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Month: January 2009

Not Everyone Lives Like Me

Not Everyone Lives Like Me

What a relevation.

When I first started this blog, back when it was on blogspot and it was pseudonymous, no one had the rules about what you should and shouldn’t put online. It was still early days. We experimented, we reflected, we discussed. I remember being told that I shouldn’t mention that my doctor had put me on an anti-depressant when I found myself unable to get excited about the phd program I was in. You can talk about a broken leg, but not a set of broken synapses. At the time I thought: why shouldn’t I write about things I don’t mind others knowing? Each person needs to determine their comfort level.

Time went on. Everyone was still talking about it (and, I suppose, they still are, aren’t they). Yes, anything you publish online can be seen by in-laws, employers, potential employers, potential dates, etc. But if you take that into account and think, yes, well, I struggled, I survived; why not talk about it? Isn’t it okay? If you accept that someone might take issue with you one day? Or if you know, if anyone WERE to take issue with you because of it, they aren’t someone you’d want to date/spend time with/work for?

I have deliberately held things back from this blog, many times, with those things in mind. Anything I wasn’t sure I really wanted my real name associated with, I didn’t put here. And when I was having biopsies and was scared out of my skull about my health, I shut up on here. That was purely out of fear and denial.

I’ve been blogging for 9 years now, and I’m fairly comfortable with what I’m willing to put on my blog. When I started working, I wondered about what was appropriate, but nearly four years in, I think I’ve mostly got a grip on that as well.

I’m not used to people being uncomfortable with it.

Most of the people I’m close to have had blogs for years and think nothing of it. When I meet up with people, they are often “my kind”, and are hip to the blog thing. I mean, so hip it’s square. Blogs are dead. Me and Jason finally agree: yes, blogs are dead, because blogs are everywhere. Everyone has one, so yeah, their novelty is gone.

But not everyone is in the same place as me. Not everyone is comfortable looking at people’s lives online. I remember once in a while someone used to tell me that they feel like voyeurs when reading blogs, but I’ve never understood that. Anyone with a blog knows someone might read it. There’s no reason to feel secretive about it.

But that’s my realization today: not everyone has gotten immune to the fact that everyone can create content at the drop of a hat with the internet. Inner dialogues now have a platform on places like twitter and facebook. Our insides are coming out.

I’m used to it. I love it. I’m comfortable with it. I like to engage with the world around me on a deep level. I don’t particularly do well having casual friends; I have intense friendships, or nothing. So this user-generated web is absolutely up my alley. Why only know the surface when you can dig deeper?

But that’s not everyone’s perspective. I know, not a revelation to you. It’s just a reminder to me. My way is not the only way, nor is it the default, or probably even that common.

So I shouldn’t be surprised if my web presence makes people uncomfortable. No one needs to consume my productions if they don’t want. I’m so used to being half online all the time that I think of my web presence as being half my identity. It feels completely natural to me.

7 things you probably didn’t know about me

7 things you probably didn’t know about me

The rules:

1. Link to your original tagger(s) and list these rules in your post.
2. Share seven facts about yourself in the post.
3. Tag seven people at the end of your post by leaving their names.
4. Let them know they’ve been tagged.

I was tagged by Catspaw.

1. Everyone thinks my favourite colour is pink, because I have a pink camera, a pink phone, a pink ipod shuffle, and a violently pink raincoat. My favourite colour is actually yellow.

2. When I was small, I used to put bowls on my head. No one is sure why, but I used to want a bowl on my head while watching sesame street. Many of my childhood pictures feature these plastic bowls.

3. When I was in my first year undergrad, I used to mock a friend of mine who had a mac. I told her how much better my PC was. I am ashamed of myself.

4. I only made it to city track and field in high school once, but I won first place in my event. It was shot put.

5. My earliest memory is being suspended in the air in front of a large brick planter. The planter was so tall I could just barely see over it. But I could bounce, and while bouncing I could see a blurry greenness beyond the brick. This brought me great joy. That planter is in my parents’ backyard, and doesn’t even come up to my knee now. But they used to put the jolly jumper in front of it.

6. I’ve never consciously eaten cottage cheese. I have no idea what it tastes like.

7. I like the smell of concrete stairwells, that sort of rockish sort of smell. My cat’s unscented litter smells like that, so I really like pouring out new cat litter. Is that odd?

I tag Jeremy, Dorothea, Emma, Box_Nine, Erica G, Chrys, and Rob.

Lifecasting

Lifecasting

Based on the previous post, I am seriously considering a day of lifecasting with Jason and Alex. Not sure about the logistics at all let alone a date (Jason prefers summer), but I think it would be an interesting challenge. In sum: we record as much as possible of our lives throughout a single day, in as many media as possible.

Current thoughts: photographs documenting where we are, what we look like; video documenting us interacting with our environments, pets, spouses, children, and possbly some video updates of us describing what we’re doing and what we’re thinking about; uploaded documents that we’re working on, email we’re sending (where feasible); playlists of what we’re listening to, lists of any movies/tv we watch; IM conversations; snippets of audio of things like our alarms going off, breakfast being cooked, etc.; descriptions and photos of any food we eat or drinks we drink; descriptions and data of basic things like maps of the area and weather reports. If we really want to get serious, we could add in things like body temperature and whatnot too. Full documentation.

At the the moment I think we should set up some separate place for all this information too be stored. The first thing that comes to mind is that we set up a blog with a lot of bells and whistles, and everyone who’s participating gets their own category. So you could see it all at once, or by person. I’d want to use twitter, but I’d want tweets to show up on the blog as well, in between the blog posts, ideally in a different colour. Marked off, so to speak. Also, I wouldn’t want to use my normal twitte account for all this. I bet that would just annoy the hell out of people. No sure if a blog will work as the basic platform, though. We still need to think that through. Jason may have a point about waiting a bit.

The general point of this exercise, as I currently understand it, is to demonstrate how much “information” we can create on a regular basis, turn it into digital, archivable material, and to force the question about how useful it really is. I’d also like to see for myself just what is and is not comfortable to reveal. Some obvious elements immediately spring to mind; can I ethically copy my email to the project? (As long as someone else’e email doesn’t show up as well? Can I ethically, or legally, make someone else’s email, addressed to me, publicly available? I suspect that would fall outside the scope of the project.) Will I modulate my behaviour because of how I want to be seen? Will I alter my behaviour because I know everything is being recorded? Is the concept of perpetual web archiving an influencing factor in what I’m prepared to share online? Does it stifle my communication? Does it inherently alter the nature of the information online? Traditional media certainly is shaped by its storage medium; I can’t imagine this would be any different. More than anything I’d worry that I’m being boring; will I spend all my time trying to be as witty and entertaining as possible? How does archiving actually become the material? I’m sure there are many more questions, these are just top of mind for me.

I think before we really get started I’ll have a look at lifecasting as it currently exists and see what I can learn from it. I don’t really want to do a life stream of video for archive, because the sheer size of the file such a video would have to be when it’s running the whole day makes me queasy. We could do ephemeral live streaming (I have no problem with that), but that sort of defeats the purpose. More investigation on this matter is required.

Anyone else interested in participating in this warped little experiment? It’s just one day. I think the reflection on the experience will be worthwhile. We might even have to write it up. We have lots of time to prepare. I think we have a lot of sorting out to do before we can really go forward. We can get together and develop some basic policy around how we’ll manage it. Jason’s probably right about the summer. It will probably take that long to sort out the details.

You in? Come on, it will be fun.

The Plight of Future Historians

The Plight of Future Historians

Today, the Guardian warns:

“Too many of us suffer from a condition that is going to leave our grandchildren bereft,” Brindley states. “I call it personal digital disorder. Think of those thousands of digital photographs that lie hidden on our computers. Few store them, so those who come after us will not be able to look at them. It’s tragic.”

She believes similar gaps could appear in the national memory, pointing out that, contrary to popular assumption, internet companies such as Google are not collecting and archiving material of this type. It is left instead to the libraries and archives which have been gathering books, periodicals, newspapers and recordings for centuries. With an interim report from communications minister Lord Carter on the future of digital Britain imminent, Brindley makes the case for the British Library as the repository that will ensure emails and websites are preserved as reliably as manuscripts and books.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this imaginary plight of future historians, in spite of being a librarian. And it’s not because I don’t see the value in content that’s on the web. There are two sides of the question that I take issue with.

First: “everything should be archived”. This is simply impossible, and is actually misunderstanding what the internet is. If you understand it as a vast publication domain, where things are published every day that just don’t happen to be books, then this desire to archive it all makes sense. But is the stuff of the internet really published? Well, what does “published” really mean?

To be honest, I think the term has no meaning anymore. At one point, “published” meant that a whole team of people thought what you wrote was worth producing, selling, and storing. It comes with a sense of authority, a kind of title. It’s a way we divide the masses into those we want to listen to and those we don’t, in many different arenas. It connotes a sense of value (to someone, at least). Many people object to the idea that there’s value of any kind of the wild open internet, because just anyone can “publish”. I learned in my reference class at library school that one should always check the author of a book to see who they are and what institution they’re associated with before taking them seriously; if you fall outside our institutions, why, surely you have nothing of value to say, and you’re probably lying! Wikipedia: case in point. We have our ways to determine whether we ought to consider what you’re saying not based on the content, but on who and what you are. Apparently this protects us from ever having to have critical reading skills. We are afraid of being duped, so we cling to our social structures.

So many people just turn that “publish” definition on its head and say everything on the internet is “published”, everyone has a pulpit, everyone can be heard in the same way. I object to this as well. Turning an ineffective idea upside down doesn’t get us any closer to a useful definition of a term, or a practice.

Currently, this is how I define “publication”: blocks of text that are published by a company have been vetted and determined to be sellable to whatever audience the company serves. This holds for fiction, for academic work, etc.

Is content on the web “published”? What does that even mean? I think we start shifting to turn that meaning into “available”. If I write something and post it online, it’s available to anyone who wants to see it, but it’s not “published” in any traditional sense. If I take it down, does it become unpublished? Can I only unpublish if I get to it before it gets cached by anyone’s browsers, before Google gets to it? What if I post something online, but no search engine ever finds it and no one ever visits the page? Was it published then? If I put something online but lock it up and let no one see it, is it published?

I think we need a more sophisticated conception of publication to fully incorporate the way we use and interact with the web. I don’t think the traditional notion is helpful, and I think it presumes a kind of static life for web content that just isn’t there. Web content is read/write. It’s editable, it’s alterable. Rather than dislike that about the content, we should encourage and celebrate that. That’s what’s great about it.

There has always been ephemera. Most of it has been lost. Is that sad? I suppose so. As a (former) historian-in-training, I would have loved to get my hands on the ephemera of early modern women’s lives. I would love to know more about them, more about what drove them, what they’re lives were like. But I don’t feel like I’m owed that information. Ephemera is what fills our lives; when that ephemera becomes digital, we need to come to terms with our own privacy. Just because you can record and store things doesn’t mean you should.

And this comes to the heart of the matter, the second element of the desire to archive everything that irks me. The common statement is that we are producing more information now than ever before, and this information needs archiving. The reality is this: we are not producing “more information” per capita. We simply are not, I refuse to believe that. Medieval people swam in seas of information much as we do, it’s just that the vast majority of it was oral, or otherwise unstorable (for them). These are people who believed that reading itself was a group event, they couldn’t read without speaking aloud. (Don’t be so shy if you move your lips while reading; it’s a noble tradition!) Reading and listening were a pair. In our history we just stored more of that information in our brains and less of it in portable media. If you think surviving in a medieval village required no information, consider how many things you’d need to know how to do, how many separate “trades” a medieval woman would need to be an expert in just to feed, clothe, and sustain her family. Did she have “less” information? She certainly knew her neighbours better. She knew the details of other people’s lives, from start to finish. She knew her bible without ever having looked at one. Her wikipedia was inside her own head.

Today we have stopped using our brains for storage and using them for processing power instead. Not better or worse, just different. We use media to store our knowledge and information rather than remembering it. So of course there appears to be more information. Because we keep dumping it outside ourselves, and everyone’s doing it.

Not to say that a complete archive of everyone’s ephemera, every thought, detail, bit of reference material ever produced by a person throughout their life wouldn’t make interesting history. I think it would, but that’s not what we think libraries are really for. We do generally respect a certain level of privacy. It would be a neat project for someone out there to decide to archive absolutely everything about themselves for a year of their lives and submit that to an archive. Temperature, diet, thoughts, recordings of conversations, television programs watched, books read, everything. We you want to harvest everything on the web, then you might as well use all those security cameras out there to literally record everything that goes on, for ever, and store that in the library for future historians. Set up microphones on the street corners, in homes, in classrooms, submit recordings to the library. A complete record of food bought and consumed. Everything. That’s not what we consider “published”, no matter how public any of it is. We draw the line. Somehow if it’s in writing it’s fair game.

But that’s not what people are generally talking about when they talk about “archiving information”. I know this is true because the article ends with this:

“On the other hand, we’re producing much more information these days than we used to, and not all of it is necessary. Do we want to keep the Twitter account of Stephen Fry or some of the marginalia around the edges of the Sydney Olympics? I don’t think we necessarily do.”

There’s “good” information and then this other, random ephemera. I will bet you that Stephen Fry’s twitter feed will be of more interest to these future historians than a record of the official Sydney Olympics webpage. And that’s the other side of this argument.

This isn’t about preserving information for those sacred future historians. This is about making sure the future sees us the way we want to be seen; not mired in debates about Survivor, or writing stacks and stacks of Harry Potter slash fanfiction, or coming up with captions for LOLcats. Not twitter, because that is too silly, but serious websites, like the whitehouse’s. We’re trying to shape the way the future sees us, and we want to be seen in a particular light.

I object to that process.

Cancerland Video, version two

Cancerland Video, version two

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2HQGxbNMNY&hl=en&fs=1]

Everyone I know has already seen the first video, but after watching it myself a few times, I realized what pieces were missing from the build itself. To start: why didn’t I put labels on the spaces? I had names for the pieces, like the hall of terror and the scar display room, so why don’t I put proper labels on things? I also stopped making good use of audio after a certain point in the build. I didn’t want to be a one-trick pony, but I think the audio is very effective. So I added some more. I added some more interactive pieces into my office recreation too.

It’s all a big learning process, that’s for sure. Building something like this isn’t exactly instinctual, that’s for sure, even though I think it’s hitting on some very basic communication methods.

On a tangiential note: I love youtube’s high res options. You can actually read the narrative text through it. Awesome.

Why I like my Netbook

Why I like my Netbook

I’ve been puzzling over this, because I love my netbook (eeePC) more than I expected to. Now, I do like some gadgets, but only when I can see an application for them in my life. My first gadget was a second generation ipod. The moment the ipod came out I knew that was the gadget for me. Until then I would open up SoundJam on my clamshell ibook on the bus between Toronto and Guelph, stick in my earphones, and then close my ibook with my thumb inside it to keep it from turning off, and listen to my tunes. Ipods had moved into their second generation by the time I found the cash to get myself one. Now I have a cellphone as well, but I didn’t really feel that connected to it until I discovered text messaging. Now text is what I mostly use it for (other than calling my mom). It’s basically my mobile AIM client. I don’t have an iphone (data is way too expensive in Canada to make that worth it for me). I have a PDA, given to me by my employer, but I don’t use it anymore.

So why do I love the netbook so much?

It really turned my head around. Using it made me see one possible future for computing, and I’m intrigued. It’s a fairly powerful little creature, with a gig a RAM (could be better, true, but not bad), but without much storage capacity. It has 16 gig of storage space, which is more than twice what my first ibook had, to be honest. But in 2009, 16 gig is smaller than my current ipod’s capacity. So I can’t keep my tunes on it, I can’t put movies on it. I can’t put tons of software on it, either. It’s not exactly a digital “home”.

But then, what if things turn around and we use less and less software client-side? I can use google docs right now for all that word does. (My eee, running Ubuntu, has Open Office on it, however.) I can use splashup or others to edit images without a client. I can use meebo for online IM. I love twitter, and I can get a client for that on my netbook, but why bother? the online interface is pretty simple and easy. I don’t really need a mail client, since both of my main email accounts (personal and work) have decent web clients. What software on my computer do I really need?

As for storage: both my dad and Jeremy taught me important lessons in the last couple of months. I gave me dad a digital photo frame, and it accepts SD cards as well as USB flash drives. Why would he even put his pictures on his ibook? My netbook allows me to upload pictures to flickr directly off an SD card. Given how cheap SD cards are getting, my dad could buy new ones for each trip he goes on. What used to be a transient storage method (that cost serious dollars) is now so cheap you could just leave the data on them. He could have 16 gigs per trip (twice a year) and just store the cards. That kind of storage capacity is just never going to be feasible inside a computer. Talk about extendable.

Jeremy bought a 64 gig flash drive to store media on. It cost him $100. I paid more than that two years ago for my 1 gig SD card. My netbook has three USB drives. If I bought three 64 gig flash drives and plugged them in, my netbook would have more accessible storage capacity than my current macbook. If I bought as many 64 gig flash drives as I needed to partition my data, my netbook would have unlimited storage capacity. I could keep all my tunes on one drive, movies and TV on another, work docs and software on another, etc. I don’t want to have to open up my computer to add more storage. I’d like to be able to just plug it in. The size of those flash drives is only going to go up; I bet my netbook would have more storage capacity than my work and home computers put together pretty soon.

My netbook makes me think about a world where my computer is just a portal to other things, not a location in itself. Any computer can do that, sure; the netbook is just more upfront about it.

Also: my netbook fits in my purse. It’s low profile makes it perfect for use while sitting in cramped economy seats on overnight flights (Jeremy and I watched a lot of british television while on our overnight flight). I wouldn’t have to turn sideways to use it on a greyhound. It’s perfect for taking minutes, mostly because it’s so small that typing on it doesn’t hide you behind a screen. It’s great for the bar, which provides free wireless to patrons. I can use it and still have room for my meal. I can sit in a crowded auditorium and tweet about the keynote I’m hearing. I can connect with other conference goers without having to carry a whole computer with me. And if something terrible happens and it breaks? I’m out 300 bucks, not 1400. And because I don’t store anything on it directly, I didn’t lose any data. It’s a sturdy thing too, since it’s all flash memory and no moving parts.

It’s a form of casual computing that I really like. It’s the kind of gadget I would take with me while wandering around town, in case I wanted to stop and look something up, or blog something, or get in touch with someone via email or IM. It’s perfect for conferences. Why carry your whole life with you when you can just bring a relatively cheap little portal instead?

The small screen: completely not a problem. I thought it would be, but I adjusted to it really fast. I think Jeremy did too. When I returned to my macbook, it felt bloody HUGE. We’re getting spoiled by huge screens. There’s a time and a place for them, sure, but is that all the time?

The small keyboard: takes some getting used to, but I like it. I don’t have huge hands, though. (I don’t have small hands either.) Jeremy I think struggles with it more, but I can type pretty well on the reduced QWERTY. It’s just a matter of getting used to a new keyboard. But I don’t think I would suggest that it’s a keyboard to do all your writing on. It’s more a casual keyboard. This presumes that people have the cash to have more than one computer (something with a bigger screen and a big keyboard, and this little guy), but to me, the netbook is a nice addition to my computing family. I suspect I won’t be traveling with my macbook as much as I used to.

Anyone in the market for a beautiful black leather computer bag? I don’t think I’ll be needing it anymore.

Use of Video

Use of Video

I was launched awake at 4:30am this morning thinking about something I probably won’t be able to approach in the next six months, or even possibly not within the next year. Or ever. And yet.

I’m on a small team at work set on getting a brand new website. No facelift; something totally new. We’ve opened up the floodgates and are interested in anything we could do with a good web presence. Mostly I’m dreaming up more interactive things, which is a bit of a pipe dream. Library websites are usually not interactive on the level that I’m thinking about, but I’m still dreaming about it.

So this morning, out of nowhere, a very simple idea pings me and throws me out of bed. Virtual building. Videos. Navigating services and resources.

I’ve been talking about building a replica of our library in Second Life for some time. I want to do it less to get people interested in virtual worlds or in Second Life in particular, but more as a more interesting way to think and talk about the building and its purpose. I don’t want to lure people into Second Life (one of my pet peeves: people judging projects in Second Life by how many people who experience it stick around in-world). I’d rather they glean what they need from the experience and move forward in whatever way makes the most sense to them.

I want to have it more like an exhibit, a thing you look at and interact with in public places.

But then I was thinking: it would be dead easy, once you have such a replica build, to create short videos about how to get places. For instance: on our new website, we will probably have a section on reference services. Well, why not have a short video that shows you how to find the reference staff? It’s not exactly crystal clear in the building itself. Or how to find the technology centre, or the smart classroom, or the fiance learning centre. Or places for quiet study. Or places for group work. Bathrooms. Gosh, anything! Not a map: we already have those. But actually watching a person do it. Going down the stairs, turning right after the elevators, chosing the door on the left rather than on the right. Going up the stairs, turning left at the water fountain. The details that non-map people use to navigate their world.

Well, that’s not the idea that woke me up. The idea that woke me up was about videos that create themselves. I don’t know much about video, but I presume that’s not impossible; a video that is generated from pieces of existing video and strung together based on the circumstances of a particular set of variables. Does this take forever for a system to accomplish? What woke me up was this: wouldn’t it be awesome if you did a search for a book or journal, and the system showed you a video of an avatar walking up to the stacks and moving toward exactly where that book should be? If we had RFID on all the books this would be even more precise, but we should be able to roughly guess where a book (that isn’t checked out) ought to be. To the shelf, at least. And I got thinking about it because I was thinking about mobile devices, and having such a video play on a mobile device to help you navigate the stacks. A little bandwidth-heavy, but it was just a half-awake sort of thought.

Hacking Say and Reviving ELIZA Webcast

Hacking Say and Reviving ELIZA Webcast

Jason and I are doing a webcast on Wednesday, January 14th as the discussion arm of our article, Hacking Say and Reviving ELIZA. The article is our first attempt to consider our prior work in virtual worlds (text-based MOOs) in light of developments like Second Life. We still have a lot more thinking to do on the subject, as it’s a big one; we learned a lot back in the 90s about using virtual worlds in teaching and learning, and in constructing immersive experiences, and we want to bring our knowledge forward in a thoughtful, considered way.

Please feel free to join us to talk about these things. The article is really just a starting point for us, both professionally and as part of this discussion; we’re interested in a lot of topics re: immersion in virtual worlds, the lessons from MOO/MUD/MUSH, the directions we’d like to see virtual worlds heading, discussion of current projects, etc. Second Life is the darling of the moment, but we’re interested in the tools generally, not so much the company specifically, and even discussing what a future education-based virtual world might look like based on what we sense right now. Would there be one, or several, or would every school maintain their own? What’s the right thing? What about informal learning? How do we find the right blend to ensure the richest possible tools and experience?

Want to join us? The webcast is at 6pm EST, and you can find us here.