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Books vs. Screens: The Disingenuous Argument

Books vs. Screens: The Disingenuous Argument

The UT Librarians Blog posted another authorless post I have attempted to comment on; while they announced some time ago that the blog would no longer put comments in a moderation queue, I seem to be stuck in one. Again. And thus:

The post in question is a link to the Globe and Mail article entitled, “Books Vs. Screens: Which should Your Kids be Reading?” The article contains such wisdom as:

In Britain, University of Oxford neuroscientist and former Royal Institution director Susan Greenfield revealed a far different vision – one that could have come straight out of an Atwoodian dystopia – when she warned that Internet-driven “mind change” was comparable with climate change as a threat to the species, “skewing the brain” to operate in an infantalized mode and creating “a world in which we are all required to become autistic.”

Less dire but no less pointed warnings have come from Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “I do think something is going to be lost with the Twitter brain,” she said in an interview.

The UT Librarians (apparently collectively) said:

Is this something we should be thinking about? Deep Reading vs. Screen Reading? In today’s Globe & Mail, Dec. 12, 2011, John Barber, examines recent studies on screen reading vs. what is being called deep reading – something to consider as educators and leaders in our fields.

On the platform, reading

And now, finally, my reply from the moderation queue:

This is blatant scare-mongering, and disingenuous to boot. Comparing reading novels to reading tweets is like saying the card catalogue, with it’s tiny bits of information, was a threat to “deep thinking”.

There are many kinds of reading, and literate people engage in many of them, sometimes within the same afternoon. People who follow Margaret Atwood also, as a general rule, read novels. “Screen reading” pontificators need to spend some time looking at the actual reading (and writing) going on on the internet. Like BookCountry, from Penguin, which is practically brand new, and fictionpress. Look at all that reading and writing going on! Reading and writing of lengthy bits of writing, no less, and on screens! If you’re brave, look at (there are 56k stories on there about the television show Glee alone) or AO3 (which, for the record, has works over 100k words long with as many views and thousands of comments from readers). Lots of people read online, and form communities around texts. It might not be the kind of reading you want to see, but it’s sustained, lengthy, uninterrupted, and on screens.

We need to stop fixating on the form content takes. What the screen is providing is a platform for people who would never get their work passed through publishing houses and editors, and while you may scoff at that (because we all know money is the ultimate test of whether or not something has value, right?), there is more text to read and engage with now than ever before, and people are engaging. Young people are engaging. Some of that text is in short format (like twitter). Some of it is so long publishers would balk at the idea of trying to publish it in physical form. It doesn’t matter if it’s on a screen. Content in content. This new form has the potential to save the monograph, not just to kill it. The form of the novel, the short story, the extended series, the monograph are all alive and well and being published online.

I think, as librarians, we should be concerned with providing access to content, and, perhaps, providing platforms for content to be published, found, and engaged with on every level (deep or browse). Marrying ourselves to paper is the death knell of this profession.

Spooky and I enjoy the Nook--Daily Image 2011--October 2



I’m starting to think that compassion may be a learned skill rather than an innate trait. I know we like to think of all the best qualities of human beings as something we have intrinsically but society squeezes them out of us, but I suspect compassion may be more complicated.

Or maybe not. Maybe we just live in societies that make it harder to keep at the forefront.

What is it they say? That our societies have grown too big, and that’s why urban dwellers have all these ticks to help them avoid noticing that the herd they’re running in is far, far too large to fully comprehend? Ignoring strangers on the bus, keeping our eyes averted while walking on the sidewalk? Is the absence of compassion a result of all that?

I don’t know. But it seems to me that it’s work to remember that every human being has struggles of their own that you may not be able to read on their bodies and faces (if you bothered to read their bodies or their faces, that is). And I’ve decided that compassion is something I’m going to spend more time deliberately drawing out of myself. I shall consider it constantly.

I say all this because I’m increasingly aware of the absence of compassion we tend to show students. We so often seem to assume the worst of them. I don’t really know why; we were all students ourselves once. Why is it so easy for us to forget what it was like? Or are we actually contemptuous of our younger selves, the ones trying to sneak a better grade in any way possible, rejoicing at every holiday and snow day, sleeping through morning lectures and drinking into the wee hours? Is it a form of self-flagellation to assume that all students are lazy and need to be controlled through our obscure and pointless policies?

Or is it just that we get so used to answering the same questions over and over, or dealing with bad behaviour every day, that we assume everyone is stupid and/or malicious? Relentless familiarity? Do we see faces we classify as “students” so often that they all start to look the same, and become some giant annoying creature who just never learns? I guess that’s where my call for compassion comes in.

But then I’m an optimistic sort, I don’t tend to imagine the worst of people. Quite the opposite, I think everyone is basically good and wants to do the right thing. (I suppose this may not actually be true, but I struggle to completely accept that.) I don’t usually deal with the same questions every day, but when I do, I generally remember that this is the first time this particular person has asked that question. When I will try to remember is that if they’re asking this question at the very last possible minute, there may be for very good reasons for that which are none of my business.

So my word of the day/week/year is compassion. And I will go on trying to hone my skills in that department.

Academic Fandom: Collaborative Doctoral Work

Academic Fandom: Collaborative Doctoral Work

I really miss school.

I work at a school, yes. But I miss being a student in one. Many people think I’m crazy, but I love being in school. I love the reading, the writing, and most of all the discussion. I’m a Harvard graduate, I know what it can be like to sit in a room full of extremely bright people and wrestle with a thorny problem. I love not knowing and struggling to understand, throwing ideas at the wall and seeing if any of them work.

But I’m a drop-out. I dropped out of a phd program at the very institution at which I am currently employed, in fact. It’s simultaneously the hardest thing I’ve ever done, the smartest decision I ever made, and the decision I am most likely to feel regret about. I don’t regret it because I want the life that would have come with finishing; I think I’m far better off as a librarian, playing with tech and managing projects and helping faculty with their courses, than I would be with a load of research and teaching to do. I adore my job, and I feel very lucky to have found this particular path. I only regret it because I’d like to do the work.

There’s nothing stopping me from going back. Not to that program, or that topic, or that department, though. I think I’ve moved into a new area now. If I were to go back, it would be in a very different way. And I wouldn’t do it in order to become an academic in the end. Not as job training. Just to improve the person that I am, and to enrich the work I’m already doing.

But you couldn’t drag me back to that style of PhD program. I was lonely, bored, confused about the purpose behind anything I was doing. I felt lost. I have discovered over time that my motivation comes from interacting with other people. This wasn’t immediately apparent all through graduate school because I was de facto surrounded by others. I didn’t realize how much my enthusiasm depended on the community. As soon as I lost that community, I seriously lost my way.

So I was thinking about it a bit, and talking to some doctoral students about the issues they’re facing, I think I’m actually on to something. I think I’ve figured out what kind of doctoral program I’d want to enter. It would go something like this.

You start a doctoral program with a group of like-minded people, interested in working together. In fact, I think the group should actually apply to a program together, be upfront about their collaboration. It’s not a huge group, maybe 4-5 people. Those 4-5 people have agreed beforehand that they want to work on an area of mutual interest. But each of them comes to the subject from a different angle, maybe even a different discipline altogether. They’re looking at maybe the same data, or the same subjects, or at historical data from the same decade, or the same region. Something ties them together, makes each other’s work interesting and appealing to each of them. It gives them a common language and common heroes.

They would all have their own advisers, potentially their own departments to turn to for support and guidance. But the group goes through their programs together, sometimes off doing their own courses and conferences, sometimes working closely together. If they’re doing data collection, the data is shared among the group. They may actually gather data together, and work from the same starting point. Sharing data isn’t plagiarism, after all; the insights you draw from it are the key part.

They discuss approaches and revelations, they have people to turn to when they are wrestling with a thorny problem. They influence each other; they also resist being influenced, or deliberately buck the trend. They read some books in common, but not all. Each brings a lot of unique insights and perspective from their own perspective, or discipline, or area. Comps would be a course (or set of courses, really) where the reading lists are created in an order that will allow all the participants to gain from each other’s thinking along the way. You read your own comps reading list, but you get insight from four others at the same time. Maybe they bring in speakers to talk to them. People to come inspire them or challenge them.

When it comes time to start writing, they have a structured plan, with key milestones and deadlines. They arrange to write their sections with commonalities at the same time, like writing a research paper for a seminar course. The writing process for the collaborative group might look like another set of courses, in fact: they take a “course” together to get each section or chapter finished, with a common deadline and requisite celebrations. They can get a mental tick mark as they complete each step, move through the process like an undergraduate moves through first, second, third, fourth year, graduation. The path of progression would be clear, manageable, collegial. The group could work together along the way to publish collected essays revolving around a theme or element of their collective work. They would meet weekly to discuss their work, their ideas, to be inspired and influenced by each other. They would work collaboratively toward independent goals that are inter-related and complementary. When they’re finished, their dissertations could be published together as a series of books, all related and referencing each other.

Chemistry already works this way, in collaborative units. I think if the humanities started doing the same, the work would be richer. And less tedious to produce.

After I thought it all through, I realized what I was considering: creating a fandom. A fandom in academia, around a topic/theme/group/region. A fandom with it’s language, traditions, communities, familiar cast of characters all re-written and re-imagined by each member. As long as it’s a fandom, it comes with a built in audience of people who are actually interested in your take on the very familiar subject. The conversations are deeper, the details and differences are more obvious. The process gains some meaning, even if that meaning is entirely about finding something to contribute to the group. Flagging enthusiasm can be bolstered up by someone else’s reinvigoration.

It’s not that it’s easier than the traditional PhD; it wouldn’t be. You’d still have to do the reading, pass your comps, do your languages if you have to, collect your data and compose your dissertation. It’s just that it wouldn’t have to be such a solitary task. I think this is the kind of PhD that could actually be fun to do. And wouldn’t the work be richer, with constant insight from others? It wouldn’t prevent you from doing solitary work. Solitary work is the foundation of most academic work, and, ironically, most fandom work too. But what is the benefit of solitary work? Don’t we learn better and think better when challenged and supported and listened to by others? Why do we cut so much of that out of the doctoral process? Doesn’t the solitary work gain meaning when it’s in aid of the collaborative? Isn’t academic inherently collaborative, with academics building on each other work, just at a relatively slow pace? From the slow process of getting an article published and the long wait for meaningful citations in future published work, it’s still highly collaborative. Just crazy slow. Would it be terribly wrong to speed it up a bit?

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.



I object to anyone getting homework. I object to it in elementary school, in middle school, and even in high school. University doesn’t count because it’s not homework. You could, if you were dedicated, spend only as much time as you spent in high school doing university level work and you’d probably still gets As. Think about it. 8:30am to 3:30pm every day, Monday through Friday. That would do it, including class time.

You know why I object to homework? It doesn’t teach you the value of work/life balance. Kids sit in those desks all day for hours on end, and then you want them to go home and do more? What are you teaching them? That they should eschew their weekends when they grow up and work themselves into a frenzy, burning out early? Sure, there are times when work has to come home. You do it because you love it, and you want things to be easier. But as a rule? Don’t do it. I wish I’d had this revelation when I was a phd student, because it’s crushing to think, every moment of every day, that you should be working. No. You shouldn’t be doing homework at 7pm on a Thursday night, little middle-schooler. You should be out playing road hockey or jumping rope or swimming in your best friend’s pool. That’s better for you, mind and body. Math can wait.

How to Dehumanize a Person in One Easy Step

How to Dehumanize a Person in One Easy Step

Today on the train downtown, I got to thinking about my sick leave. Before I had to take it, there was a big part of me that dreaded it, since I knew I would be very sick, but there was this other part of me, a smaller, quieter part, that longed for it. I just wanted the break. I was so incredibly tired and stressed out and panicked, the idea of a long time out seemed like a good idea.

And it was, for a while. There’s something about lying on an operating table and facing a cancer diagnosis that puts things like paperwork and job stress into perspective. My job basically faded away into the wallpaper while I focused on my health. My main priorities were sleeping and keeping warm.

These days, I’m back to work full time, and I love it. I love so much of what I do, I feel so lucky and blessed at every turn. I’m learning a lot of new skills that are sharpening my brain and organizing my life. My projects are interesting and challenging and fun. But some days aren’t as good as others for me, health-wise. I have bad days. I often have very groggy mornings that make it difficult for me to get myself moving at a normal speed. And some days I have pain management problems that make it impossible for me to do anything other than curl up and try to keep breathing. So I have to take those days off. Fortunately those days aren’t too common, but at this point there is nothing I hate more than taking more time off work.

I’ve been away long enough. I’m supposed to be all better by now. (Har har.) I want to be perfectly healthy and on all the time. I want to catch up somehow, make up for lost time. I love my job and the people I work for and with, and don’t want to be a losing proposition for them. While paid time off work sounds nice, there’s a serious downside.

I’ve come to realize how dehumanizing it is to have no working relationship with the world you inhabit. Does that make sense? When I’m not part of the human community as a functioning, productive member, I feel lesser. I feel embarrassed and cut off. I feel like a leech. I feel like my opinion is irrelevant, like I’m erased. I’m not participating, I’m not pulling my weight; that’s guilt talking. But I’m also not able to exert control/power/influence, either. That sounds more sinister. I’m not able to shape my world in the way I want it shaped, the way I think it aught to be shaped. I can’t argue my points and make my case. I can’t direct the flow of things. My presence recedes, the world doesn’t have my stamp on it like it feels like it does when I’m working. Work defines me in ways I wouldn’t have guessed. It’s linked into my self-esteem in a way that I find intriguing.

We are social animals. We build working communities and participate in them. The nature of our value comes from the ways in which we participate in our community and help improve it, or make it run, or provide some kind of service. I feel it most strongly when I have to miss work for unfun reasons, as if I’m being dragged out of my community; I’m being removed. My voice doesn’t matter as much, if at all. I’m dehumanized.

So then I started thinking about the numbers of people who are constantly marginalized in our culture, the people who don’t provide a service, who don’t improve the world or make it run. The people who are expected to be the recipients of our goodwill and charity. Those same people who get noses turned up at them because they are “lazily living off the public dime”. What a terrible place to be in this culture, where your input determines not only your community worth but your sense of self-worth. Am I overstating the point? I am certainly one of those people who want their actions to at least subtly alter someone else’s day/life in a positive way every day. When I feel I don’t have that ability or option, I feel shut out, on the outside, no longer part of the human community. It gets me down.

Everyone brings value to the human community in their own way. Perhaps this is the heart of why I felt I needed to build Cancerland in Second Life, so that at least my fallow period could be transformed into something useful. September is Thyroid Cancer awareness month. In my optimistic moments I can imagine that this blog and my Cancerland build are monuments to my attempt to raise awareness about thyroid cancer, to help others to cope with what they’re facing, to help those who love someone with thyroid cancer to understand what they’re going through, and how sick they are even when they don’t look as sick as you expect someone with cancer to look. I can spin it all that way. Maybe I need to spin it that way.

But it shouldn’t be that difficult to feel that you have value; on the flip side, everyone should have the opportunity to demonstrate their value in some way. Perhaps your disability doesn’t allow you to hold down a job; do you feel, as I did, dehumanized by that reality, unable to contribute to the all-mighty economy like everyone else? The bleakness of it jars me. My own guilt and formulation of “value” in that sense absolutely reeks of privilege. It makes me want to seek out and support alternative ways for people to contribute, regardless of their sickness or disability or personal struggles. There are so many wonderful things that can make our community a better one; they don’t all involve going to work every day. It reminds me of the power of play, the power of art, the power of voice. These things can have more impact on people’s lives than many workaday jobs. I want to have a personal revolution on the qualities that define that nebulous concept of an individual’s “worth”.



All humans are the limbs of the same body, created
from one essence.
If the calamity of time afflicts one limb
the others cannot stay at rest.
You, who remain indifferent to the suffering of others
do no deserve to be called human.

–Saadi Shirazi (as translated by my dear Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, heard on TVO’s Big Ideas podcast)

Robert Pickton

Robert Pickton

Guilty on six counts of second degree murder, with two more murder charges on the way. I don’t really understand why he gets second degree rather than first (I mean, after you did it once, doesn’t it become a kind of plan the next twenty-five times?)

What would be a nice result from this trial?

1. Make sex work legal in Canada.
2. Make sure sex workers can be easily located for their safety, and go find them when they go missing.
3. Provide them with a safe place to practice their trade.
4. Give them a living wage.
5. Ensure that they have access to clean, comfortable living accommodations.
6. Develop a regular medical exam regimen to help them stay healthy.
7. Give them a pension plan, dental and eye care, and drug coverage.
8. Provide them with a free college education.
9. Provide support to sex workers with drug problems.

Keeping sex work illegal is dangerous for sex workers, and I don’t know how much clearer that can be. Most of those 26 women would still be alive today of sex workers had be considered regular people like everyone else, people whose disappearance needed to be taken seriously and investigated.

This is isn’t just the work of a mass-murdering swine herder. This is institutional violence against women.

I woke up this morning and discovered that it’s the 50s again!

I woke up this morning and discovered that it’s the 50s again!

A UCLA faculty member recieves a big (4.07 million) award in response to her sexual harrassment suit against her former department, and the appeal request was rejected. Open and shut; the case was heard, and clearly there was ample evidence and the harrassment was agregious enough to support such a big award. The suit itself is pretty much what you’d expect; they didn’t give her opportunities that were granted to men of her rank, they were disparaging, they made suggestive comments, etc. But the killer is this:

In addition to the original complains Conney had against the school, it was discovered during court proceedings that her UCLA department had a secret reserve of money that they used to supplement the salaries of male faculty members only.

“You start to realize that these obstacles loom very large for women – there is a glass ceiling,” Conney said. “Women still bump into a lot of resistance when we try to truly become equal at higher levels.”

A secret reserve of money? Where does that come from? How does that work into their departmental budget line? That’s truly appalling. No wonder they have such a tetchy department, they have a passive-aggressive budget. Sheesh. I feel a little ill about this story. They kept a reserve of funds around to secretly reward the people they really liked, thereby creating a little secret cohort (an old boys club even minus the old boys!). This department deserves the public shaming its about to get.

For the first time, I’m feeling a little warmth for FIPPA. There’s something to be said for fiduciary transparency. [Via feminist, via Bitch PhD.]

Libraries/Homeless Shelters

Libraries/Homeless Shelters

From America Gone Wrong: A Slashed Safety Net Turns Libraries into Homeless Shelters:

In a democratic culture, even disturbing information is useful feedback. When the mentally ill whom we have thrown onto the streets haunt our public places, their presence tells us something important about the state of our union, our national character, our priorities, and our capacity to care for one another. That information is no less important than the information we provide through databases and books. The presence of the impoverished mentally ill among us is not an eloquent expression of civil discourse, like a lecture in the library’s auditorium, but it speaks volumes nonetheless.

This is exactly the kind of thing I needed to read in this moment when I’m seriously considering how best to understand the term “Information Professional”. [via Jeremy]

Political Junkie

Political Junkie

I’m spending the day watching the CBC live coverage of the Liberal leadership convention. What a nail-biter!

I am not and never have been a Liberal. I’ve never voted Liberal. I’ve always voted NDP. But as the country’s natural ruling party, I feel a particular stake in the Liberal game. I’ve never actively disliked the Liberals, at least, not often. I don’t find them morally objectionable. They’re just not left-leaning enough for my taste, so I side with the NDP.

But still. I want the Liberals to choose a leader I like, because that person will be our next Prime Minister, I’m fairly sure, and I’d prefer to like that person rather than feel a little sick at the sight of him (because it will definitely be a him at this point, thanks for trying, Martha Hall Findlay). I want to feel some affection for the Liberal leader, even though I’m unlikely to vote for his party.

Unless they pick Bob Rae. I will vote Liberal for the first time in my life if they pick him. Hell, I’ll become a card carrying member.

But that’s not looking all that likely at the moment. The second ballot gave us three final candidates (Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae, and Stephane Dion). At the moment I’m assuming it’s going to go to Stephane Dion, which I can absolutely live with. I would sleep well with Stephane Dion as Prime Minister.

I will not sleep well with Michael Ignatieff as leader, but at least I know I won’t break my NDP voting track record if they choose him. If consistency is a blessing. Michael Ignatieff scares me. And not because he’s smart. He’s no smarter than the rest of them. Bob Rae is a Rhodes Scholar, Stephane Dion has a PhD in Sociology. As a Harvard graduate, I’m not uniquely impressed that Michael Ignatieff is a Harvard professor. What I see is a guy who’s been living outside the country for most of his adult life, and deigns to drop back in and try to run the place. He’s never done anything like this before. He has and will continue to make public mistakes that will cost us (Quebecois as a nation, anyone?). I’m just not delighted about that prospect. Yes he’s smart, I’m sure he’s a great guy, but I don’t want him running my country. I’m hoping that, after the third ballot, if Bob comes in third, he throws his lot in with Stephane.

But boy is it exciting to watch! Lots of cheering, backroom meetings happening on the convention floor, people dropping out of the race and picking sides, dramatically walking across the floor to the new camp, greeted ceremoniously, all that. Very exciting. And we have Peter and Rex doing the commentary! (Rex Murphy: also a Rhodes scholar.) I couldn’t ask for better!

Once again, I’m just saying: if Bob wins, I buy a Liberal party membership. If not, it’s back to the NDP I go.

The $100 Laptop, revisited

The $100 Laptop, revisited

Today my friend Jason linked to an MSN article about the $100 laptop initiative: The $100 Laptop: What Went Wrong. Now, I have my issues with the project, which I’ve detailed here before, but the MSN article, it seems to me, missed most of the actual problems with the project and went straight for the non-issues, the solved issues, instead.

Some excerpts:

Then along comes the latest scheme to actually provide a unique hand-cranked laptop utilizing a small generator to power the thing.

First, I will try to swallow my pet peeve about the word utilize. (Why use the word ‘utilize’ when what you mean is ‘use’? What does the ‘-ize’ do for you? Make you sound smarter? More professional? I don’t get it.)

It’s not a crank, it’s a string that you pull, first off. Second, what do we mean by “a small generator”? A battery? A battery that gets charged by muscles rather than by plugging it in? I feel that the author used the term “a small generator” to make it sound more unweildy, and to me that’s intellectually dishonest. It’s just a battery. Just like the one in your own laptop. But different.

Besides incredible difficulties with the distribution networks in Africa, Zachary wonders who will maintain these machines. Generally speaking, a societal infrastructure with a lot of computers needs a lot of support mechanisms.

“And in today’s world the real value of a computer is it being networked,” says Zachary. “Finding a network in the poor areas is either impossible or very expensive.”

All of these criticisms are rather hallow, since they are addressed by the project. On the first poirnt, I don’t know much about distribution, but I know the project talks about that with the government in question before the deal is inked. As for support: I think it would be nice to provide support to teachers in particular, and I would like to see librarians get involved in that. (Librarians Without Borders, I’m looking at you.) But the people involved in the project are not support folks, it’s not their territory; they need the rest of us to rally around them on that point. Seeing something missing in the project should encourage people with those skills to step up; shouting from the peanut gallery isn’t terribly helpful.

But that’s not the support the author meant; he meant technical support, hardware support. The laptops ship with spare parts; part of the purpose of this project is help nurture a local industry around these computers, to create experts on the hardware in the countries themselves. I agree that there will be a need for these things, but rather than provide it from across the ocean, it would be best to have that expertise grow in the country itself. Again, I think this is something another profession should step in to assist with. What a fantastic project, don’t you think? Go help people in Cambodia or Namibia to become experts at hardware/software support and let them create their own industry. It’s a nice idea, where the computer becomes merely a product in a chain, something that could help improve an economy. I know this is what they’re thinking, and I think they have a point; but a little support to get it started wouldn’t hurt. But the criticism in the MSN article is crude and blunt, not as precise as an article about the project should be.

And as for networking; why, this author clearly doesn’t know a damn thing about the project at all. Doesn’t it sound as if he’s imagining the children of South Africa being handed macbooks, as if the leaders of the project failed to consider that an internet connection would be hard to come by? Reality: a) part of the negotiations include the requirement of the government to set up access points, and particular kinds. After that, the laptops themselves are the network. They use each other to share the signal. The laptop closest to you is your nearest access point. That’s why there’s no off button on the laptops; they’re meant to be running all the time, if only as a piece of the network. The moment I saw that link in the article I wrote it off; if you can say that, you don’t know the first thing about how those laptops were designed. How can you call something folly when you clearly don’t understand it?

But Zachary has a more profound point: “The fact that these people need electricity more than they need a laptop is only part of the problem,” he says. “The real problem is lost mind share. The people are harmed because these sorts of schemes are sopping up mind-share time of the people who might be doing something actually useful.”

I think this is actually a ridiculous point. This idea is based on the premise that there are only a certain number of people in the world who would do charitable work, and that adding a technology project just drags people away. This is simply not true. I think what the laptop project is doing is creating a piece that those people who don’t know how to help can contribute to in their own way. I don’t see this project stopping Heifer International or even World Vision. People like Sarah McLachlan are still going to donate their video budgets to charity projects in developing nations. I think it’s rather insulting to the very smart folks at MIT to suggest that they haven’t considered the implications of providing these laptops to children in developing nations. And who are we to tell the Cambodians what’s “useful” to them? MIT isn’t foisting these laptops on children; the governments, the education departments and all their advisers, are the ones to make the decision and foot the bill. If it’s not what they want, it’s not what they’re going to get.

Perhaps the organization should be thinking of the hand-cranked generator as serving that purpose alone [lighting the family hut] and not computing. Lights, along with cellular phones and radios, seem more important than laptops.

But…what if the laptop can provide light, VoIP, and streaming radio (which it can)? Do want to focus on one, or provide a cheap (free) solution for all three? This seems like a terribly unimaginative line of criticism.

In fact, this is a massive exercise in futility. And it’s a shame.

It’s awfully satisfying to knock down straw men, isn’t?

Affirmative Action for Underperforming White Men

Affirmative Action for Underperforming White Men

From Inside Higher Ed this morning: US College rejigs admissions to get more white men accepted. That might not have been their explicit goal, but it’s clearly their implicit goal; they’re accepting applicants who did badly at school but did better than average on the SAT. That sounds fairly reasonable, almost as generous as my undergraduate institution, which purposely let its admissions minimum trail that of other institutions (yay Carleton!) because, hey, high school represents a particular form of learning, and not one all of us excel under (yours truly very much included). But that’s not quite what’s going on at Towson University. By opting to privilege the SAT, they are knowingly privileging a test that has a well-known gender bias.

This is a classic case of test score misuse,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. “Towson University is relying on the well-known gender bias of the SAT, which underpredicts college performance for females and overpredicts for males, to recruit young men who have failed to compile strong high school records. Towson’s message to teenagers is wrong-headed: It’s OK to slack off in the classroom, so long as you do well on a four-hour test.”

And not only that:

from the Fair Test Fact sheet:

African American, Latino, new Asian immigrant and many other minority test-takers score significantly lower than white students. Rigid use of SATs for admissions will produce freshman classes with very few minorities and with no appreciable gain in academic quality. The SAT is very effective at eliminating academically promising minority (and low-income) students who apply with strong academic records but relatively low SAT scores. Colleges that have made the SAT I optional report that their applicant pools are more diverse and that there has been no drop off in academic quality.

So why are they doing this? Why are they purposely skewing admissions to get more underperforming white men?

Brian Stelter, a senior who is editor in chief of The Towerlight, the student newspaper, said that he earned a 3.4 GPA in high school and so wouldn’t have needed the new program, but he also said he wasn’t bothered by it. He said that the gender gap is a big issue for students on the campus, so he’s in favor of efforts to do something about it. “If you ask girls on this campus what they think, their top question is: Where are the men?” he said.

So that the girls will have a marriage pool of underperforming white men. Good to know that universities have their priorities straight (no pun intended, ahem).

Welcome home, Jim Loney

Welcome home, Jim Loney

Today, two Canadians held hostage in Iraq came home. James Loney was kidnapped in November along with three others from a Christian humanitarian organization, in Iraq as peace activists. I remember when they were first abducted, because there was a long piece on the radio about James Loney. An ardant and activist Christian, he objected to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The hostages were meant to be killed on numerous occaisions if the Americans wouldn’t release Iraqi prisoners; time and time again they were not killed. Family and friends of James Loney expressed their certainty that he would convince his captors that he was on their side. If anyone could do it, they said, James could. They talked about what he was like, what pushed him to put his life on the line and travel to Iraq. They spoke about him as a friend, as a sibling. How kind he was, how gentle and intelligent and thoughtful. He appeared to be the personification of goodness. And here he was, off in Iraq, a critic of the American invasion and a defender of Iraqis, all because of his faith.

I was struck at the time at this show of Christian morality; it’s not one that we see very often in the news these days. It wasn’t about Christians turning up their noses at gays or demanding that schools teach intelligent design or abstinence. It was about peace. About, presumably, defending the defenseless. About laying down arms. About avoiding war at all costs. On Thursday, the member of provincial parliament for his riding said:

James Loney and others put their values of peace and goodwill ahead of their personal safety, and we commend them for their perseverance under such extreme circumstances. We thank those in foreign affairs who worked so hard for their release [via]

It was a military intervention that brought him home today; James Loney was quoted months earlier saying that if he were abducted in Iraq, he would not want the military involved. That was how deeply he objected to the military presence there.

While lately I’ve been left with a bad taste in my mouth because of the antics of some other self-described Christians, I found myself gaining more and more respect for this James Loney fellow. He had a sincere belief in what Jesus meant to tell his followers; he listened to the pledge of the peace-loving (blessed are the peacemakers, after all), and took it to a dangerous and impressive extreme. He risked his life to follow his beliefs. What also struck me at the time was that he’s Canadian. We don’t hear very much about activist Christians in Canada, barring the few who protested the government’s recent decision to legalize gay marriage. I couldn’t quite hear about James Loney without hearing those other Christian voices echoed around his. I felt a kind of dissonance. I went to Divinty school, I know lots of Christians that I respect beyond all things, but I’m not used to hearing about Christians doing such good things on the radio these days. I’ve grown so cynical.

“For 118 days, I disappeared into a black hole and somehow by God’s grace, I was spit out again,” Loney told reporters shortly after his arrival on Sunday afternoon. [via]

Today he came home, after months with his own death hanging over his head. It’s a miracle that he’s here. The American in his group didn’t make it.

I listened to the coverage more carefully because I remember how I felt hearing about his abduction. Today, they spoke about the joy of the members of his church felt that he was coming home. A church in his hometown held a mass of thanksgiving, even before he had flown back into the province. [via]. He has become a sort of idealized Christian figure, the sort of Christian others should emulate and praise.

The part of the story that’s new to me about James Loney is that he’s gay.

“It’s great to be alive!” Loney said.

Flanked by his teary brothers, partner, and sister-in-law, a thin-looking Loney said he was still having difficulty believing he was free after almost four months as a hostage, and just three days after his rescue.

“During my captivity, I sometimes entertained myself by imagining this day,” Loney told a crush of reporters and photographers at Pearson International Airport. “Sometimes, I despaired of ever seeing it; always I ached for it.”

One of the things he most wanted to do was “wash a sinkful of dirty dishes.”

While he said he wanted to tell the story of his captivity and rescue, he first wants to slip into “an abyss of love” and get reacquainted with his partner, Dan Hunt, his family and community. [via]

What does it say about the Canadian Christian community that their latest hero, the man so good his practically shined over the radio, is a gay man? Not a gay man struggling to be straight, either; an open, out gay man in a long-term relationship? What does it say about the Canadian press that this fact has passed by virtually unmentioned? I discovered it by noticing that the radio report talked about the other hostages returning to their wives, and Loney returning to his “partner”. Later in the report they mentioned his “partner, Dan”. So they didn’t ignore it, unlike the web version of the story, which simply says that he was met at the airport by “family and friends”. Had he been straight, they would have noted a wife or a girlfriend, surely. But even so, other reports do mention it, and don’t remark on it beyond that. I haven’t heard a thing from the Christian community about this, though perhaps it’s not in the best of taste to decry the gall of a homosexual to run around the world representing their values when he is being held hostage and threatened with death. But even so; the churches are celebrating his return like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

It’s certainly interesting to watch, even though I can’t draw any conclusions about it. At this point all I can say is: welcome home, Jim.

An Open Letter to the Conservative Party of Canada

An Open Letter to the Conservative Party of Canada

Dear Stephen Harper and Co.,

It’s great to see you’re paying attention to what’s going on in the Canadian political and social landscape. I know you like to think of yourselves as vastly different from your Liberal and New Democratic colleagues, and the gay marriage debate is one way to underscore that. Look at that wide world of voters out there who don’t like the gays! Surely they will vote for you instead of those gay-friendly other parties!

I had the pleasure of hearing more about your party’s policies on the gay marriage issue this morning on the radio, and listening to the details gave me a great idea. Following your line of thought, I’ve come up with an idea: how about we legally change the name of your party, the “Conservative Party of Canada”, to the “Homophobic Party of Canada”.

Let’s look at the issues: historically, the term “conversative” has meant something different in the Canadian political landscape. There was a Conservative Party that merged with theProgressive Party back in the day, but for a long time a “Conservative” candidate meant a PC party member. You cannibalized that party, it’s true, but it was Brian Mulroney who killed it, and it’s disingenuous to take the name of another party in the hopes that people will see you as the same thing. For decades it belonged only to one group of Canadians. You can’t just take the name and expect to be legitimate. I’ve even heard people refering to your party members as “Tories”. That’s completely out of line; you’re not Tories at all. If we rolled the clock back 50 years no one would call you “Tories”. History is important!

Yours can still be a political party, don’t worry. I’m not even asking you to change any of your policies. I mean, you’ll still be an equal party among the other parties. We’ll make sure you have all the same legal rights as everyone else. You just can’t call yourself “Conservative”. It’s not really that much of a hardship, if you think about it. What’s in a name? And think of all the people who will feel better knowing that the term as they used to know it (see Joe Clark) will be legally preserved. We need time to adjust to these radical changes you’re proposing for us. Give us that time by not appropriating a name that you haven’t historically been given.

“Homophobic Party of Canada” is definitely descriptive. What, you don’t like the sound of it? Well, I don’t like the sound of “civil union”, but they tell me it’s legally equal to “marriage”, so I don’t see why you should complain. It’s still got the “Party of Canada” part to it, and you’ll still be allowed to campaign, collect funds, run candidates, and even be elected! Just like all the other parties! What more can you ask for, really. It’s all about preserving our historical definitions, after all. Right?



Dopey Grin

Dopey Grin

Dear God. Someone clearly told Stephen Harper to put on a dopey grin at the end of every complete sentence. “You’re too scary-looking, Stephen. Smile more. Yeah, that’s it.”

It’s frightening me more, quite frankly.

If I could vote for Gilles Duceppe, I would. Is that wrong?

Radio Open Source doesn’t Care about Canada

Radio Open Source doesn’t Care about Canada

I’ve been a fan of Christopher Lydon’s for years, ever since 1999 when I moved to Boston. So needless to day I was delighted when I discovered that he was doing a podcast radio show called Radio Open Source.

The spirit of Open Source will be open source — open as to subject matter, open as to views and voices. Our favorite oft-times caller on the original Connection, the famous Amber, once remarked to me: “Chris, you treat your callers like guests and your guests like callers.” We will try to extend the same open manners to the new show, and to the new website that comes with it. We chose Open Source as a name to live up to. [via]

I’ve been an avid listener. I’ve told all my friends about the show and send them links to ones I think they will particularly enjoy. I talk about it at work. So you imagine my joy when they announced three things at once; an open call for feedback on the site, and a live webcast the following week about what more they could do to live up to their name and engage their listeners, and a renewed call for show suggestions. I was so excited! I composed a long comment about web interactivity and some things they could do to help create community through the web. This is something I’ve done a lot of thinking (and writing) about. I was thrilled to be able to participate. I also added a show suggestion: the CBC lockout. If anything changed labour relations through a new means of production, it would be that. I thought someone should do a thoughtful review of those events, but I’m not sure it can happen in Canada (at least, not yet.) I felt like a “source”, just like Chris said. I was thrilled to just be able to make a suggestion, whether or not it was taken.

But then the webcast happened. What happened to the interactivity? There was none. I could hear the webcast, but I couldn’t be heard. There was no forum for users to react and respond; only an email address. A friend of mine, also listening in on the webcast, and I were getting increasingly frustrated as the folks on the webcast talking about how on earth to engage listeners while they devoutly ignored us. The feedback comnents? Didn’t get addressed at all. And the worst of it all was when someone during the webcast joked about how everyone in the room was “backchannelling” on IRC. Ha ha! How funny! What a nice little in circle they have, these folks who asked for our feedback, hanging out together on IRC without extending an invitation to the rest of us! My friend nearly choked with shock; I just felt sad and uninvited. Why did they ask us for suggestions and feedback if they weren’t serious about listening to it?

I was frustrated but was prepared to blame technology. These things happen, right? Maybe they didn’t know how to cope with hundreds of listeners banging on the door. Maybe they didn’t think through what it would mean to webcast something like that; dangling a carrot before us and then never letting us gett a bite.

But add insult to frustration today. Because today they responded to my little show idea with this:

So: not only were my comments barely noted and responded to, now I come from a country they just don’t care about. This, apparently is the best way to increase your interactivity with an audience; ignore them, tease them with the opportunity to “be a source”, and then kick them in the teeth and tell them that you just don’t care.

I’m sad and baffled by this turn of events. I really felt good about these people. I was prepared to do anything I could to help them with this neat radio idea. I was so behind them. And yeah, that phrase is kind of echoing through my head right now. I can’t think of too many things that would have made me turn away from something I enjoyed so much, on a medium I love.

I’m sure they won’t miss one listener from a country none of them cares about.

Edited to add: The resolution of this matter (the dramatic tension! the suspense! Will they resolve their differences? Will it come down to a match of steely wills, broadcaster vs. librarian? Will it be a deathmatch, and if so, will it be in the mud?) can be found here.

Why I am a Feminist

Why I am a Feminist

Because in the US, the latest nominee for the Supreme Court believes that men should have ultimate control over their wives’ bodies.

Because if you give a search for “rape” in Google News, it takes 0.23 seconds to come back to you with 14300 results.

Because in Pakistan, a woman can be sentenced to gang rape on behalf of her brother’s alleged association with the wrong person.

Because vaginal cosmetic surgery and labiaplasty are two of the fastest emerging growth trends in plastic surgery.

Because an estimated 130 million women and girls worldwide have been genitally mutilated.

Because since 1993 more than 370 young women and girls have been murdered in the cities of Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua – at least a third suffering sexual violence – without the authorities taking proper measures to investigate and address the problem.

Because In the US, someone is raped every 2 and a half minutes.

Because combatants and their sympathizers in conflicts, such as those in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, and Rwanda, have raped women as a weapon of war with near complete impunity.

Because <a href=" in Pakistan, wives, daughters, sisters and mothers are killed for the least sexual indiscretion and upon the slightest suspicion of adultery. Because

poverty is increasingly being feminized.

Because two-thirds of the world’s 875 million illiterate adults are women.

Because Arab militia use ‘rape camps’ for ethnic cleaning of Sudan.

Because the trafficking of women and children into bonded sweatshop labour, forced marriage, forced prostitution, domestic servitude, and other kinds of work is a global phenomenon.

Because a pig farmer in Canada may have killed over 60 sex trade workers before anyone noticed.

Do you doubt that we might organize the world a little differently if we had the chance?

How the Music Industry Encourages its Audience to Steal Music

How the Music Industry Encourages its Audience to Steal Music

I’m not the stealing type. Let me be clear about that from the start. When I was in high school every one of my friends got arrested for shoplifting except for me. I can’t cope with the idea of stealing. But man, the music industry actually makes me want to steal.

Actually, let’s start with the movie folks and work back to music, because my first example of stupid pet tricks on behalf of the people with a lot of money is the one they pull in movie theatres. There are those ads about how many people it takes to put a movie together, and how mean it is to download that movie without letting these people get paid for their work. Let’s leave aside the fact that the Best Boy and the Key Grip has already been paid for that movie and won’t get paid again whether or not we download the movie; they tell us this sob story while we’re sitting in the theatre with our paid ticket in hand. Why are they guilting the people who are actually paying to be there?

And this leads into what the music people are doing. The music people want to stop people from stealing music; but since they don’t think they can reach the actual abusers (or because they think we’re ALL abusers), they punish the people who actually buy their music. And how do they do this? They don’t let you transfer music files to your ipod. They restrict how many copies you can make. They’ll make music play in formats that aren’t likely to be supported past the latest operating system, forcing users to buy new cds every time we pass through another tectonic technological shift. And in a new turn of events, they put malware on your computer. Yep, that’s right: if you legitimately pay for music, Sony will make sure you get what amounts to a virus on your system. They will add secret files to your computer so that you won’t be able to do anything sneaky with their property. They will do this without telling you it’s happening, without giving you the option to uninstall it, and doing all this in such a way that if you happen to find the files and delete them, you will accidentally cripple your own system. [This via metafilter.]

I’m not sure what upsets me more; that the music industry can’t seem to come up with a logical way to cope with the fact that is the internet, or that they’re learning from malware to figure out how to disable systems rather than changing their business model, or that these people have opted to exploit the general technical ignorance of people in order to make people have to buy more CDs for the rest of their lives. Or maybe the worst part of it is that they don’t trust anyone, not even the people who opted to lay down cash for the product. Isn’t that what they want us to do? Does this make you want to support them? Particularly when you can download those same files for free, and you will be able to burn as many CDs as you like, transfer them to your ipod, send them to your sister, and whatnot? The music industry is setting itself up for failure here. They’re making the stolen product better than the purchased one.

Makes me want to steal some music, I don’t know about you. And as I said, I’m not the stealing type. Way to go, Sony!

If you could change only one thing…

If you could change only one thing…

I got this idea from Creating Passionate Users. If you could change only one thing about anything (or many anythings) what would that be?

Library Catalogues
If I could change one thing about catalogues, it would be the level to which cataloguing occurs. Someone would have made the decision years ago that the content of journals, books, and edited volumes is as significant as their titles and sought to catalogue those as well. That way, when the digitization thing started, we could have just encorporated full text instead of having to outsource the searching AND the content. But since that’s not one thing I can change, I’d like librarians everywhere to change their minds about Google. I’d like academic librarians everywhere to embrace Google scholar and do everything they can to make that the best source there is.

More service points. While I’m of two minds about the “get rid of the reference desk” idea, I’m very keen on multiple service points; mobile, digital, in your face, in your office, in the foyer, in the stacks, reference everywhere all the time.

Virtual Reference
An acknowledgment of the value of local reference as more important than 24/7 access. It’s more important to get the right person than it is to get some person. I’d also like to see v-ref stop being a reference-only tool and start being a system-wide communication option.

Blog posts don’t have to be short. I hate this idea, everyone always says blog posts are short and unthoughtful. Why would that be so? Is there a word count limit on a blog post?

A really, really good threaded comments function.

An extensive light rail system. Better public transit. And this is a second thing, but can we join the EU? Come on, were sort of European. Ish. (I’d wish for another two years before an election, but I know that’s a pointless plea.)

A cheeseshop. Is that so much to ask? Oh, and a real bakery would go a long way, you know, somewhere that sells bread. Inability to get bread caused the French revolution, you know.

More time to do it. That’s really it.

You know you’re a woman if…

You know you’re a woman if…

Via my friend June, Women don’t do tech:

Would you rip files at a high or low bit-rate? Do you prefer AAC, WMA or MP3? If you are completely baffled by these questions, you are probably a woman.

You wanna come here and say that, buster?

I find this kind of reportage odd and appalling, since this is completely not my experience of the internet. Many of the most technology-forward people I know are women. Granted, I tend to move in woman-positive spaces, but even so; there’s a tone to this article that rubs me the wrong way. There’s been lots of stats about how more and more women are using the internet, and how they use it differently than men; framing women as tech-idiots is really insulting.

Xfm DJ Lauren Laverne thinks it’s a shame that women aren’t getting stuck in. “I think a lot of girls are nervous that downloading will be too complicated for them,” she says.

Well, you know, math is hard.

Michael Brook, acting editor of Stuff, a gadget magazine that has a 95 per cent male readership, says that, like Marshall, most women are attracted only to new bits of kit that look nice and serve a purpose.

“Traditionally, technology is a male environment,” he says. “Women are less patient than men: they haven’t got the time or the inclination to read a 90-page manual and work out how to operate a camera or DVD player. They want instant gratification – simple, user-friendly, intuitive technology that they can take out of the box and use immediately. They lose interest if it doesn’t work immediately, whereas men view sussing out a new gadget as a challenge. It’s that whole toolshed tradition of taking something apart to see how it works.”

Don’t you love it when editors of magazine spouts essentialist claptrap to make up for the fact that they have yet to attract a key demographic to their product? Good times, good times.

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!

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!