Friday, January 12, 2018

Here I am talking about NarraFirma

I finally managed to update the NarraFirma introduction video. I'm sure I'll hate it in a year's time, but for now, this is as good as it's going to get. If you have any questions about NarraFirma, be sure to send them along.

Friday, December 8, 2017

NarraFirma 1.0

I am finally ready to announce the release of NarraFirma 1.0. I've been working on it since the summer. I was able to give the software a nice solid overhaul in functionality and usability. The blog post on the NarraFirma web site describes the changes in detail. I'll summarize just a few of the major changes here.

More graphs. Because we were not able to finish all the graphs we had planned for NarraFirma in the time we had to work on it before, my first priority on returning to the software was to finish its graphing aspect. Now it generates all of the graphs I have been used to relying on in my work on narrative catalysis for clients over the past 15+ years, and I don't need to supplement it (as I did before) with NarraCat or a spreadsheet. This includes all question combinations and what I call "data integrity" graphs (overall compilations of data, to look for systemic problems such as biases).

More testing. You can't see this in the software, but I used some of the time I had to import something like eight data sets from old (pre-NarraFirma) projects and compared graphs and statistical results to what I had calculated using other means. I did find one bug in the chi-squared test that was preventing some significant results from appearing, but nothing else was wrong. (I also found and fixed many little bugs that irritated me as I went about playing with data and projects.)

More options. NarraFirma is now much less "hard coded" than it was. I added many options for changing the way things look - story forms, story cards, catalysis reports, and so on - both by including custom CSS specifications and by opening previously fixed texts to user manipulation. For example, it is now possible to create a story form that has no English text in it anywhere. The application is still not multi-lingual - the NarraFirma interface remains in English only - but it is closer than it was to that goal. Importing data is also much improved, with better error reporting and more information about how to successfully import data collected elsewhere.

Better appearance and ease of use. I took a critical look at NarraFirma's appearance, and I changed lots of little things (colors, placements, spacings, etc) that had come to grate on me over time. I think the new look is cleaner and more professional looking. I also fixed many little irritating and/or confusing aspects of using the software, and I hope this will reduce the learning curve and make the experience of using NarraFirma more pleasant.

To finish off the new version, I am now working on replacing the old (horrible) NarraFirma video with a better introduction to what the software can do for people.

You can try out the new version of NarraFirma by going to the web site and clicking on "Try it!" in the menu at the top of the page. Or you can look at the screenshots page on GitHub (scroll down past the file list) to get a guided tour. As before, NarraFirma works either with Node.js or as a WordPress plugin.

Now I'll answer a few questions I think people might have about NarraFirma.

What's in the future for NarraFirma? My plan is to keep using it on projects for clients (now without having to rely on any other software to fill in missing graphs). And as I have done with several previous software programs I've developed, I plan to keep improving NarraFirma as I use it, so that it will work better and better for me and for everyone else as well.

What's your business model for NarraFirma? You mean, how do I plan to be able to keep working on it? I plan to make money through a combination of back-end project consulting, coaching, and  bounties (commissions to add specific functionality people want to see in the software). In addition, if I do get that online training course going next year, NarraFirma is now in a much better place to support students. If you are interested in coaching, training, or consulting with respect to participatory narrative inquiry and/or NarraFirma, let me know. If I can get enough work helping people with PNI and NarraFirma, I can keep the software alive and growing. So we'll see how that goes.

What can I do to help NarraFirma survive? Well, obviously, you can hire me to do some coaching or consulting for your projects; but there are many other ways to contribute. If you use NarraFirma, you can spread the word about it; you can help other people use it by answering questions or making videos about it; you can contribute code (talk to me about that); you can report bugs and suggest improvements. Just writing me an email to tell me that you are using the software makes a difference. It's hard to keep working on something (especially without pay) when you aren't sure if it's being used. Every bit of feedback and support helps, whether there is money attached to it or not. (And here I would like to thank the NarraFirma users who have sent feedback, bug reports, and encouragement - you have made a huge difference.)

What's that about a training course? I wrote about my ideas for an online PNI course on this blog twice in recent years (most recently here). Several people have since encouraged me to keep developing those plans, so the idea remains on my mind. Updating the software has been one part of getting ready for such a course. However, I don't feel like I can concentrate on a course offering until I've got at least two of the three nearly-finished books off my mind; so that's next on my agenda. (That is, unless I am deluged with requests for the course to start soon. If you read my plans for an online course and want it to happen sooner rather than later, do tell me, because I'm still testing the waters on what could be a lucrative, career-sustaining venture ... or another rewarding-but-financially-disastrous project.)

That's all the news from here. I hope you are well, readers. I hope all your projects are succeeding. Let's keep in touch.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Here I am talking about stories and complexity

Hello everybody. You might be wondering what I've been up to lately. To begin with, I've been busy visiting relatives, getting sick (then better), and having relatives visit.

In October I attended my second NYSDRA (NY State Dispute Resolution Association) conference, where I showed another friendly group of people what it's like to make sense of stories. For that session I adapted the sticker stories exercise to demonstrate narrative sensemaking by using the same stories three times: first to explore one dimension of meaning (placing stories along a range); then to expand that range into a two-dimensional landscape; then to build story elements. I planned the reuse of stories to save time and to introduce people to a variety of ideas they could use. But I think there is promise in using the same stories in different ways not just to save time but to deepen the exploration of the topic, especially when you have a limited number of stories to work with. It's something to think about.

Finally, I've been doing a lot of heads-down coding and testing of NarraFirma. I've been working on it since sometime in July, and I'm just about ready to release a major version update. Watch this space for that announcement soon.

In the meantime, why not watch this video of me talking to Lex Hoogduin at GloComNet about stories, complexity, economics, and PNI. It's the first interview in their GloComNet Conversations series. I was happy to have the chance to meet with Lex on our visit to Amsterdam this summer.

Also of interest: Harold van Garderen's interview, the next in the series, goes into some detail on the utility of PNI in various domains. Thanks to Harold for setting up the interview with Lex.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


A while back I was on a discussion list and people were talking about biological symbiosis as a metaphor for people communicating and collaborating. As a former biologist, I felt a responsibility to respond, so I wrote a sort of quick guide to sociality in the non-human world. Several people later thanked me for the essay, so I thought I might as well post it here, in case it's helpful to anyone else.

There are quite a few biological terms that describe points along the spectrum from cooperation to shared identity.

Within the same species:

- Kin selection describes how organisms "altruistically" help other individuals that are related to them genetically. (I place "altruistically" in quotes because benefiting your genetic makeup is not what we usually think of when we think of altruism.)

- Group selection describes how larger social groups help each other and compete with other groups for survival. This one is controversial as some think it exists (E. O. Wilson is a famous proponent) and some think it's a fiction. (I think it sounds plausible, but that doesn't mean it's real.)

- Reciprocal altruism is another mechanism that can cause organisms to help each other, in a tit-for-tat way. Game theory has lots of useful names to describe how organisms and other entities interact.

- The term "culture" is used to describe the social passing on (teaching) of knowledge (such as how to make a stick into a termite-catching tool) in some non-human species. Whether this use of the term is legitimate has been under debate for a long time.

- Eusociality, or a regulated social order, exists in some insects (like bees and ants), crustaceans (some shrimp) and mammals (the naked mole rat is the famous example). In eusocial species, "queens" usually control the social order (using pheromones), with individuals being born into defined "castes" that define their choices. The colony acts in some ways as an individual, but only partly due to self-organization (since pheromonal control is not self-organization but organization).

- A colonial organism (or collective organism or superorganism) consists of individual organisms that sometimes self-organize to take on the roles of specialized "organ" cells and sometimes don't. Examples are slime molds and some kinds of sponges. Whether these things are many organisms or one depends on when and how you ask the question.

- A modular organism is one whose components have specific functions, but whose total form is essentially a Lego-like composition of modules. Plants are modular organisms. It is hard to say whether a modular organism is an organism or a very highly regulated colony.

- A clonal colony is an association among genetically identical organisms (clones) that, while seeming to be separate, are actually connected. (Think spider plants.) The most famous example of a clonal colony is Pando, a giant colony of quaking aspen in Utah that covers over 100 acres. Though Pando looks like a forest, it is actually one giant tree.

In the places where the taxonomical kingdoms meet (plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, other tiny things) there are many cases of species where it is unclear which of these mechanisms are going on. Reading about them makes your whole sense of what is individual and what is collective lose its coherence.

Between species:

- Guilds are associations among species that forage together. The species in guilds are not related, but seek similar (though not identical) food sources that are found in the same places. Guilds tend to protect each other to a minimal extent. For example, animals in guilds usually heed alarm calls of other species in the guild.

- Mobs are temporary groups that can form among species that face predation together. You might see several species of small birds joining up to mob (attack) a hawk flying overhead. These associations are opportunistic and shifting.

- Mutualism is a relationship between species that depend on each other. A perfect example of mutualism is the relationship of people with their gut bacteria. Neither of us could survive without the other.

- Parasitism is the long-standing reliance of one species on another, to the detriment of the species being relied on - though never detrimental enough to kill the species (or individual), because then the arrangement would cease to be useful to the parasite.

- Commensalism is a relationship between species where they help each other, but so indirectly that you have to look closely to notice it. Usually such indirect help passes through the environment. When a beaver builds a dam, many species such as fish, frogs, and the water fowl that eat fish and frogs gain critical habitats through the self-interested actions of the beaver, which is largely unaffected by their use of the beaver pond.

- Symbiosis is the long-standing reliance of two or more species on each other, such as the relationship between clownfish and anemones. These connections are not temporary or opportunistic or even cognitive, but develop evolutionarily, over long periods of time.

Species can pass back and forth over the boundaries between mutualism, commensalism, parasitism, and symbiosis over evolutionary time, as the costs and benefits to each species can vary. Some relationships among species are hard to classify and can depend on other factors such as the environment in which both species find themselves. Is that bird picking lice on a wildebeest's back helping or hurting? How about when it pecks a little harder and starts to drink the wildebeest's blood? How about when the lice become more dangerous to the wildebeest? It gets tricky.

- Coevolution is a situation where species affect each other's genetic evolution. Coevolution can involve any of the interactions between species mentioned here (and probably more I've forgotten to list). For example, many flower shapes and colors evolved in such a way that their pollinators could find them more easily. Mimcry is another interaction that often comes up in coevolution.

As to whether any of these terms work as metaphors for people doing positive things together: they all do, and they all don't. My advice for anyone who wants to use a metaphor from science to describe human social endeavors is: read enough about the term to understand its full implications. Explore its internal arguments. I've seen so many people "go shopping" in science for metaphors that will prove their point, then ignore what the word actually means in order to shoehorn it into whatever meaning they want it to have. As one example, people often use "coevolution" to mean cooperation. That's a mistake, because coevolution can go horribly wrong and often does.

My personal preference is to avoid metaphors that turn people into non-people, because those metaphors always tend to be, well, dehumanizing. As I see it, there are already lots of useful terms that describe people interacting with each other in positive ways. After all, we've been doing it for a while.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Presentations, podcasts, plans

I'm cleaning my office again, so it's time to catch you up on some presentations and podcasts I've been doing lately (outside of conferences).

Last June I spoke at my very own local historical society on "Stories in your Family or Community."

In November I was interviewed by Bob Cudmore in his The Historians series on the New York History Blog. The interview took place during a meeting of the Mohawk Valley Museum Consortium, at which I gave a presentation on participatory narrative inquiry slanted toward history and museums. Afterwards, about twenty very nice people played a game of Narratopia, and I learned a lot from watching and playing with them. I would like to thank the Consortium, and David Brooks of the Schoharie Crossing Historic site, for asking me to participate and for encouraging me to bring Narratopia along.

In December I participated in the e-Learning Guild's Behavioral Change Summit with a presentation called "Behavioral Change for the Ornery." I'd like to thank the e-Learning Guild and the summit participants for the opportunity and the lively discussion.

In March I talked to Sally Fox for a podcast interview in her "Story Pros" series on her Engaging Presence podcast. The whole series is worth checking out!

Coming soon, eventually

Now I'll take a moment to update you on some plans for the future. That June presentation at my local historical society was a landmark event for me, because it was the first presentation I have ever made to non-professionals (my neighbors) about stories in everyday life. I came away with a feeling that the presentation wants to turn into a popular-press book, a more approachable sibling to the book of essays I've been growing for years about natural storytelling. I'm working on titles for both books - see what you think:
  1. For the book of essays, my working title is Store Bought Stories: Essays On Commercial and Conversational Narrative.
  2. For the popular book, my working title is The Stories You Share Could Be Your Own: Rediscovering the Ancient (And Fun!) Art of Conversational Story Sharing.
I originally thought, last year, that the final essay in Store Bought Stories would be my Neverending Story essay. But since I wrote that essay I realized I need one more. It will have something to do with this pile of books,

which I hope will teach me more about positive aspects of story sharing in the world today (and avoid the "I'm over 50 so here's my out-of-touch end-of-the-world book" problem). I expect this work to take up the summer and fall (and maybe winter), along with paying projects here and there, plus some time spent hanging out with NarraFirma.

Why am I telling you this? Because you might be interested in either or both of these book projects. If you would like to send me input into my last essay on conversational story sharing in contemporary society (maybe a book recommendation), or feedback on my previous essays, or advice on the popular book, please do. I'll be glad to hear what you have to say.