him/her, I'd congratulate them. They would do the same to me, for my birthday. I would however not make a big effort for their birthday, unless it was somebody I was already closely connected to. I would avoid that in order to not be pushy. Being too nice and generous is a way to force your way into an intimacy the other person might not desire. Giving attention, gifts, cards, whatever, carries with it a demand in return: See me, return this, make us even, make us friends.

It's still like this. It hasn't really changed. The people who might have said "happy birthday" in the corridor now say "happy birthday" on Facebook (ok, some of the Facebook Happy Birthdays are from people I'd invite to my party if they were here). The people who might leave a regular, store-bought card now text you or email you. And the people who would craft their own card lovingly do the same now, and you most likely do something similar in return. And then there's the ones that call you on your birthday, and the ones that come over with cake, and the ones who have carefully chosen presents, lovingly wrapped. Those are the same people as they were 30 years ago.

That is because no matter how the technology has changed, the investments we are willing to make in communication are pretty much the same. To a person I know vaguely, I am willing to say "happy birthday" once, effortlessly. It's a nice thing to do, it doesn't cost me anything, and if they want to they can hit "like" - which is an effort equal to a quick "thanks" or a smile and a nod in passing. The person I know a bit more will receive a more elaborate greeting. This may mean a longer email, a call, a card - perhaps I'll chase down a place where I can create a silly electronic card if I know about one, or perhaps I will send them a gift in a game.

Because it isn't necessarily the materiality of the present which is important. I get presents in World of Warcraft and SWTOR - and I love it. A stack of virtual crafting materials, a piece of armour, or just a sprig of flowers - yes, it's electronic, but it reflects real effort. I know how much time goes into finding some of these things, and they are willing to sacrifice that for me!

This is what birthday greetings, christmas presents and all that have always reflected: The effort we are willing to put into the attention we give each other. An expensive gift feels overwhelming, not because of the quantitative value, but because we appreciate the effort that goes into gathering the resources used to purchase the gift. It gets its significance from the initial effort money symbolises. This is why a very expensive gift and a cheap, but thoughtfully hand-made gift can carry the same emotional value.

It all depends on whether the recipient is able to value it, though. I brought a pair of hand-knitted mittens to an American woman. She was offended at the weirdness of the gift: what the hell was she to do with something that useless, a pair of unfashionable ugly mittens, and she couldn't even take them back to the store and get something useful. It wasn't until her partner pointed out that I had knitted them myself, and talked about how intricately made they were, that she managed to thank me for them. We need to understand the effort to appreciate it.

I suspect that the current confusion about what is appropriate, not to mention the snobbery of the hand-made object (which is nothing new), is a confusion about effort and the appropriate level of effort to invest in for instance a birthday greeting. As Jenny Davis doesn't ask for expensive presents, but rather thoughtful ones, I suspect that what she fetishises is effort and attention, not the physical presences of something.

And effort is real, no matter what medium it's presented in. It's why money is so extremely important: it represents effort. In a way, I guess what Turkle and Davis are getting at is: Effort is the real real.

It's just hard to recognize. But personally, I'd rather have a Facebook greeting than nothing at all, which, for 90% of the people who sends one, would be the attention we would be able to give each other across continents and time-zones.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Blank books and new years

All who have been around me for a while know about my passion for blank books. I keep buying them, more than I can fill. When a beautiful one snags my gaze, I grab it and bring it with me. Accompanying this passion is one for pens, but I don't buy those as frequently. I do have a couple I love and guard though, like the engraved fountain pen which was a present from my colleagues for my Ph D. I love that one. I am keeping it in a drawer, though, safe like the blank books, which are on the book shelf. What is up with that?

The thing is - what I love about both pens and books is their potential. Most of my writing happens under pressure, with deadlines, and in a hurry. I sit hunched over the computer for a week or two, and a new article or chapter is borne. Then I send it off and move on. There's no cherishing the process in advance, no anticipation of the beauty of the words I am about to shape, no glorious joy of the ideas I tackle and play with. All of those things are lost in some nostalgic memory of writing from when I learned to write. When I learned an elegant longhand, and trained myself to write it, fluidly and easily. When I wrote my first poems, and hid them in the first journal I kept for more than a few weeks, and filled it slowly with words I'd go back and play with, poke at, tug around. The first academic papers, when I dropped the fluid script of writing lessons during childhood, and reinvented myself with something clear, easy, readable and modern looking, a black line marching determined over the white page. It was all by hand, back then, and I think it's me missing that process that makes me buy all these books.

Because when I do start another journal (I do use them, quite a bit, really) there is always this thrill, this moment of breathless anticipation. It can contain anything: The next great novel, or the theory of human-text interaction to make everything make sense - potentially, that's in that blank book, in that beautiful pen, just waiting to flow out of me.

And yes, that is all about the new year, too, because right now, the year is really mostly potential, and can take us anywhere.

And it's about the Hobbit, because of what Bilbo says to Frodo: "He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. 'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,' he used to say. 'You step onto the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.'".

 Happy new year, happy new book, happy new road to you all.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

13th day of Christmas

Also known as Epiphany, Three Kings Day, and the night before as the Twelfth Night, the 13th day of Christmas marks the end of the celebrations. Or, as my mother said: "13 dags Knut feier jula ut." I have no idea who Knut is or why he would sweep Yule out, but it's a good date for cleaning up.

And so I have been packing, sweeping, carrying and stashing ornaments all afternoon. This year the tree was tiny (by our standards), but I had to do all the packing up and carrying out alone, something I have never, ever done before.



This year, due to the size of the tree and the amount of ornaments I have collected in the 26 years we have been a family, we had our first dogma-tree. A dogma-tree is a tree with a topic, and the topic this years was birds. As some may see, there's a little bit more than birds there. We filled in with some stuff we pretented to be frost and icicles, and pine-cones. The real discussion was as to whether a butterfly can be said to be a bird, and does it belong on a pine-tree in December? The yes-side won, through a democratic process. A good thing we were an uneven number present during the decorating.

The first thing to get packed up was the second thing I put up: The advent wreath. This year's wreath had been lighting up the stairwell with it's overwhelming lights: shining, white roses. My sense of style is kicking my shin hard every time I am close to admitting that I actually love the string of lights in rose-shape, because they were a lot bigger and more prominent than I expected. But I will find a way to use them next year as well, if nothing else to honour my father, who more than anything loved colourful, abundant lights for Christmas. He'd have adored the roses, and might have wanted to keep them up all through the winter.
My favourite thing is the advent star. When you drive along the dark roads of Norway in the winter, often the only thing that lights the side of the road are the lights in the houses. Late, when all have gone to bed, there's not much, a few outdoor lights, a window where somebody are working late, the flicker of a television. But during advent, there are stars and seven-armed electrical "candlesticks" in every house, often several - one in the kitchen, one in the living room, one to the side... We use a very old real candlestick, from my husband's family, for the 7 candles and never in the window, but we always have an advent star. I have always loved the muted light of the star, and I sneak into the living room to turn it back on if my family have been sensible and energy-conservative and turned it off before going to bed. The soft light at night is the colour of expectations and secrets, and comes with the scent of cookies and the sound of sewing machines, of conversations I am not supposed to hear, and the memory of waking up really early to see how the rooms are transformed, night by night, into a nest of Christmas cheer.
But now it's over, it's all boxed up, the tree is in the yard, the star in the cabinet, the birds and the glitter packed down. Tomorrow I'll bring the last few cookies in to work, and then I'll make soup stock from the bone of the dried sheep leg (fenalår) I had for Christmas. It's over, until next year.


Thursday, November 08, 2012

The Hospital: Life in Copenhagen #10

The last 18 months have brought me in closer touch with the Danish medical system than I really wanted, and it's not over yet. I keep haunting the national hospital, Rigshospitalet, which is the main research, teaching and specialist hospital in Denmark, situated in Copenhagen and my local place to go. (And yes, "haunting" was a reference to "Riget", the Danish mini-series by Lars von Trier. It was my first and only impression of the Danish main hospital for 10 years, of course I think of that series when I go there.)

 In most ways, medical care in Denmark and Norway is similar. Norwegian doctors have a little more time for each patient, but in Denmark I don't pay a fee for materials used during the consultation. Since the fee isn't high, I have to admit I miss my regular doctor and the fact that he had time to chat a little, ask some questions about what I was doing... but here I can get in quickly if it's urgent, I can just show up and I will get an appointment without waiting 3 hours. Both systems have benefits, I really can't say either is better.

In hospitals, they are a little more eager to toss you out. That says something, because it's not like you're allowed to linger in tax-payer luxury in Norwegian hospitals either. Some of that difference may be due to the smaller distances here. If I was in one of the larger specialist hospitals in Norway, getting back and forth would take from 2 - 8 hours by car, depending on what needed to be done. Most of Denmark is available in a 2-3 hour ride, and you'll have passed a lot of exellent hospitals on the way. There is no such thing as a remote place here, if you measure distances with Norwegian eyes. Actually, if you want to get out of the country, from most places in Denmark you can reach Germany in three hours (Sweden in 20 minutes from here). And since I live in the city, if I get a problem I can be back at the hospital in 15 minutes by bike, 5 if it's in an ambulance. And no ferries involved.

Since it's so close and convenient, yes, I ride the bike to get there. So do hundreds of others. At "Riget" the main problem isn't to park your car, but to park your bike.


The buildings themselves are exellent examples of early 70-ies functionalist ugly. Concrete and stone, in huge squares. But if you pause to look around, it's actually not that badly built, and it's certainly decorated. Inside in the corridor where I walked today, the wall is decorated with a friese in a very typical funkis manner: The same material as the walls on both side of the friese, but the long friese itself is made up of colour variations, black, grey and white rocks mixed/set in concrete, and then sculpted into abstract shapes. It is as if the building itself has suddenly grown into this odd wall, the way a rockside can go from uniform grey to striped and broken into different colours and crystals, in order to return to the grey granite at the other side of that.


I passed two other works of art in the 30 seconds it took to walk out of there - one of them a very interesting 60ies sculpture of a young woman cast in bronze bearing a portable television monitor. I wish I knew what it would show if it had been turned on. The light wasn't good enough for a picture though - I may bring a real camera the next time. At the door there was a double mural - one to each side - in a very bright 70-ies naivism, and then outside I found a piece of art I have admired every time I came by - and been annoyed by how it is always crowded by bikes and delivery vans. Still the jewel-bright colours shone strongly after the rain today. I have yet to find how old this is and who made or donated it, but it does its job - it brings a little brightness into the front of what might otherwise easily be just another urban wasteland.


I was just going to let these last pictures speak for themselves, but there's this empty space here, and it looks really weird. So I'll end this with a question. I tried to google art at Rigshospitalet, but didn't find any good overview of the many sculptures, murals and paintings that dot that busy, eclectic space. Do any of my weblog readers have more luck? Do you know the secret words to use in google to find such an elusive documents? Anybody?

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Notes on the usefulness of electronic books in reviewing

Using an electronic book in the review process is both more helpful and more problematic. Problematic, because it does not always (and in this case not) give page numbers. Helpful, because location is a much more precise notation, which leads directly to the sentence in question. Helpful, because it allows for quick searches, and it answers several questions to the book quickly, such as “how many times is this mentioned, and in which chapters?” or “where does the author use this theory?”

On the other hand, certain ways of organising the text, such as an endnote system for references, becomes confusing. The electronic medium resists the quick skipping from the chapter in question to the point in the back of the book where the footnote is positioned, and at least in this instance, the electronic text did not call up the endnote from its position in the chapter. Also, the numbers of the endnotes were not searchable, so it was very tricky to go from a number on an endnote to its position in the text. If the reference system had been anything which demanded the name of the author (APA or MLA for instance) put into the running text, it would have been much easier to go from reference to point in the text, but using endnotes the usefulness of an electronic text was reduced. Apart from these problems, the distribution of electronic books is still very limited, as it cannot be given away except as a loan, unless it’s bought as a gift.

This means that an editor can’t receive a book, look it over, decide on a reviewer and pass it on. The different systems of electronic book loans are not a good option, as one of the attractions of reviewing books is to be able to keep the book afterwards. A limited-time loan of an electronic book does not cover that reward. On the other hand, if the publishers allowed editors the right to pick and donate electronic books permanently to reviewers, the distribution of the book would be much quicker and more precise.

Today books need to be shipped over long distances, a process which delays the reviewing further. With electronic copies, the book could reach a reviewer at any internet connection, when ever they logged on. After working on the most recent book, I lean heavily towards making the electronic book the standard for reviewing, but with certain changes in the standards of reference systems, in the standards of electronic books, and a better and more liberal distributing system which retains the benefits of the physical paper copy.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Asking questions

From the Wikipedia entry on phrases from the Hitchiker's guide to the galaxy;
In the first novel and radio series, a group of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings demand to learn the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything from the supercomputer, Deep Thought, specially built for this purpose. It takes Deep Thought 7½ million years to compute and check the answer, which turns out to be 42. The Ultimate Question itself is unknown.
When asked to produce The Ultimate Question, the computer says that it cannot; however, it can help to design an even more powerful computer, the Earth, that can. The programmers then embark on a further ten-million-year program to discover The Ultimate Question.
Questions aren't easy. They can also be very dangerous. People are killed for asking the wrong questions. But here's a little guide to how to ask questions in conferences. Thanks to Mia for linking it in the #IR13 twitter stream.

Knitting a community - at IR 13.0

While I have noticed that people start giggling the moment I start to talk about knitting, I never knew how surprising it would be for people to discover that I knit. Seriously, I am a middle aged Norwegian woman, grown up in a small town, and I have children. The chance that I would not at least know how to knit is very small, and it's quite likely that I am decent at it. As a matter of fact, I suck compared to my Norwegian neighbours and relatives, likely because I spend so much time gaming.

Now that's said, I am presenting some very early thoughts on traditions, crafts and community exemplified by knitting here at IR 13.0, and I want to share with you some links from the presentation.

Davadottir sells her own creations, and shares the love of knitting with her mother.
Majken's corner is the blog of Davadottir's mother, who still lives in the Faeroe islands.
"Prunes from everyday life" is the blog of another woman from the Faeroe islands who shares her patterns and the stories of her past with us.
I am not using examples from Ravelry, but from Strikkeoppskrifter.no - a norwegian site for sharing patterns.
Gudrun & Gudrun are the designers of the sweaters from "The Killing".
On the blog "slaughter a holy cow" Liselotte asks who are copying.
The second sweater used by Sarah Lund did not cause the same kind of controversy, as Gudrun & Gudrun published the pattern.

And for some more links I looked at, but didn't manage to stuff into this presentation, two of my tags on delicious.com.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Salford, Internet research walking in circles

Today at the first plenary of Internet Research 13.0, the discussion turned to the reality of realities. Some of the heavy hitters discussing identity and online ethnography stated once and for all that it "Virtual Reality" was not where we were going, it was all realities. Susanna Paasonen arguing for the importance of materiality, Tom Boellstorff countering with the analytical power of virtuality.

Flashback to 1998 (yes, last millennium), and the discussions of IRL (in real life) and IRT (in real time) in games (MUDs, can it get more last century?), and how these were indeed parts of real lives and happened in real time - nothing virtual about them, the real virtual reality is between our ears.

I am feeling extremely old on this conference. It's not just the cancelled flight sending me on a 4 hour busride from London to Manchester in the middle of the nights, nor the fact that I can't eat most of the food (I expected that. We're in UK.) (Quick word to the organisers here: I don't doubt the quality. Others say it's really good.)

No, the sense of being ancient comes with the sense of having been there, done that. Even the most engaged of discussions trigger layers and layers of earlier discussions. The floods of literature now published in the many different digital research areas carry with them a sense of "good, somebody wrote about that, so I don't have to stand there explaining it singlehandedly."

I want to be wowed again. And not by another release of additional content. Not the pandas of Internet research, please, but... but... Well, if I could tell you that, I'd implement it. I'll get back to you all on that.

In the mean time: Internet researchers at The Lowry, Salford. Young, fresh, lovely, and I am so happy to see them, I get all warm and fuzzy over being here, really.



Friday, July 06, 2012

Unfashionable enjoyment

Over the years I have become so jaded: New games are just new games, new software is just new software, and computers are just computers. I join my many colleagues in finding the flaws, the problems, the negative side, the aspects that keeps us all from getting all overjoyed and enthusiastic about what the internet has in store for us. Leaving Facebook and taking breaks from being online is oh-so-fashionable, and we speak about the joys of being disconnected.

This is when I have to admit it. The Internet, the World Wide Web, Web 2.0 and social media have made my life more fun, more connected, and so much easier. Aside from the long, long list of tools for a researcher, and the research opportunities for a communication researcher, I enjoy it, plain and simple.

I think the moment when I realised that I do was when I met an old friend in Tampere, and he said: "you know, it's not popular to admit it, but seeing updates on Facebook makes me feel I know what goes on in your life, and that we're connected." It's true. It does make me feel more connected. No, it's not a big help when I need somebody to carry a cabinet from the street to the apartment, and another one back down (that will happen soonish, so if you're a friend in Copenhagen, and have a relatively healthy back, stay tuned, I'll alert you when I have managed to find THE cabinet.), but it is a great way to know abit about where my friends are and what they are up to.

One old friend was in Spain for a long time, now it looks like she has moved back to Norway. Interesting. A girl I spent a large part of my childhood and youth very connected to now lives in Sweden. I never knew! An old student keeps everybody updated about her life, which means I get to see where a fairly large group of old students hang out and what they are up to. Also, very interesting. A colleague was suddenly very quiet for weeks, nothing showing on her Facebook feed. What was up? Oh, look, she swapped workplaces! Really interesting!

Facebook (and other social media) feeds are mundane, but it's the mundanity that makes life. After all, life is what goes on while we wait for something to happen. So it's in those little bitty updates it really goes on, and that's why I am no longer too cool to admit it: I love social media. Thank you, all my online friends, for every picture of cute cats and cuter kids, article read, concert heard, restaurant checked into. It's life that goes on right in front of our eyes, and I don't care that it's edited to make you look good. I love you anyway, so I want to see the good parts you want to share. And I'll hold your virtual hand over the hard patches, if I can help. That, and birthdays, is what social media are for.

Monday, June 18, 2012

"Dit barn bliver riktig dyktig til at slå ihjel"

This is my response to a blogpost by the Danish Ph D, medical doctor and author Vibeke Mannich. In her recent blogpost Dit barn bliver rigtig dygtig til at slå ihjel!  she attacks computer games violently, based on her reading of a list of articles by Craig Anderson et. al. If you have followed this blog for a while, you know that I have repeatedly cited other studies which question and disprove this research and meta-research, at most levels from methodology to knowledge about games in general to the funding.

Anyway: Vibeke Mannich was surprised at the vehement reactions to her blogpost, a post where she blamed World of Warcraft for the terror shooting at Utøya, and warned parents that their children will grow up to be just like the killer. Her blogpost was offensive to me as a Norwegian citizen who has been following the case against the Utøya-killer day to day, as a researcher who has spent the last 16 years studying games and gamers, as a gamer who has played that "horrible" game World of Wacraft for years, and as a mother of children (now adults) who have also played the game and not killed anybody yet. (Instead they are working to save the world from climate change, and care for children with social and physical problems.) She has also written another blogpost about how offensive the responses she received to the original gamer blogpost were, which is why I post my response here. She is moderating her comments heavily, and I am not convinced that my post will make the cut. So, here goes:

Update: Vibeke Mannich responded to my comments, particularly when I pointed out the criticism of Craig Anderson, and how the research and meta-research had been criticised and to a large degree disproved.  That's when I realised that I have been trolled. From her response:
Jeg må så sige, at det er tankevækkende som du beskriver Craig Anderson og hvordan han er blevet mistænkeliggjort og dæmoniseret. Jeg oplever jo i virkeligheden det samme – måske trods alt i mindre målstok. Men at jeg dæmoniseres i uhyggelig grad og udsættes for ja regelret chikane.
Translation: "I have to say, it's throught provoking how you describe Craig Anderson and how he has been drawn in doubt (made suspicious - direct translation) and demonified. I am experiencing the same - maybe to a lesser degree. But I am demonified in a terrifying degree, and am a victim of straight out harassment."

With a response like that to being made aware of criticism (he has published in peer-reviewed journals - well, who hasn't?) there's nothing more to be done. All I can do is tick her blog off on the list of online weirdos, which in itself is a learning experience. It's been a while since I was properly trolled.***

Kjære Vibeke

Jeg ser at den kjente og uhyre omstridte amerikanske forskeren Craig Anderson er en sentral kilde til din forståelse av computerspill. Da er det kanskje nyttig for deg å vite at hans forskning er sterkt kritisert både av psykologer, pedagoger og rene computerspillforskere. Hans forskning har vært forsøkt brukt som basis for å forby en rekke spill i USA, men det ble stoppet i høyesterett i California med begrunnelsen om at forskningen ikke er bred, grundig og uhildet (unbiased).
Se denne beskrivelsen av en artikkel fra 2009 av Christopher Ferguson, som kritiserer nettopp den type forskning på computerspill som du siterer over: http://www.gamepolitics.com/2009/01/21/researcher-no-link-between-violent-games-amp-school-shootings. Jeg kan også foreslå at du leser forskningen til denne svenske forskergruppen, som leverer en meget kunnskapsrik analyse om hvordan vold blir oppfattet og behandlet av spillere av spill som nettopp World of Warcraft.

Breivik-saken: Når du bruker Anders Behring Breivik som et eksempel på hvordan computerspill gjør en person farlig, så er jeg også nesten nødt til å spørre om du har fulgt med på rettsaken? De sakkyndige uttalelsene sendes direkte på norsk fjernsyn, og NRK er ofte en del av danske fjernsynspakker, så jeg går ut fra at du har hatt anledning til å studere dette? Dersom du har fått med deg hva debatten handler om, så er computerspill en forsvinnende liten del av det hele. Spillenes betydning for hans handlinger har blitt tonet kraftig ned. Tvert imot er det mye som tyder på at han har fått sine meninger og holdninger fra blogger på nettet, hvor mennesker som mener de er spesialister på et felt har uttalt seg skarpt, autoritært og ensidig uten å lese mer enn et par bøker som støtter deres egne meninger, samtidig som de stempler alle som er uenige med dem som hjernevaskede og kunnskapsløse. Noe som er litt ironisk i denne sammenhengen.
For å gå videre med forskningsartikler rundt massemordere og computerspill, så har det vært gjort forskning direkte på dette. En av de som har skrevet en rapport om skoleskyttere [og] risikofaktor er Mary Ellen O’Toole (pdf)

Det stedet hvor hun nevner computerspill er i denne passagen: “The student spends inordinate amounts of time playing video games with violent themes,and seems more interested in the violent images than in the game itself.”

Som du vil se når du leser rapporten er det ikke spillingen i seg selv som er problemet, det er interessen for vold. Forskning rundt vold viser at barn og unge som har lært fra sine omgivelser (venner og familie) at vold er en god løsning på deres problemer bruker alle ressurser de har på å bli dyktigere til denne form for problemløsning. Disse bruker blant annet bøker, filmer, musikk, kurs, skytterklubber, militæret, politi- eller vektertrening og ja, også computerspill, til å finne inspirasjon og idéer om hvordan de skal bli dyktigere til å bruke vold. De er imidlertid allerede voldelige, den ofte brede og varierte mediebruken er bare en måte å bli dyktigere til noe de har bestemt seg for å gjøre.

Så til et av dine egne utsagn fra debatten om dataspill: “Tak for jeres kommentarer – desværre må jeg jo sige, at en del af jeres ganske aggressive indlæg desværre bekræfter hvad jeg skriver i min tråd – nemlig at voldelige videospil gør (nogen af) jer voldelige/aggressive.”

Til dette vil jeg svare med en uhyre underholdende leder fra dn.se: Fiktivt våld gör forskare aggressiva

Når du publiserer et så skarpt utsagn som er så sårende og svakt begrunnet i erfaring og i forskning som “Dit barn bliver rigtig dygtig til at slå ihjel! ” og kobler tusener (millioner) av hyggelige, vennlige, kunnskapsrike unge mennesker til et så brutalt tilfelle som Anders Behring Breivik, da er det dessverre ikke helt uventet at du gjør mennesker opprørte. Kanskje ikke alle er så høflige som de burde være, men deres reaksjon er forståelig.

Med vennlig hilsen
Torill