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Month: August 2005

Still not Evil

Still not Evil

I love Google. First and foremost, the best search engine the internet has yet seen (regardless of what Yahoo says), innovative email, and now, a Jabber engine. (Thanks to Catspaw for getting me online before the actual release (only a few minutes before, but still.)

It works with ichat, if you’re a mac user. See you on Google talk! (I’m rmazar@gmail, FYI.)

The Revolution Will Be Podcast

The Revolution Will Be Podcast

To me, the power of blogging is obvious. It was obvious the first time I started a blog back in the old days, back before comments and tracebacks and technorati. The simple act of public reflection seemed so revolutionary then, and the surprising thing to me is that it keeps being revolutionary now, six years later.

I thought all the people who were going to be got on the bandwagon back when the first blogathon kept us posting through the night. It felt then like we had hit market saturation, but clearly I had no idea. Because today I feel like we’re in a totally new blogworld.

There are lots of things that should have clued me in to this along the way. Podcasting, for instance. The sheer rise in the numbers of blogs. The fact that the word gets mentioned in the mainstream media so often you’d think we’re in their employ. But what really drove it home for me was the explosion of weblogs around the CBC lock out.

The background: The CBC is Canada’s national broadcaster. It is, essentially, a government service, with a mandate to provide news and programming to every region in the country. In spite of the government funding (and perhaps because of it), the CBC provides famously good, critical news and commentary. The CBC is our insurance that we won’t be swamped with American programming and news, which, if you look at the film industry, is perilously close to being a reality otherwise.

So the CBC management has locked out the union. The staff is all on the picket lines. In other times, what we would know would be only what the official CBC brass want us to know. But the time is now, and the CBC staff understands the power that the internet represents.

CBC Unplugged is another voice on the whole experience, and tonight (on my nice long walk out along the credit river), I listened to their first long podcast, created out of Vancouver. (I highly recommend it: you can download it here, or subscribe to the feed via itunes. I recommend it if you’re Canadian, or if you’re interested in labour politics in any way.) This is amazing; I’m learning things about this dispute I don’t think I would ever have had access to otherwise. Management has shut down staff email addresses. They talk about a “labour disruption” when it’s actually a lock out, they barred their employees from entering the building. They forced them out on strike. I got to think about this experience from their point of view; Bill Richardson talks about what it’s like to hear his own voice from the archives filling air time, as if he himself (his former self, the part already paid for by the CBC) is a scab. This is amazing.

They can bar access to one means of production, but the world is a slightly different shape these days. People can’t be silenced anymore.

Partly I feel like the right audience for these stories and rants and political outpourings, and partly I feel like a spectator. Part of what these blogs and these podcasts are doing is tying together a diverse and disparate staff. One of the podcasters says that it’s nice to see what’s going on in other cities through the photo blogs; she gets tired of walking around the same block over and over in Vancouver, but she can see that they’re doing that very same thing in Toronto. This is a new kind of solidarity, and I can only applaud the CBC staff’s thoughtful and conscious use of technology. The blogs give them up to the minute communication (audio, visual, text, emotion, politics, ideas, words, slogans) with each other as well as with their audience. The podcasts allow them to derail the “official” line on what’s going on, to put their voices back out there after they’ve been forcibly removed. They are speaking directly to us through every means they can, and they are showcasing not only their own resourcefulness, but also the power of the technologies their using to change the nature of every form of communication, including the managerial one. They even suggest that the blogs are even one way of communicating across the sides of this lock out: staff are reading the blogs of managers, managers are reading the blogs of staff. I don’t know that there’s any kind of precedent for something like this.

All of this has made at least one thing very clear to me; we’re not talking about information technology. We’re talking about communication technology. And that can make all the difference in the world.

Give me back my CBC!

Give me back my CBC!

I was watching CBC television some weeks ago now when I was visiting my parents, and they were talking briefly about how some cities in the US had been getting some CBC programs, but that some changes and management decisions meant they wouldn’t see them anymore. So the CBC played a bunch of video letters from American viewers sorry to see the CBC go. It was actually quite heart-wrenching, the way these pleas were framed; not in terms of “but I love that show!” but more like, “this is the only news source I feel I can trust, please don’t take it away.” And as the piece on the American viewers ended, the voiceover noted,

“We’re working on ways to keep bringing that programming to our American viewers.”

That struck me. Here we have this well-paid staff of broadcasters who do their work (mostly) regardless of how many viewers or listeners they have. They have a national mandate to broadcast. Does it matter if Americans are listening to it? Not hardly. This is like the definition of art; you do it for the sake of it, because it’s beautiful, because it brings you joy, not because it’s the popular thing to do. I know it’s idealistic, but it’s so amazing to watch it happen. This isn’t about money, this is about doing something great, and truly worthwhile, about connecting Canadians, and it’s a service that’s truly loved.

How political it is, radio. How political podcasts are, the internet is as a whole. Getting the message out in whatever way you can, that’s power.

So I’m not even surprised that CBC employees are still broadcasting while on the picket line. Talk about taking back the means of production!

Historicity, E-Persistence, and Blogs as E-Portfolios

Historicity, E-Persistence, and Blogs as E-Portfolios

From Ida takes Tea: why not to use blogs as e-portfolios:

The persistence of blogs (via permalinks, trackbacks etc, to say nothing of the recently-sued Wayback Machine) is at odds with the desire to create a personal repository that can be selectively shared and edited, over time.

Catherine has more to say that this snippet, but this snippet sums up an important piece of her issueswith the idea of blogs as portfolios. Put it out there and it’s out there for good. All data is ahistorical, existing right now even though it may have been created 6 years before. Students are not ahistorical; we need a system that respects the chronological growth of the student’s learning.

I actually found this argument really hard to wrap my brain around. I don’t know why the internet would seem more ahistorical than any other document. Manuscripts from the 14th century still exist, and I’ve even seen and held a few of them. The fact that they exist in the now, that I can pull them out and flip through them, does not convince me that they are of the now. Serial literature is the same way; sure, it might have just come into my hands, but I still look at the date on it. It makes a difference to me if the paper is today’s or one from last week. I see absolutely no difference between that and online publication.

This critcism feels as if it comes from a place without any online information literacy. The internet is full of documents, some of them old and some of the new. There are ways to date an online document, from clues as hazy as the design and layout of the page to as concrete as how many dead links a page contains, or the copyright or ‘last edited’ date. The same skills we teach students about information literacy apply here; does the content tell us anything about the age of the document? Is it full of references to something terrible that happened to the World Trade Center yesterday? “Yesterday” is a subjective term, and in a world where every post is written in the now, maybe this is just something you get used to over time. Diaries tend not to be retrospective of themselves; they are forever reflecting on now as if, well, it’s going on right now.

And actually, the fact that this criticism is being leveled at blogs in particular strikes me as odd. If anything goes out of its way to historicize web documents, blogs do. They are archived by day month and year, they are signed and timestamped. Most blogging software allows for some context for blogs, showing you a calendar and links to the post that came before and after the post you’re reading. Additionally, posts on blogs that are a part of a larger community also come with comments affixed, also time- and date-stamped. So, were I to pull up some posts from 1999, I would see, constantly, that it’s 1999. The comments may give me a sense even of how long that particular conversation went on. The post may be written with a sense of immediacy, but I have every chance to witness its context, its datedness. No document exists in a vacuum, and that’s just as true of online documents as of any other.

To turn this debate around a bit: were it possible for students to submit work to a journal and have it published, should we discourage that as well? After all:

persistence creates the illusion of fixed identity, whereas higher education explicitly conceptualises its mission as formative and processual: we believe that students are shaped, and we want them to be so shaped, by their experience of participating in a learning community.

If persistence disrupts that important process, should we disallow publication altogether? Does the requirement of faculty to publish diminish their ability to be formed by their work, to engage in a process of learning? Does hard paper publication prevent us from being shaped by the experience of participating in any learning community?

Or does publication (in any context) allow students the opportunity to engage in participatory learning? Doesn’t putting something out there allow us to grow while at the same time reflecting the benchmarks of our learning process? Why would a persistent record of that process necessarily be bad? To drag this out to an illogical conclusion, should we suggest that students not speak in class, for fear that they would express an idea that, in a few weeks time, they might think better of? Does student participation in any context limit who a student is by putting unformed pieces of them before the eyes of others?

The key to all of this is context. Something a bit newer in the blog world is the possibility of tagging and categories, and I think that this simple classification method bears mentioning in this debate. While Catherine sees no value in the persistence of blogs to education, doesn’t one old blogged idea now sit within a category of similar ideas, organized chronologically, so that the history of that idea can now be easily traced, with the emphasis placed on the most recent addition? Isn’t that even a better and easier historicity than, say, a paper publication? Or a conference contibution?

All that aside, I get the general argument. At its heart it’s an ethical question: should we be asking students to create a web presence that will be with them for life? This may not be their finest hour. Perhaps at some point later on in life they will want to create a new web presence, and they will have to be dodging the one we forced them to create.

Of course, this is a purely intellectual debate, based entirely on one assumption: blogs must be public. Blogs must be googled, tracebacked, ranked on Technorati, traded on blogshares, and tracked on the way back machine.

There is nothing about the structure or features of blogs that require them to be public. In fact, many of livejournal‘s 8 million blogs are entirely locked to the public. The posts are never found on the wayback machine, Google never peeks in; the posts exist only to the people allowed to see it.

As far as I’m concerned, educational blogs should follow Livejournal’s lead. I know there are educational blogging projects in the UK following that precise route. For an educational blog mandated by schoolwork, there should be multiple options: visible only to you; visible only to your instructor/TAs; visible only to your instructor, guest lecturers, librarians, and your classmates; visible to your friends at the school as you choose them, but to no one else; visible to anyone at the school; and visible to the whole world.

There is absolutely no technical reason why a student shouldn’t have complete control over how their e-presence is created. None of this precludes the use of blogs as educational tools or as e-portfolios. Google and the way back machine should not be figuring into the use of blogs in the classroom anymore than Old Navy and the Gap should. They exist, they’re out there, they’re ubiquitous; but we don’t need to invite them in.

The argument is often made that the public nature of blogs is an educational bonus. Putting your ideas out there for the wild internet to see means you may attract the interest of just about anyone, and you may benefit from their comments and questions. I know lots of people who will make the argument that class work should be available to all and sundry for pedagogical reasons. Since students own the copyright to their own work (including everything they create at the request of the professor and hand in), I think they shouldn’t be asked to put that work in the public eye, but that’s a conversation to have in class #1. There’s no reason why we can’t moderate the degree of “public” that students have to deal with, let them decide what they want to add to the public record and what they want to keep ephemeral.

I get frustrated by criticisms that are hinged on the limitations of one particular version of a technology. One of the best things that can happen to anyone is to learn enough about technology to realize that no interface is unchangeable. Everything can be changed, fixed, transmuted. If something is getting in your way, well just change it.

That’s what I love about the internet. Infinite possibility.

ipod sheep, the Ignorance Premium, and Technological Literacy

ipod sheep, the Ignorance Premium, and Technological Literacy

I’ve been reading a tiny bit recently about something called the ignorance premium, being the price you pay for not knowing better. When you slap down an extra 200 bucks for one product when a cheaper one would have worked just as well, but you didn’t know about it. The general idea here is that we’re prisoners to the people who have the cash to flood the world with slick marketing, because we don’t bother to learn about all our options before opening our wallets. While you can pay more to get somewhere faster by buying a car rather than using public transit, we can also pay more to stay ignorant.

This criticism has been pulled out in response to those of us who own ipods. Because ipods aren’t cheap, and there are cheaper mp3 players out there.

Now, no one has ever questioned my reasons for owning an ipod over any other mp3 player. Nor has anyone ever called me a sheep for buying one. As far as I’m concerned, there are two kinds of people in the world; people who want an mp3 player, and people who don’t. (I’m in the former category, and my sister is in the latter.) But among the people who want an mp3 player, there are gradations and variations. There are the runners, who have specific needs. There are the people who are completely satisfied with the idea of basically listening to one cd at a time, and only need 20 or 30 songs. And then there’s the people like me, who will really only be happy if they can have a complete mirror image of their computer’s mp3 archive in their pocket. And for those people, only a true ipod will do. When you’re looking at that much storage, you need an expensive machine. And if you’re like me, having something attractive, something you can just fall down and love, is value in and of itself. As I say, I’ve never been asked to justify my ipod, but I’m ready to do it. I know there are other players out there, but my decision is purposeful.

What the “ignorance premium” people tend to assume is that design is meaningless. Design is just pretty, not function. If something is ugly and clunky but is capable of the same thing as something pretty and sleek, they’re technically equal. But this simply isn’t true. All this shows is that there’s a segment of people in the world who don’t think that design, look & feel, has a place in the world. But those design elements are actually information bearing, like a form of scaffolding. Let’s presume that we have X amount of time in our lives to spend understanding a concept, or completing a task. With bad design, where we spend significant time learning how to do something, we are essentially wasting time with bad design. Good design, that is pretty, information bearing, and helps us to move on to more intellectual pursuits than figuring out how to play one stupid song, actually lets us reach greater heights.

That said, I have argued the ignorance premium thesis before. Mostly when it comes to non-computer people buying computers. What, you say all you’re going to do is send email and look at the internet from time to time? Well, heck, you’d better get the BEST computer possible, better get, for instance, a powerbook.* We all know that computing technology changes to fast, you’d better get the best one first, not something middling. Middling computers will be out of date and useless in a matter of weeks, right? I know people, good people, smart people, who buy (very very expensive!) powerbooks on this presumption. When what they really need is the powerful, flexible, and extremely wonderful ibook. Sure, it’s less expensive. But it’s so much more than you’ll ever need.

I often get frustrated by what happens to people who are afraid of computers. When they deal with computer people, they can get so screwed over, all because of that ignorance premium.

We’ve spent a good deal of time at work lately talking about “technological literacy” and what that means. If we’ve got a grip on “information literacy”, surely “technological literacy” would be easier to define. More and more I feel myself leaning toward defining technological literacy as breaking down those fear barriers that people have, and turning computers into just another tool we use, like pens and radios and walkmans. We’re not afraid of these things; we’re not afraid to look at the specs and talk about what we really need from them, and be able to distinguish between “what I think I need” and “what I happen to want”. Information literacy has broken away from its tool-based roots (how to use X database, how to use a library catalogue) and into the more broader, conceptual level (what makes a good source for this paper? who can I trust?), and technological literacy needs to make that leap too. Maybe a technologically literate person can distinguish between the design that is functional and design that provides information, knows how to get help within a program, understands the basic principles that underlie all software, and can get to work using a piece of software between 15 and 20 minutes after first opening it. It’s not about the software itself, it’s about getting to know how software tends to work. Right?

So that way, if we’re all technologically literate, we can just buy our ipods without people calling us sheep.

* I ‘m using Mac examples here because that’s what I know best. I know powerbooks are great computers, but they’re more high end than most people would ever even think about needing, is all I’m saying.

Actualizing the Experience

Actualizing the Experience

One to grow on from Educause:

Once while delivering a paper at a conference of online educators, I was challenged by a participant who thought my online course (being projected onto a screen) was “heavy on the text.” Upon learning that the questioner’s field was American literature, I asked him if he thought Moby-Dick was “heavy on the text.” If the work is compelling, the medium disappears and the experience becomes actual.

While we often get mired in talking about how to get the flashiest interface, the most audio/video, the fanciest graphics, we seem to forget this one very simple point. So we should be focusing on making the work compelling rather than making the interface exciting. Which makes online instruction absolutely no different from face-to-face instruction.

Why the Internet was Created

Why the Internet was Created

Today I believe that the internet was created specifically to enable this guy. A description of this link’s content:

The complete soundtrack to Super Mario World, covered by one man using dozens of instruments. Roughly in game order, faithful to the originals, with some bizarre artistic license thrown around. A private hobby made public.

All hail. The man is a genius.

Tuesday Roundup

Tuesday Roundup

You can now post to a Blogger blog from Word.

Seriously, I think this is the single coolest thing I’ve seen all week. (I see a lot of cool things in the course of a week, see.) Having spent a wee bit of time helping people who are afraid of computers move into the world of the internet, there are two things I’ve discovered that people feel most readily comfortable with; Word and email. WordPress lets you post to your blog by emailing it; Blogger lets you post to your blog from Word. I know it seems lame to the more technologically engaged, but it sounds like a godsend to me. Now you can get people blogging by telling them to just write up their thoughts in Word. Now, if we could get a hack of that plugin and get it working with a few other (open source) platforms, we’d be good to go. And as I spent the morning thinking about enterprise level content management systems, the idea of Word-to-database content creation makes my toes tingle.

What’s on my ipod this week: Radio Open Source with the wonderful Chris Lydon. I used to listen to this guy every morning when I was living in Boston, and I missed his witty repartee once I got home. And now he’s podcasting these amazing hour-long shows. Personal favourites (so far): Fan Fiction, a truly genius interpretation of this truly postmodern art form; Hyperlocal Journalism, which inspires me to think about getting some hyperlocalness going on in Mississauga, a town that needs it like no other. Next on the playlist for me: Literature 2.0.

Disappointment of the week: the total lack of This American Life podcasts. Shame, that.

In the news: you can now run Mac OS X on a PC. I realize as a mac devotee I should be sad (or at least upset in some way) about this. But I’m not. It’s wrong to use pirated software, yes I know, but I actually feel badly for all those Windows users in the world. They really should have access to such a whitehot operating system. I mean, have you SEEN dashboard? If only Tiger had a built-in camtasia feature, I would upload you a .mov of a dashboard application entering the fray; the whole screen looks like a gentle pool of water. The app sort of surfs on to the screen. Sweet. And as for hardware, I like my mac hardware. It was worth the $$. The advantage I’m seeing to PCs running OS X is that there will be more and more fun software that’s cross-platform. Whee!

And one last goodie: context is everything. This link shows you how the context you see around you had more impact on what you actually perceive than you can possibly imagine. Check it out. (Via June. Thanks, June!)

The A-List and the Z-List

The A-List and the Z-List

I saw the Cites and Insight thing this morning and laughed a little nervously. It’s sort of amusing to watch people get all wrapped up about blog popularity (in this case called ‘reach’), but sort of depressing at the same time. Since it’s at least marginally possibly to quantify it, I know that it’s tempting to do it. I even understand that looked like a good idea at the time.

I’ve been involved in a variety of online communities, and at some point this sort of ranking always comes up. And it universally causes hurt feelings, conflict, and disappointment, and even results in some undue criticism being levelled at the chosen ones. While blogs really exist for the good of their authors more than for their readers, lots of people start up blogs in the hope of getting some limelight thrown their way, and it’s decidedly dark and dim to be among the unwashed in these things if that’s your goal. Is this a sign that no one really cares about what you have to say? Should you just stop now, since no one’s reading you? Have you failed in some way?

And then the chosen few get this moment in the sun, which is nice. But it also means that they get scrutinized a little more than they used to, because everyone’s trying to see what they’re doing that the rest of us aren’t. Nine times out of ten, people come away from such a search shrugging, saying “not such hot stuff, really”. And once those tokens of popularity are handed out, some people, the outer fringe types, the ones who are too cool to be mainstream, too edgy to be with the popular crowd, will start avoiding the big names to underscore their radical otherness. Divisions are made, cliques etched out, lines drawn. And over what? A few numbers that don’t give the whole picture? A snapshot in time that, over a few days, weeks, months, will look entirely different?

Ranking people cheapens the whole process. It creates and fortifies the depths of anonymity and creates the perch from which the chosen will fall.

Popularity is like the little girl with the little curl right in the middle of her forehead. When it’s good, it’s very good indeed. But when it’s bad, oh yes, it’s horrid.

I can say without reservation that I’m certain Walt did not intend to belittle anyone by doing this research. And yet, I can also say without reservation that someone somewhere felt hurt by being left off his ranking, and some librarian somewhere is looking at her blog tonight with a little less delight than she did yesterday. Is the value of this inevitably ephermeral research worth that loss of delight?

For me, the point of blogging, and the joy of blogging, is in having a place to write things down. For me writing is thinking, and I love to be able to share my thoughts with anyone who’s interested. Rankings therefore don’t bother me much, because my goal has never been to please other people. The only way for me to do something like this for as long as I have is to do it for myself. But still, I’m more than honoured that Meredith has called me “the Dorothy Parker of the biblioblogosphere”.

The best thing that can come of Walt’s research, as far as I’m concerned, is that we remember how many of us there are and support each other, reach out more often and engage each other in communication. And the next time someone goes to look at the statistics of the library blog world, he will see a large, interconnected web of full of people, opinions, stories, and delight. Not an exclusive A-list.

Search Strings Redux

Search Strings Redux

It’s been a while since I’ve done a thorough expose on my search strings. Things have changed a bit since a) I had catastrophic data loss about three months ago, and b) I’ve moved from Movable Type to WordPress (a move that happened along with a switch from one webhost to another). I’ve partially alleviated these problems by wholesale copying my MT archives into my new public_html directory, but the fact remains. Those links still work, but those pages aren’t going to be updated. All the urls are different now.

The reason why my search string collection is so interesting is because I have a text-heavy website. I use a lot of words, and words are the key to Google’s algorithms. I put words together, and Google looks for sets of words, so I get all kinds of hits from people who may or may not be looking just for me, or someone like me. While I started collecting and analyzing these strings as a bit of a joke to entertain my friends, it turns out that this examination is quite enlightening. I find myself mentioning this ongoing research at work, to illustrate a point. It turns out that looking at these strings has twigged me in to some elements of web searching I think I would otherwise have breezed right by. While I often find these strings funny, I respect user searches more now than I used to. It feels as though this work has worked to my advantage in ways I could never have imagined. The fact that people find me when they’re not looking for me is a great gift.

That said, sometimes people are looking for me.

diary of a subversive librarian
rochelle mazar
random access mazar
utm mazar

It doesn’t disturb me in the slightest that people are using search engines to look for me directly. In spite of all the articles about how problematic it can be for people to discover your blog, I, stats-obsessed as I am, am more aware than most how absolutely public this writing is. And I don’t feel particularly flattered by these searches either. It’s not as if there are hundreds of them. I’m not famous, or anything.

But what’s interesting about these strings is how much a person needs to know about you in order to find you. I have a rather unusual name. As far as I can find out, I’m the only Rochelle Mazar in North America. A French place name paired with a quasi-Ukrainian surname is, I suppose, a bit unusual. You also have the fact that “Mazar” is not a proper surname at all; it was mangled at the border, making it even less likely that there would be a doppleganger out there for me to cope with. So typing in my last name or my first name does, apparently, eventually get to me. My full name gets you there even faster. These people know who I am, and are looking especially for me. Someone even knows where I work and is searching for me that way.

Others don’t appear to have met me personally, but seem to have heard of my blog. They search for it by title (“random access mazar”, and “diary of a subversive librarian”). They’re not looking for me per se, but for my blog. Real person search, virtual identity search. Both end up in the same place. This was a conscious decision I made; I linked up my real self with my virtual self by naming them the same thing.

Since I spent most of my time these days talking about issues relevant to librarianship, it makes sense that search engine algorithms would send some library queries my way.

librarian behind desk
academic libraries future 3 years
radical reference
radical reference librarians
proactive reference public libraries
reader’s advisor* alice walker
trillian library academic use
academic monograph
casual librarian
library anxiety

My suspicion is that these sorts of queries are the product of librarians making their way online. Note the use of a wildcard in the reader’s advisory string. There’s no direct Boolean involved, but a lot of it is presumed; trillian ? library ? academic use might as well be a subject heading. You can see the careful thinking behind these queries; most of them are keywords strung together.

The only one of these strings I think is not the product of a librarian’s search is the first one; that’s clearly a user looking for an image, but using the wrong feature.

I’m still most interested in search strings that show very little processed thought. I’ve recently had discussions about just this; is this the dumbing down of academia, turning to algorithms to parse our search strategies? Or is this another form of scaffolding, letting people think less about creating the perfect search string and more about the topic at hand?

teenagers 2005 what’s important to them?
evaluate about since the invention of internet libraries and textbooks have become obsolete
turn the handle and the couch becomes a bed ikea sofa
xanga can hurt people

What I love best about these strings is how spontaneous they are; can’t you just see an internet user staring at that search box, thinking about their question, adding useless words into the string. No, I take that back; what I love best is that those searches work. That second string, evaluating the idea that textbooks are obsolete in the face of the internet; I have written about that, and this awkward, clumsy search lead them to me. There are enough keywords nestled in that unprocessed thought to get somewhere useful. That’s a powerful search engine at work. This is cyborg searching, an algorithm so responsive it accepts the unprocessed nature of human thought. Tapped right in, plugged into your brain.

I’m writing about search strings; in the tradition of metacritique, of course I get searches from people interested in, well, search strings.

search string apostrophe
search strings
funny search strings in google failure
my favourite search words
weird search strings
string search narrow algorithm

Though, that first string is probably someone hitting the same mySQL problem I had, where apostrophe’s bork the database command, and looking for the script to remove them. I’ve got it. I can hand it off. Just email me.

The rest: I think it’s interesting that someone is looking at how search strings show the obvious failure of the system. We distrust it, we librarians in particular; a machine can never be so smart as to not have a panapoly of errors to giggle about. In some ways I think we want it to fail, again, librarians in particular. If Google fails, we will still feel we have a legitimate place in the world. It must fail, it must be laughable.

Does someone out there have a set of favourite search words? What would make a search a favourite? I think that’s a search doomed to failure. My (somewhat educated) guess is that most people don’t think about their search strings at all. I suspect that getting back a list of their own search strings would be a foreign and off-putting experience for most people. It would be like getting an itemized list of what they had thought about in the last three hours; recognizable, but not nearly as linear as a list would make them seem. Putting stuch things in a list would make the process unrecognizable.

new jersey bar exam and july 2005 and opinions

However, some people really do think hard about their search strategies. Interestingly, while this search is perfectly constructed, as opposed to most of the other strings I’m displaying, the results were obviously poor if this person was led to me.

One of my other favourite things about looking at search strings is seeing the ones that are more statements of belief or feeling rather than actual searches.

i hate reading
wow can’t express by words you look beautiful
start revolution

The total randomness of these strings delights me.

Often my musings about search strings leads me in the direction of thinking that Boolean is dead, that real searching these days is more about throwing out lines of thought and seeing if anything bites; I spend my time illustrating how thoughtless searching is for most users, how they don’t metaconceputalize before turning to Google (or Yahoo or any other search engine). But then I get strings like this:

powered by wordpress inurl:ca

This is a brilliant bit of Google-Fu. Someone wanted to see all wordpress blogs with Canadian domain names. So they typed in the tag line of all wordpress blogs (“powered by wordpress”) and limited the search to domains ending in .ca. This is simply genius. This user got exactly what she was looking for; I bet it’s an interesting list, too.

And then we have the strings which are direct or indirect questions; they are turning to the internet because they have a specific activity or plan in mind. I’ve been thinking of these as the true reference questions of the web. These users are approaching a search engine not as a database but as an answerer or questions.

writing a narrative essay letter to my boss
how to fill out a reference letter for school
why does my computer random boot?
how can i clear my search strings
hide phone number from bots
post a comment blog

I am looking to do a particular thing; the instructions will surely be on the internet.

I’m still keeping an eye on the strings, obviously. I feel that there’s something for me to learn in them. I’ll keep you posted on precisely what that might be.

The Dewey Decibel System

The Dewey Decibel System

I just finished listening to one of my favourite NPR programs, This American Life. I got hook on it when I was living in the states, and thankfully for me they’ve been available over the internet for years, so I still get my Sunday fill by tuning in digitally.

On tap today: Image Makers. This episode got me twice: first, it has a segment on how the Michigan public library was trying to change its image among teenagers…by bringing in rock bands.

Hey, if librarians could do this, making a library not very much a library, making it loud, then anyone can do anything.

Genius. Every single thing about that story is inspiring; doing something totally different, tapping into the interests of the patrons, and the idea of changing the general perception of what the library is, what words to use to describe it, by pairing two apparently contrasting ideas; the library (quiet) and rock bands (very loud). Two constrasting things in the same place at the same time. If anything can be a crucible for change, that’s probably it.

Then the second part of this episode tells the story of a mother trying to recreate the image of her extremely ill husband for her 10 year old son, and that part made me cry. Not that that’s a terribly difficult thing to do, but still. So, a success from start to finish.

So my recommendation if you have an hour of time you can fill with some interesting sound: Image Makers, from This American Life. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. If you’re a librarian, you’ll be inspired.

The Final Frontier: Investigating Undergrads

The Final Frontier: Investigating Undergrads

Some time ago, I read an article called Undercover Freshman. It told the story of a faculty member from the anthropology department taking a year off and applying to live in the student dorms for a year.

Nathan had been worrying that students were starting to seem “like people from a different culture,” and it upset her that she didn’t understand this culture with which she interacted every day. The experience in the course she audited only added to her frustration. She saw that once students removed the title “professor” from her persona, they were more than willing to open up. She just couldn’t get them to do that the same way in the classroom.

So we she went undercover. She let students believe that she was recently divorced and living in the dorm while taking undergrduate courses. She experienced the undergraduate student life by sneaking in, listening through the walls, and watching. She’s using an assumed name to publish the results, because her subjects still don’t know about the ruse.

That study made me bristle for all kinds of reasons. First, I’m not all that keen on those sorts of colonialist observational methods. I realize anthropology has been through the ringer about this already, and I’m hardly qualified to add to the pile, but I’m squeamish about observing and writing other people’s reality as truth (at least as non-fiction).

And when it comes down to it, I don’t like the divisions that are being erected here; undergrads are not actually in a separate culture than faculty are. The institution (and society) itself may foster walls between the two groups, but undergrads are adults living in the same town as the faculty members, probably going to the same restaurants and the same bookstores. They are not aliens. There are other ways to meet and communicate with undergraduates than lying to them about your job and eavesdropping on their conversations. Even the article about this woman’s research indicates that students were perfectly willing to talk to her when she was auditing a class, even when they knew she was also faculty. The bridge she’s trying to build is between an instructor and an instructee, not between the high reaches of the faculty and the seething scum of the undergraduate residences. An iota of respect, please! Surely there is a better way to cope with power differentials than this.

What also put my back up was the presumption that undergraduate life is this hidden frontier, that such a study was required in the first place. There are lots of staff and faculty members at any university for whom interacting with undergraduates in a non-class room setting is their mandate. There are staff living in the residences. There are student staff living next door to first year students, helping them with the adjustment to university life and getting to know them as people. When I read this article about Dr. “Nathan” and her research project, I felt as though she had opted to shut down everyone else, she was going to go experience it for herself rather than examine some “secondary” source material first. In the end, from the sounds of the article, the research was more about professional development on the part of this one nameless faculty member rather than ground-breaking research. She didn’t uncover anything those of us who have been working with undergraduates didn’t already know.

Now there’s a similar but entirely different project underway at the University of Rochester. But this time, they’re being upfront about it. The research is being conducted by an anthropologist in conjunction with the library, in order to help tailor services to the specific needs of undergrads.

To get the data, the researchers did such things as interview students about all the various steps they took from the time they got an assignment to the time it was turned in and give students disposable cameras with which to shoot everything from where they do their research to the contents of their backpacks.

The library’s research team — among them, librarians, a graphics designer and a software engineer — then brainstorm over the findings.

I’m interested in the results of both of these studies, but I’m quite certain the former will not hold a candle to the latter. What a great way to re-invent library services! How much more respectful!

A Generation Lost in Space

A Generation Lost in Space

Hot from my feedreader, this: the internet makes students stupid.

Although campus computing is often touted as aiding education, many professors say the Internet has actually hampered students’ academic performance. When asked whether the Internet has changed the quality of student work, 42 percent of professors in a recent survey said they had seen a decline, while only 22 percent said they had seen improvement.

Normally when I read about research I’m open to the idea that its conclusions might be true. I start from a positive place with an article, shall we say. But not this time. This may be a study of some kind, but it’s not measuring student output since the internet appeared. It’s measuring faculty’s perceptions of the quality of student work since they started listening to ipods and posting to livejournal. Don’t people always pine for the old days?

“The thing that I hear from faculty colleagues is that there’s plagiarism and cheating going on over the Internet and that there’s a worsening in the quality of students’ writing,” he said. “I hear complaints more often than I hear any kind of positive comments about how the Internet has affected students’ work.”

What’s missing from this study are things like measurables: have grades gone down since the internet appeared? Have fewer students been graduating? Are there fewer graduate students? Has there been a marked decrease in the level of published works by faculty members who spent time on the internet prior to finishing their phds? None of these sorts of markers were examined. All we have here is some nostalgia by some fairly aged faculty members (given that the internet has been in active and wide use for the last 10 years). But the key reason why I’m not all that convinced by this article is it’s secondary findings: while students are stupider because of the internet, faculty report that they are actually better because of it. They are in better contact with their students and their teaching has improved, faculty say.

Most of the professors surveyed, 83 percent, said they spent less time in the library now than they did before they had Internet access. But professors said that online journals, e-mail lists, and other Internet tools had become critical for keeping up with news and research in their disciplines.

Whether this is a change that makes their connection to their own disciplines better, or that makes their own research easier if not better than it was prior to the internet, doesn’t appear to have factored into this survey. The hint in it is that it might, though. Here we have faculty connecting with each other, keyword searching journals, keeping up with the professional literature from their desks or from home. Faculty claim to be in better contact with their (increasingly stupid) students, and also with their colleagues around the world. It would seem to follow that their research might have also improved. They are coming into the library less, but they are using library resources possibly even more than they used to.

I’m just not ready to trust contradictory hearsay research like this yet. This sounds more like nostalgia than hard evidence.

Return to MOO

Return to MOO

It’s been an interesting week. It started with a full-fledged return to MOO.

MOO is very close to being a dead technology. Back in the day when monochrome screens ruled and we did everything from the command line and the tab key, MOO was not that much of an imaginative or skill-level leap. Text-based environments made sense to us then. But now that the GUI is God, MOOs are faltering. While there are some efforts to force a GUI onto a MOO, none of these have been particularly successful. Users just don’t get it anymore.

But those of us old school enough to remember MOOs still tread backward from time to time to play with them. So I joined Jason‘s class on a MOO Jason threw together at the last possible second for their edification. The scramble to get it together, to put something into it to show off, was exciting. It felt like the old days. I found myself back in the verb editor again, making things happen, staring at long lines of code I could barely remember ever looking at and cheering when something compiled. I got to watch Catspaw in action again, which was just as thrilling this time as it was years ago when I first met her.

Building on a MOO again, and explaining to a group of students what it is that MOO affords, reminded me of why I still have a soft spot for it. While David Weinberger argues that the internet is conceived of as a place, there is very little remaining online that has the sense of space/place that a MOO gives. You don’t exist online through IE in the same way that you exist online on a MOO; in IRC you may have a registered nickname, but you don’t exist there. You can take over a mouthpiece and communicate, but you don’t exist as a unique creature. There’s too much that’s transient about the internet; your IP address varies, your terminal changes. A decision was made in MOOs long ago to create a physical presence for people on the internet; while you’re offline, your MOOself sleeps.

It’s not a small thing. These kinds of concepts have reverberations, and I think they’re just the kinds of reverberations we need. As we’re looking at elearning, at creating communities on the web for distance learners and even for undergrads on campus, a physical metaphor could mean the difference between a student who feels isolated and invisible and a student who actually feels that they can walk into a classroom full of fellow students, regardless of the distance between them in the physical world. Metaphor is at the heart of the internet. Metaphor is the key to good interface design, good connection with users, and the core element of a successful application. MOO has a watertight metaphor. But how to translate into a GUI world is a challenge.

So today I called a meeting. I enlisted Jason and Catspaw in the tea-filled afternoon of discussion. I even moderated; when the conversation went off in different directions, I tapped their shoulders and reminded them of the whole point. Interface. How can we build a good MOO GUI?

MOO is a dead/dying technology, but it doesn’t have to be. And I have decided to make it my personal mission to bring it back.

MOO metaphor is built around objects. You enter a MOO, you are a physical being within that world. You can be touched, you can pick up objects and carry them around, you can enter and exit rooms. You can smell the flowers. If it rains, you get wet. In the right places, you can get sick. You are a creature with a gender and a name, and the world around you treats you accordingly. The original interface is text only; the first metaphor was the novel. But no ordinary novel. A novel in second person present tense, heavy on the dialogue, written line-by-line by you and the people around you.

Is there a conflict between a book metaphor and a place metaphor? This might be part of the conceptual problem that we’re wrestling with. We understand MOO as a place that you go to, but it’s a place buried within a book. Do you actually “go” places when you read? In a sense you do. It’s a tenuous metaphor, but it’s a powerful one. When you read, you really do experience another place, a place that often feels incredibly real. You conjure it up with the help of the author and then navigate through it. For people who use MOOs, the people who really get it, the sense of place is perfect. It’s a novel about you.

I remember when I first started using instant messaging systems (late to the party in 2000) my friend and I felt frozen, cut off. We could speak to each other, but the rest of the language we used on MOOs was excised. We had no bodies, and thus no body language. We couldn’t emote. It felt flat.

Is there a place for body language in elearning? In ecommuniations generally? I can’t imagine an argument that would say no. In fact, the need for body language is apparent in the way people use IM systems. The proliferation of the language of smileys. The way people try to mime out their actions with a language never designed to allow for that (LOL, ROTFL). People using the internet as a form of communication still wrestle with this 2-D environment that IM systems create, even without having experienced a richer one. Even if most body language is unconscious, a lot more about a person’s meaning is communicated when we allow them easy access to body language. Giving people MOO bodies allows for nodding, smiling, eyebrow-raising, chuckling, the kinds of reactions that encourage communication and give a speaker some instant feedback. Just like the kind you get in real life. Body language is full of meaning. A smile and a nod can convey a lot, even digitally.

So we spent the afternoon talking about MOOs and GUI interfaces. In a perfect world, what would a make a good GUI? How can we translate this rich, novelesque environment into something current web users can easily understand? Just how graphical do we need to go to give people a sense of space?

Another thing that’s driving my return to MOO is (finally) reading Snow Crash. Jason has been trying to get me to read it for years, and I finally gave in. I see why he was pushing it. Snow Crash contains a vision of the internet that never materialized; one in which we actually go there, see and are seen, interact, communicate, and exist. We have homes if we can afford them, we traverse digital space. We work within the faux-laws of gravity and space only inasmuch as we don’t know how to hack them (yet). There are scenes in this book where people are in two places at once; they are in the Metaverse talking to people in difference time zones, and they are in a car, driving from one dingy California location to another. The internet as a second world where we can recreate ourselves never entirely manifested itself.

So in our long conversation about how to translate MOO to a new generation of internet users, we started in one direction and ended going a completely other way. What do we cut out; the idea that everything is built and communicated in text, or shall we create a world where everything is communicated visually? Which is richer? Which is the viable option?

The best part of getting involved in software development is the realization that it’s not the code that makes something work, or that makes something good. It’s getting the concept clear, and getting the metaphor right. If we get it right, the rest will follow.