Thursday, December 30, 2010

The price of coffee in hard times

Until we started producing our own coffee on a big enough scale to be self sufficient we always got our coffee from a factory down the road, called La Mata. It's always excellent coffee, and as much as I enjoy drinking our own I do miss the flavour that a century of production history brings to the art.

This year there is a serious shortage of coffee in this part of Mexico at least, and prices for the raw commodity have gone through the roof--comparatively speaking. The cause varies on who you are talking to. Some say it is the weather, but others say that last year's low prices meant a lot of fincas weren't tended. Our own small crop will be a very good average or better this year -- the beans are the biggest we have ever produced, which may support the argument that limited tending is the cause. But whatever the cause, the reality is that prices are very high this year.

Yesterday, we were enjoying being finished the writing, having sent off the manuscript to the new (and final) edition of our New Literacies book. Michele was painting a facing on the balcony, out in the street. I was beginning an extension to the deck up on a roof two storeys above. Every now and then I would hear a buzz of conversation between Michele and whoever was passing by at the time. A bit later I caught up with one of the conversations. It was with Angel, who works at La Mata. He said that the enterprise's entire crop of coffee had been stolen more or less overnight. The price for green coffee is almost as high as for ripe beans: 10 pesos plays 12 pesos. With the coffee way out of town in remote areas it was vulnerable to the high prices for green bean. The entire holding had been stripped. The high price coinciding with the hardest bite of the recession has upped the ante for crop theft.

We picked a few canastas of our own crop today -- the second small pick we've done. The crop is much later this year on account of the weather earlier. That worked out well, because it meant we could get the writing finished and done with, without having to break at the tying together stage to organise picking and processing. Meanwhile, it just feels very good to be finished with the writing. 2010 hasn't been a great year in lots of ways. But I have to say that I am looking forward to a bit of leisurely coffee production, and am meanwhile keeping as close an eye as possible on the wee plot we call our own.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Minnesota Meme-Missers: Tron Guy Locked out of Tron Legacy

This has got to be the biggest snow job for the week in Minnesota--and they say it's been a BIG week for snow there.

Looks like The Tron Guy got up in his full gear to go watch the Tron Legacy and they wouldn't let him in to see the show.

Next thing Gary Brolsma won't get a visa to visit Romania.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tracing history in the texts we write

The Google Books service is one we use a lot, especially when we're on the road. It's like having 24/7 access to a massive library of surprisingly complete-enough works. Recently, a consortium of researchers at Google, Harvard Uni, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Encyclopedia Britannica have unveiled a searchable "database of two billion words and phrases drawn from 5.2 million books in Google's digital library published during the past 200 years" (source).

From the abstract of an article published by this group:

We constructed a corpus of digitized texts containing about 4% of all books ever printed. Analysis of this corpus enables us to investigate cultural trends quantitatively. We survey the vast terrain of "culturomics", focusing on linguistic and cultural phenomena that were reflected in the English language between 1800 and 2000. We show how this approach can provide insights about fields as diverse as lexicography, the evolution of grammar, collective memory, the adoption of technology, the pursuit of fame, censorship, and historical epidemiology. "Culturomics" extends the boundaries of rigorous quantitative inquiry to a wide array of new phenomena spanning the social sciences and the humanities.
For example, the database can be queried to show the effects of changes in language (e.g., the shift from 'nt' verb endings to 'ed' endings--as in burnt to burned, and learnt to learned; the addition of new words in English or other language, such as "pizza" or "sushi"), or to quantitatively graph the mention of women in published texts (which shifted dramatically in the 1960s as feminist movements took hold).

In addition to English, the database includes texts written in Chinese, English, French, German, Russian and Spanish.

The research group has developed a graphical interface for everyday users to play around with. This interface--the Ngram viewer--lets you adjust the year-span, enter up to five keywords you'd like graphed, and provides complementary links to related or relevant Google books. Below, for example, is an Ngram graph of the instances of the term "new literacies" in the database from 1960 onwards.

(click image to enlarge)

Wired Magazine has a range of additional interesting example graphs. And if you're registered with the New York Times, you can read more about the database and examples of findings here. Cultural evolutionists and linguists are all hailing the development of this database as a significant contribution to being able to quantify cultural trends in interesting ways, although everyone agrees that analysis will necessarily need to move beyond counts and graphs and the like to include mroe sophisticated qualitative analysis in order to be truly useful.

The entire database itself is even available for download if you'd like to develop your own sorting tools to use with it.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A truly eipic animation--using just Google Docs!

This has to be seen to be believed! We've long been fans of stop motion aimation as an excellent storytelling medium, and Google Docs have long been part of our teaching "kit." But never in a million years would we have thought to bring the two together like Tu+ Uthaisri, Nam Doan and Arthur Metcalfe--the creators of this animation--have!

Thanks to Angela Thomas for pointing this one out!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Insight Outpost: A new space for sharing writing

A friend of ours has just launched a new social writing space online called Insight Outpost. The aim of the site is to provide a space for people to post their writing--or any kind, although humorous writing is especially encouraged--and obtain feedback in the form of upvotes and downvotes from readers. I like the idea of this space because there aren't that many social writing spaces around that don't focus just on fan fiction.

Insight Outsight also looks set to be a really good go-to place for a quick read in-between tasks, too. I'm off now, as a matter of fact, to read "Mini Golf - The Bane of My Existence"and then "To the Cult I Inadvertently Started Last Night"...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cuba's online encyclopedia

I've just been over to have a look at EcuRed, Cuba's online encyclopedia, which just launched today.

There's a good story on the BBC's site, which informs us that EcuRed is an initiative of the Youth Computer Club of Cuba.

EcuRed has opened with close to 20,000 articles. It'll be interesting to track its growth over the next while.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Legislation and culpability: Another angle on Pike River

It is good to see the New Zealand Herald picking up the issue about how legislation motivated by cutting expenses to the government's revenue purse may have something to answer for at Pike River. Today's story of how a well-respected West Coast mining inspector had warned about the risk of a deadly explosion after politicians dismantled the industry's safely regime refers to the repeal of the Coal Mines Act in the early 1990s.

A now-deceased mining inspector, Mr Billy Brazil, responsible for the area that contains the Pike River Mine, wrote a submission in the wake of the repeal of the Act--which meant that the mining industry had in effect become "self-regulating". Mr Brazil's submission in 1995 included the following reported statements:

"The Government must act immediately to restore our legislation before another Kaitangata Disaster" [a reference to a 1879 explosion that killed 34 miners].

"Miners in this country have good reason to ask of themselves as to whether the fortunes of the industry have been thrown open to the ever-present chance, or circumstance, in the lead-up to the next potential Kaitangata disaster."

Mr Brazil also wrote that the previous mining legislation had been "literally written and paid for in blood".

Fifteen years later his submission takes on tragic proportions.

If only this were not a trope for so much more. Meanwhile, politicians most everywhere favour deeper tax cuts and, hence, still less funding for supporting those most at risk. If attaining the status of being self-regulating brought with it the obligations to match or better pre-existing arrangements the tax savings would indeed be an advantage to ordinary people.

This is not to say that the Pike River Mine hasn't met the kind of obligations that would properly accompany self-regulation. We can only hope that they had. It will not bring the miners back, but it would at least mean that their lives were not lost as a consequence of company failure. Whether that absolves the politicians is, of course, another matter.

Monday, December 06, 2010

A time for reflection: 500 mirrors

Blimey, 500 mirrors (already).

Is that when you say "Game On"?

Or, maybe, a time for some reflection?

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The politics of reading disasters: Raising the spectre of culpability at Pike River

As an expat New Zealander, born within a hundred miles of so of Pike River, I found the time away from New Zealand and the distance between here and there did little to ease the pain as we followed the harrowing narrative of the Pike River mining tragedy.

All the while, like many others, we had reservations about the central media narrative that was unfolding, and the roles leading politicians were taking in "managing" matters at the highest levels.

It is always difficult to ask the hard questions publicly at such times, but they nonetheless need to be asked.  These include questions about how ideologies play out in such contexts; the sorts of questions literacy educators have often associated with "critical media literacy", and put faith in critical literacy education to encourage.

History tells us, of course, that very often it takes a particular kind of social class experience and political formation to have both the disposition and the perspective to pose the nitty gritty questions. Today's New Zealand Herald Story by Matt McCarten is a gritty case in point.

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