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What I learned about Librarianship from the Signage on the Underground

What I learned about Librarianship from the Signage on the Underground

As a preface: I can get lost anywhere. I have no sense of cardinal points, I am a daydreamer and don’t pay attention to where I’m going most of the time, I can’t follow directions very well, and I struggle to make a visual connection between what I see on a map and what I see in front of me. I still regularly get lost in cities I’ve lived in for years. Being lost is a kind of default state for me. So, as you can imagine, visiting foreign city comes along with a bit anxiety for me. I know I will get lost. I do what I can ahead of time to avoid the worst of it, but it’s bound to happen. It always does.

So I was extremely surprised, and delighted, to discover that the one place I never once felt lost inside of was London’s underground transit system.


The London Underground is a rabbit warren of tunnels, and not just the ones that carry the trains. Because each line was originally built privately by a separate company, designed to work independently and sometimes in competition with each other, they were never meant to interact particularly smoothly or efficiently. At points, switching from one line to another, you might walk 10-15 minutes underground, turning this way and that with the crowd, going up and down stairs, and generally getting utterly spun around. If I were to get lost and feel anxious anywhere, you would think, it would be there. But never: not even once.

The degree to which I felt no anxiety in a tube station became a notable thing. Once I saw the roundel of the Underground anywhere, I immediately relaxed, because I knew it would easily and gently take me where I meant to go. So I started to pay attention to why I felt so confident anywhere near the Tube.

It’s the signage.

This is what the experience is like: you walk into a station, and you make your first decision: which line are you looking for? My home station was Victoria, which has three lines to choose from. Left for the Victoria line, or right Circle or District? That’s the one bit that’s easy to remember! I want the Victoria line today, so I go left. I don’t pause to think about it; the directions are clear. A few feet down, I get a confirmation: yep, this is the right way to the Victoria line. Keep walking. And stick to the right if you’re not going stand on the escalator, btw. Phew! Great! I can do that! I didn’t take a wrong turn! At the bottom of the escalator, the signs continue to direct me: yep, this way to Victoria line. Great! Still not lost!

At this point, feeling confident about decision one, I start thinking about my next steps. I want to go north on the Victoria line. I want to go up to Euston to switch lines. I follow the signs up and down stairs. I follow the signs left and right. Do you want to go this way? the signs ask me. Then go left up here. Yes, there. Well done, you! Go left! Look at that, there’s Euston on the sign! I’m in the right place!

Once I’m on the platform, I can see from every direction that I’ve done everything right. Even though I’m a tourist with no sense of direction, and only the bare minimum of understanding where my journey will take me, I have managed to get from the front doors of the station all the way down to the platform without pausing to check a map, without stalling with hesitation or sudden panic that I’ve taken a wrong turn, and without making it obvious to anyone that I’ve never been inside this station before. The London Underground only gives you the information you need at any given point to make a single decision. It guides you all the way to your landing place so gently you barely notice it’s happening.

Arriving at a new stop on the Tube, they make the experience of getting out very, very simple.  The signage tells you there’s only one way out.


This may or may not actually be the case, but having only one way out means you just follow the arrows. This way will take you out. Just follow me. It entire experience was so easy, so simple, so clear, it was practically instant: I was in love.

When I got home I looked up the documentation about Tube signage. Obviously nothing like that could happen by accident. Someone was doing this on purpose, they were pacing out these spaces, simplifying complicated underground walkways and intersections, and looking for points of confusion, then adding the signage required to keep people anxiety-free and moving forward. London Transport calls these “decision points”.

Decision points are the places inside the station where you need to decide what your next step in your journey needs to be. These decisions are so small and discreet, so absolute, that you can make while walking. London Tube stations are busy places, and people stopping to hesitate would create pedestrian traffic jams and angry commuters. They need passengers to make quick, accurate, confident decisions so that their journey is smooth and confusion-free. So they break down the process of the journey, and plot every decision required in every station and every corridor, tunnel, and stairwell, wonky passage, corner, and escalator, and then add the information to the walls to make those decisions happen quickly and easily. They are outrageously successful at this.

The Underground administrators have no idea what my journey is, but they know I have one, and that I need help along the way. Rather than try to give me advice about specifically how to get to Euston station, they just guide me there step by step, decision by decision.

Librarians have a tendency to behave as if patrons walk through the door needing to know practically everything about their journey before they take their first step. We haul out the maps, give advice about the weather and what footwear they need for the first half, and trace the entire experience out before they get past the turnstile. We may never see that patron again; we’d better make sure they’re well-prepared. For each and every leg of the journey. Then we leave them to their own devices, unless they want to seek us out again. What if we didn’t do that? What if we focused on reducing confusion and anxiety if all of our patron interactions by guiding their decisions in small pieces, manageable ones, rather than infodumping right at the start?

A research process is very much like a journey, with decision points along the way. What if all we focused on at any given point (on a website, in a reference interview, in a  physical library, inside a database) is getting to the next decision point? We don’t know what every research process is going to lead to, but everyone hits roughly the same points along the way, regardless of their final destination. If we hold back, and guide people through gently, one decision at a time, maybe patrons will look up at the end of the journey and say, “Well, that was easy.” That, it seems to me, would be ideal.

Of Horseless Carriages

Of Horseless Carriages

Tablets are interesting. I suspect they are an invention of a culture that thinks of itself as mobile but actually isn’t; North America is more of a walk-and-sit culture, which wants portable more than it wants truly mobile. But what’s especially interesting about tablets is how hard it is for us to shift away from thinking about them as computers (where  “computer” means a screen that sits in front of a keyboard on a table).

I’ve been experimenting with hooking up a bluetooth keyboard to my ipad. I’ve resisted doing that for the longest time, because I don’t like to fall into the horseless carriage chasm. I don’t want to think about a tablet as a computer; it’s a different beast. It’s not a mini workstation, and I don’t want to turn it into one. But because I’m leaving on holiday next week, and because I’m currently working on a writing-intensive project, I started thinking about how I could use my ipad as a real writing tool.

I think a software keyboard is fine most of the time. When I’m not doing serious writing (upwards of 2k in a sitting), I have no problem using a software keyboard exclusively. But a writing project is a writing project, and for that many words, I’m fastest and most comfortable with a keyboard. So I broke down and worked out how to connect a keyboard to the thing. I took it out for a spin one day, keyboard and ipad packed up in a purse, and set it up in a pub, in a coffee shop, and even on a bus. I absolutely loved it. I loved it more than I expected to. It was great. I’ve got the right apps to make it work, they all sync back up with my computer. It’s like a remote port of my computer; the whole project resides on my laptop, but I can take a comfortable keyboard and just the pieces I’m working on out with me into the world and work on them wherever I happen to be. Scene by scene, nothing else. It’s nice.

As I get closer to turning my ipad into a mini computer, I’m getting more sensitive about the differences between those two, conceptually. I don’t have a keyboard that’s part of an ipad case. My keyboard is a second thing I carry with me. That might seem awkward or odd, or at least less than ideal, I realize. But writing is a singular activity for me, and not one I’m always planning to do when I stick my ipad in my purse. I don’t want my ipad to always be connected to a keyboard; sometimes I just want to read on it. So I’d rather have a separate keyboard and keep the slim ipad case I’ve had since I first bought it. I noticed, when looking up reviews of ipad keyboards, that a separate keyboard is considered a disadvantage. Too much to carry, I guess, and it’s considered a problem that the keyboard doesn’t contain some kind of stand to make the ipad sit up like a proper screen.

That it’s not turning an ipad into a mini laptop.

Horseless carriage: there it is, isn’t it. If you’re going to have a keyboard, your ipad is automatically turning into a workstation. Why do we want an ipad to be a mini laptop? It’s not one. It doesn’t need to be one. A keyboard doesn’t need to turn it into one, either.

I tried working with my ipad up close to the keyboard, like a monitor, as if they were connected; it wasn’t very comfortable. So I moved it. I moved several inches back, where it’s easier to look at. I shifted it over to the left when my food arrived so I could read what I’d done over dinner. And then, finally, after far too long, I realized I could lay my ipad flat on the table, like a pad of paper, and type on my keyboard even though there was no screen in front of me. Because there doesn’t need to be one. I’m working with a device that’s more like a pad of paper than a laptop, and typing with the screen lying flat next to me actually works quite well.

Though I suspect it looks a bit strange to passersby if I’m sitting in a café typing furiously into a keyboard with no screen in front of me. But it feels great. And it made me realize that a keyboard isn’t the bottom half of a laptop. It’s just an input device I’ve come to feel very comfortable with. That’s all.

Web Apps to Watch

Web Apps to Watch

Here’s a short list of my current favourite and frequently-used web apps.

My current darling, Prezi, is probably best understood as a slick replacement for powerpoint, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a cross between a mind-mapping tool, presentation software, an interactive flash embed for a website, and a great way to present a whole mash of youtube videos in one simple document. Rather than flipping slides, you zoom from one element of the presentation canvas to the next. Perhaps what I like best about Prezi is the way it makes use of depth as well as height and width; your content can hide in small text, visible to the audience only when it’s turn comes along the path. Working in Prezi makes the web feel like infinite space rather than a simple text box or just the space within a monitor. I’ve taken to not only presenting with Prezi, but also creating presentations to add to our website and throwing ideas out onto a canvas to construct ideas and make plans (even when I have no intention of presenting it).

Prezi has an educational license, making it freely available to those of us in higher ed.


I feel like I’ve been looking for this web app for most of my life. Crocodoc lets you upload a pdf and mark it up. It has a nice set of tools; sticky notes, drawing tools, highlighters, text. You can share the URL and let others mark up the pdf with you, or download the marked up version and have a permanent, printable copy of your commentary. Simple, incredibly useful. Crocodoc has actually been an answer to reference questions at our library. Can you mark up a pdf document without paying for Adobe? Yes, you can.

Screenjelly and Screentoaster

In general, I’m not a big fan of the screencast. It focuses our attention on how-tos and distracts us from the deeper issues of any tool. However, there are times when it’s a heck of a lot easier to demonstrate how to accomplish a task with software rather than trying desperately to paint a picture with words. And if you’re going to do it, do it fast. Screenjelly has pushed me in my “quick and dirty” thinking; if you’re going to do video (which surely dates itself instantly), make it disposable. Don’t spend hours on it! Do it, post it, move on. Let it fulfill its purpose right this moment, and don’t expect it to be perfect. I like this attitude and this embrace of the ephemeral. And thus, Screenjelly is my friend. Screenjelly records what’s on your screen (and optionally records whatever you have to say about it) for a maximum of three minutes. Then it gives you the option to embed the video, just like a youtube video. In fullscreen mode, your video is sharp, crisp, and actually looks as if it’s your own computer, not a video recording. Screenjelly is surely the quickest way to show someone how to do that one little thing they’re struggling to do. Custom videos, made on demand! That’s music to my ears.

If you need something a little fancier than what Screenjelly can do for you, you can try Screentoaster. Screentoaster doesn’t have a time limit, it lets you choose a segment of your screen to record, and it will record and superimpose live video from your webcam into the bottom right of the video. So not only can your audience hear you explaining how to do something on a website, they can see you while you tell them!

These services are just amazing. And free! Outrageous!

Speak slowly, Scientists Warn

Speak slowly, Scientists Warn

(GNN)– Rapid-fire news from conversation with friends or too many stories from newspapers could numb our sense of morality and make us indifferent to human suffering, scientists say.

Scientists say updates from friends and family, let alone media like printed text, are often too quick for the brain to fully digest.

New findings show that the streams of information provided by newspapers, street signs, and conversation with others are too fast for the brain’s “moral compass” to process and could harm young people’s emotional development.

Before the brain can fully digest the anguish and suffering of a story, it is being bombarded by the next bit of information or update from one’s mother, according to a University of Southern Suburbia study.

“If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality,” said researcher Mary Helen Scaremonger-Yang.

The report, published next week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online Early Edition, which tries to update itself as slowly as possible because of these findings, studied how volunteers responded to real-life stories chosen to stimulate admiration for virtue or skill, or compassion for physical or social pain. Growing pains for the conversational art?

Brain scans showed humans can process and respond very quickly to signs of physical pain in others, but took longer to show admiration of compassion.

“For some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and refection,” said Scaremonger-Yang.

She said the study raises questions about the emotional cost, particularly for young people, of heavy reliance on a torrent of news snippets delivered via vocal conversation and text-based sources such as newspaper headlines and posters in shop windows.

She said: “We need to understand how social experience shapes interactions between the body and mind, to produce citizens with a strong moral compass.”

USS sociologist Beamish Boy said the study raised more concerns over fast-moving lives than the conversational-based environment.

“In a culture in which violence and suffering becomes an endless show, be it in a play, politics, or merely your means of employment, indifference to the vision of human suffering gradually sets in.”

Research leader Tony Dammitall, director of USS’s Brain and Creativity Institute, said the findings stressed the need for slower delivery of the news and conversation, and highlighted the importance of slow-burn emotions like admiration.

Dammitall cited the example of French Absolutist Louis XIV, who says he was inspired by his father, to show how admiration can be key to cultural success.

“We actually separate the good from the bad in great part thanks to the feeling of admiration. It’s a deep physiological reaction that’s very important to define our humanity.”

Conversation, which allows users to swap messages and use their hands to emphasize a point often in as little as a single word at a time, is largely seen as a solution to information overload, rather than a cause of it.

This function, it is said, “means you can step in and out of the flow of information as it suits you and it never queues up with increasing demand of your attention. You can just stop and ask someone if you want to know what’s going on. No pressure.”

(In response to this.) Ahem.

Twitter and the Library

Twitter and the Library

My latest all-consuming project is working to redesign/rework/completely renew our library’s website. It’s still early days, but there are certain lessons I’ve learned from my last all-consuming project (introducing coureware to the campus); you can never communicate too much. Even when you think you’re communicating enough, you probably aren’t.

From the worst days to the best days rolling out software to faculty and students, no one ever accused me of giving them too much information. While the internet is a very social medium, it can also be a very isolating one at the same time. When people are trying to get from point A to point B using some software that you answer for (even if you don’t control it), there’s really no way you can get too far into their personal space. They want to know that you’re there, that you’re anticipating their questions, that you’re aware of the problems they’re encountering. I never, ever want to go into downtime or unexpected system backfires without the ability to send out a message saying, “I feel your pain; here’s what I’m doing to help solve the problem. I’ll keep you in the loop.” It’s a lot easier to cope with problems online when you know someone somewhere is working on it.

And this is primarily where I have a problem with the static library website. The first page always stays the same; it’s generally got all the same information on it. This is good when you’re trying to teach people where to find stuff, if you think of your website as a static structure that should be learned. But it’s terrible if you consider your website your library’s (non-expressive) face.

I think there are two ways to think about a library website: it’s either a published document (heavily planned and edited before it’s published, published, then referred to), or it’s your communication tool. As a communication tool, it’s not published in the same way that books are published. It’s available, it’s public, it’s indexable, but it’s not static, it’s not finished. I kind of wonder if we should get rid of the term “publish” from these kinds of online tools. Sure, you put stuff online and it’s in wet cement (as Larry put it best), ie, likely to be around forever, but our concept of publishing suggests a kind of frozen quality, a finished quality. To me one of the best things about the web is our ability to leave nothing untouched. A communication tool, rather than a published document, should never look the same twice. It should always be telling you something new, informing you, reflecting the real people behind it.

So as we start laying down the foundations for a new library website, I keep thinking of ways to pierce it through with holes through which the real workings of the library, the real voices of the people who work there, can come through. I want students to get a sense that the library isn’t a solid object; it’s a place filled with people, people who work very hard to make things better for them, at that. People working to make sure the collections match the needs of their instructors and their course expectations, helping them with assignments, helping them find the resources they need, helping them use the software they need to use to succeed. I’d like to see if we can use social software to help make that work more transparent to students and faculty alike. Librarians do good work; everyone should see that work.

The first most obvious way I thought about making sure this transparency and easy communication was possible was through blogs. In my dreamworld, these long thought-pieces about technology and libraries would go on a library blog, not my personal one. But I’m not the only one thinking about things like collections blogs with discipline-specific categories, or reference blogs. Once this information is shared and online in an RSS-able format, we can shoot it in all kinds of useful directions. And then I started thinking about the things students know right now that they’d like to know: busted printers, software problems, unavailable computer labs, courseware downtime. How busy the library is. (Ours is more often packed to the gills than not.) The obvious things. We know about them before the students do: isn’t there some quick way we can tell them?

So then I got to thinking about twitter. Twitter for immediate messages. It doesn’t take up that much space, embedded on a page. And it keeps everyone to 140 characters. Like facebook status messages, but about the systems you’re trying to use. You can find out if they’re having a bad day or not before even trying to wrestle with them. I like it. Transparency, a little personality, a little humanness, and lots of communication.

We’ll see how it goes.

Binding Arbitration

Binding Arbitration

A morning conversation between me and Jason:

Rochelle: i am getting whacked in the face with a tail
Jason: check the contract. that’s a valid use of tail
Rochelle: hehe
Rochelle: he is sitting on my stomach
Jason: section 231b, subsection 13…
Jason: territorial rights and duties at dawn
Rochelle: so that’s where it is
Jason: bloody right. we got a grievance issue going on here
Jason: someone’s disputing my right of water bottle squirtage
Rochelle: oh dear
Rochelle: when does the lawyer arrive?
Jason: na
Jason: we’re in binding arbitration
Jason: locked in the same condo until we can work it out
Jason: could take years
Rochelle: hehehehe

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.

Cancer Redux

Cancer Redux

For the last few weeks I’ve been attempted to recover from treatment-related anemia. It’s not uncommon, and someone (including me) should probably have seen it coming, but I certainly didn’t. I haven’t been feeling well for some time, but I couldn’t accept being sick again. I just felt tired; everyone feels tired sometimes, right? So I worked through it until I started losing my balance and was so light-headed I had trouble concentrating. My doctor’s response, after seeing my blood test results, was: “Oh crap.”

Denial is an amazing thing; there may be no force more powerful.

But that said, in the last few weeks I’ve started to really come to terms with cancer. Easy to say: it appears to be well behind me now (just had my 6 month all-clear). I’ve gone through periods of cursing my body for doing this to me, for allowing this to happen, for creating cancer in me. But lately I’ve been turning around on that.

My body found that group of malignant cells before any doctor ever did. And when it found them it started coating the in stone to keep them away from me, to keep me safe. My bod deserves a pat on the back for that.

Things other than my tumour that are 1.5cm:



The world is awash in scent.

I couldn’t smell anything for a while, so now I’m hyper-attuned to it. I’ve got a running catalogue of the smells that populate my day; the faint smell of french fries in the front foyer at the library, the smell of green, growing things along the road on the way to the bus stop, diesel fuel and the whiff of old cigarette smoke by the bus depot. The closed-in, grassy smell around the doors in and out of the hallways, the rich, beautiful smell of coffee in the Starbucks across from the library main entrance (I don’t like the taste of coffee–too bitter for me– but the smell of it is fantastic). The smell of rain on the grass, the earth, the streamlet that turns into a roaring river during these repeated summer rainstorms we’ve been having; it smells alive, thick, mossy, on the edge of turning into something new. My hands smell like a camping trip (roasted vegetable sandwich for lunch, the smell of which just doesn’t seem to want to come off). My cat, with his saliva-tinged coat, smells clean. His fresh litter (untouched, fresh out of the container) is pure clay, unscented, and smells like the old concrete walls at the skating rink where I used to practice twice a week; like old stone, crushed and pushed into submission, crumbled by sheer force of will into something practical, like walls to protect us from the cold, a pool of sand for my cat to dip his feet into. The smell of my husband, always tinged with mint and water, which is starkly missing from my home now that he’s gone back to Virginia.

I went to the drugstore yesterday to buy shampoo. I spent 20 minutes popping them open and smelling their insides.

Goals in Second Life

Goals in Second Life

From Harry E. Pence, “The homeless professor in Second Life,” Journal of Educational Technology Systems, Vol. 26, 2 (2007): 171-177.

Some people try to classify Second Life as a game. If Second life is a game, it is a most unusual game, since it does not define goals for winning nor is there any method for keeping score. Each resident is responsible for defining his or her personal goals. Setting goals is just as important in Second life as it is in real life. The failure to regonize this fact may explain why many people drop out in frustration after only a short time in Second life. The confusion about goals has probably also contributed to the various articles in the popular press that focus on the sexual aspects of SL; pornographers have established a robust business model by preying upon those who are confused about what to do.

I love this idea of thinking about goals. Reading this paragraph gave me a mini-ephiphany. Unlike traditional game spaces, the system doesn’t give you goals; you need to come in with them, or develop them as you go. If you’re not prepared to provide your own internal motivation and structure, Second Life will indeed seem pointless.

The Birth of Israel

The Birth of Israel

When I was at Divinity School in the late 90s, one of the things I was required to do was to take two classes in scriptural studies along with my very free-wheeling program of early modern European history. I didn’t object to this, as it was useful for my studies in Reformation history and religion, but it was extremely new for me. I was a bit intimidated by it. First I took a class on the New Testament, which didn’t make that much of an impression on me other than to boggle at the art of parsing small collections of words to determine who wrote them and what influenced them. After that I took a class on the Hebrew bible, which intimidated me far more. Raised an atheist by devoutly atheist parents, I had at least a cursory understanding of the New Testament, given that our culture is saturated with it; the Hebrew bible was more of a mystery. But in the end, this class was one of the ones that utterly changed my world view.

We started at the beginning, with Genesis, of course. The first big revelation is that we have particular expectations of stories, expectations that are culturally defined, not “natural”. When someone tells us a story, a “history”, we anticipate that we are getting a basic list of facts. This is not the way middle eastern stories were told. Instead, they expressed truths through metaphor; take a familiar narrative and twist it in a particular way. We still do this, of course. But for narratives like this to make sense, you need to be well-versed in the whole culture in order to understand the signifiers. This is the same revelation I had when I took a music history class that finally explained to me why it was impossible to understand hip hop as anything other than an extraordinarily high form of art; to use the culture as your instrument, and manipulate it to say something new, with each note, each tone, coming with its own particular cultural resonance. To tell a story that isn’t just the straight narrative, but is a story that constructs itself in your head based on all the internal meanings of the pieces. To be outside the culture that created these kinds of narratives means that you won’t ever entirely understand all of it, like reading novels based on biblical stories without knowing the bible; you can understand the straight narrative, but not it’s inherent meaning. I was inspired by this form of story telling. I appreciate the depth of it. So my subsequent reading of the Hebrew bible brought me insights I couldn’t have come to otherwise, though I know I’m missing so much else. If you think about it, one of the overriding stories of the Hebrew Bible is that anyone who thinks they understand the will of G-d, the mind of G-d, is bound for failure. G-d cannot be understood by the human mind. To me, this was an important spiritual realization. Men and women since the beginning have been trying to find a way to communicate, to understand.

What followed in that course was a description of the history of the tribes; the nomadic history, the tribes who claimed land, the one who was dispossessed and became the priestly class. The remaining nomadic tradition that brought the key religious objects, the tabernacle containing the holiest of objects, to all communities in turn. I loved this idea; a movable temple, so that no one area laid claim to these precious objects. And how precious those objects were! Imagine: you have found one way to communicate with your creator and benefactor; it’s an unusual way, granted. You carry a seat, and this seat is the liminal space where your G-d’s space and yours coincide. This is the one chink in the wall between you and G-d; being near these objects is being near your G-d, not because they are divine necessarily, but because these are the tools that restructure space and time so that the hear the strains of G-d’s voice. G-d might well be everywhere, but this space, this little string and cans, is the only way you can make direct contact. And then the temple settles and is built in Jerusalem; the centre of that temple contains this special spot, the telephone line between heaven and earth. The communication lines aren’t just initiated by objects anymore, but are linked to this particular place, this special rock, this quality of the planet at this particular location. A tiny footprint of the planet where everything is arranged just right, the riverbed that brings G-d’s words to earth. As time goes on, this place is more and more protected; only the priests can go inside to be near this wonderful and dangerous spot. The course ended with only a mention that the following event is the destruction of the temple in 586 BCE. Just a mention.

Photo by Christopher Chan

The following term I took a course in comparative iconography. And the very first day, the instructor (the wonderful Kimberley Patton) showed us a picture of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. She told us: “according to measurements based on the placement of the remains of the temple, the Dome of the Rock, the oldest existing Muslim structure, sits over the place where the Holiest of Holies would have been.”

I was so struck by this image, by this reality. It’s as if the temple had just been destroyed for me, the implications hadn’t quite been revealed to me until that moment. There are no more prophets after the destruction of the temple, because there cannot be. G-d’s voice can no longer be heard. The means of communication are gone. These two spheres, the mortal and the immortal, still spin around each other, regarding each other, but no voice can be heard. No more fire in the bushes that does not burn its leaves, no more commandments, no more lost and confused youngest sons asked to bring an awkward, unwanted message to his people. No more surprise visits at the well. And here it is, that spot, the broken communication lines. The tools are long gone. The silence is deafening. I had to leave the room to catch my breath and consider it all, let it all sink in. The tragedy of it; a crucial, comforting connection, gone. To be cast adrift like that, never hearing the voice of a loved one ever again.

So in that moment I understood how contested that ground is, how high the stakes can be when history, religious and geography collide. So that’s my story for the 60th birthday of the modern state of Israel. G-d help us all.

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But you Didn’t

But you Didn’t

My sister is an artist, and I remember her telling me the standard line they use in reaction to the ultimately least helpful criticism a piece of art can get: “Well, I could have done that!” Yeah, but you didn’t.

I remember the first time I heard her say it; I was 18, she had just finished her first year of her BFA program at Queen’s University in Kingston, and I was visiting her in her summer digs. (Incidentally, that was also the summer I read Maus. There’s really nothing quite like those hours you spend completely sucked into a great piece of literature, is there!) Yeah, but you didn’t. I got her point at the time, on some level, but I think now I get it quite a bit more.

Art isn’t about skill. And that’s what those people are expecting when they say that; art should be something that the average guy on the street can’t concieve of producing on his own. He want to look at a piece of art and be awed. The easiest way to be awed by something is to look behind the curtain and see who’s pulling the strings. If you can’t see the strings, and can’t even get a look behind the curtain, there’s a level of the magic that remains. You can be in awe of someone’s technical skill. That’s easy. And i guess it’s easy to stop there and let the definition of art rest.

But what my sister said is that it’s not about that. The skill isn’t the point. The ideas are the point. The creativity. Saying something, doing something, producing something so surprising and unique that it hasn’t been done before, ideas that haven’t been thought before. I don’t know my artists all that well, but that fellow who put a toilet in a room as an installation: he was the first one to think of doing that. He’s expressing that every day objects are art as well, he’s taking something ordinary and humble out of its context and forcing you to think about it in a new way. Those are the things that can only be art once; the first time someone thinks to do it. After that it’s just derivitive. “But I could have done that.” Yeah, but you didn’t. And you can stand there and be scornful, thinking, what skill was involved here that’s so special, what skill is being demonstrated that make this piece of art worth untold millions of dollars? But that would be missing the point. That’s the tyranny of skillfulness. The point is the newness, and once it’s done it can’t be new again.

And then I think of artists like Van Gogh, who created things that his peers had nothing by criticism for. Paradigm shifters. The rest of us stand on the shoulders of giants; as a culture, we need to move incrementally from one idea to the next. We don’t manage radical change of ideas well. We need to be introduced to things slowly. For the vast majority of us, truly unique, paradigm-shifting ideas cannot even be birthed in our brains; we are too stuck in the hegemony of the status quo, too utterly born into the water of this culture that we can’t even imagine what lies beyond it. We can’t even consider that there is a “beyond” in the first place. That’s survival, that’s living in the real world. Is it physiological? Can we only progress so far in a lifetime? It you picked up a medieval man and dropped him in Times Square, could he learn to make sense of it, or is he shackled to the Great Chain of Being so much that his brain can’t make the necessary leaps? It seems fairly clear that, in general, people don’t like change. When we first look at a thing, or think a brand new thought, it seems ugly. Once we feel around the edges of it and understand what it is, why it’s wonderful, what it brings us, then we can see the beauty of it.

Once in a while, when I’m looking around at the world, I think about the fact that the very concept of seeing is flawed. We like this idea that we see things as they are, that there is real truth in what we see. But we don’t “see” objects and things, do we? We only see how light reflects off them. We see the particular way that light moves, and we wring information from it. No different, really, from echo-location; just using different senses. In medieval medicine, it was believed that you could get sick if someone looked at you, because looking at a thing meant that invisible tenacles reached out from your eyes and touched the thing you had your eyes locked on. Looking at a person, in that context, is a profoundly intimate and possibly dangerous experience. And in many ways they were right; looking at a thing isn’t nearly as clear cut as it seems to be. It could have been our noses that came to dominate, and we would “see” the colours of things based on how they smell.

And I guess we should feel awe about that too.

I can’t stop coughing, and this is what I came up with to occupy my head.

Power, Control, and Instruction

Power, Control, and Instruction

I’ve been working on a paper for AoIR‘s Second Life Workshop in October, revisiting the issues and challenges we faced in a text-based virtual world and the solutions we developed to wrestle with them. One of the things that’s been so surprising abotu Second Life is how familiar it felt when I first walked in; no matter how shiny the technology seems to become, it remains fairly similiar to the old text-based worlds in terms of useability and structure. And we seem to still be addressing the exact same issues. But looking at our challenges and solutions (former and current) brings home to me one of the central elements of education: power and control.

Power is one of those perennial issues; you can try to weed it out of your classroom, but its shoots are hardy and wiggle their way into all kinds of unexpected nooks and crannies. Power is written into the layout of the furniture, the structure of assessment and evaluation, the lecture style of instruction, and deep into the minds of students who have had a lifetime of being drilled in its norms and expectations. Even in a perfectly Marxist, radical classroom, where the instructor wears only jeans and a ratty t-shirt and regularly challenges his own authority, where every other privilege and dominant hierarchy has been unpacked and tossed out the window, the simple student/instructor power structure remains. Teachers have more power than they often seem to recognize. Maybe you get used to it after a while, and it becomes something you only notice in its absence.

There are two perspectives you can take on power and control in education, as far as I can tell; you can vow to dismantle it (which, it seems to me, primarily results in instructors dismantling the elements of power they don’t like/can recognize while retaining the parts that they do like/can’t recognize), or accept it and use it thoughtfully, purposefully, and as ethically as possible. The former seems like the right idea, but more and more I’m starting to wonder if the latter isn’t the more successful approach. More pragmatic and less idealized, I suppose, but if your end goal is create an ideal instructional environment where real learning can actually take place (far be it from me to suggest that a teacher can create learning in students, isn’t that yet another form of power and control that’s just assumed?), then maybe the ends justify the means.

In reviewing our old attempts to create classroom environments in a pure-text universe, it seems we spent a lot of time trying to control the speech and movement of students. (Unethical fascist! Micromanaging control freak! shouts the peanut gallery, yes, I can hear you from here, thanks for your input.) A lot of the overwhelm problems we had with students was based in the complete democracy of the space. The democracy of the space is what we love about it, honestly, but it has its upsides and its downsides. When a person speaks in a virtual world, they are no more or less important than any other person in the room; if the instructor gives a series of instructions, but fifteen students pipe up at the same time with playful exclamations, the instructor’s serious words are no more or less noticable, no more or less likely to be read by the rest of the class. When students come into a classroom, sit down and start chatting with each other, they hush when the instructor makes the typical motions that indicate that he is ready to speak. There is a culture of highlighting and adding weight to the words of some over others in a classroom. No matter how communal the instructor feels his classroom is, there is an element of power in his mere presence. There are no such traditions in virtual worlds. This is a good thing; this is also a painful roadblock.

Confronted with students who can’t make out what’s important and not when entering a virtual world (why, it’s all important, and up to you to determine which parts are important to you, says the peanut gallery, yes yes, I know, bear with me for a moment), we developed some tools to give us a hand. The web interface we were using gave all exits from a given room as links in a web window. Students would click on them, not knowing they were moving in and out of the classroom space, and missing half of the conversation. They didn’t mean to do it, they just didn’t know how to manoevre yet. They would get lost, or get confused, or get exasperated. So we built a very simple little tool.

Before we learn that classrooms are spaces with clear power distinctions and rules we have to follow, getting us in a group to do something together is like herding cats. So when we’re small, and out on a field trip to see the dinosaurs in the museum, they have us all hold on to a piece of rope. It shows us the relationships we have to the other students in a very concrete and physical way, and also makes very clear who’s got power and control over us in this situation. (Can we unpack the concept of “control” for a moment to see it’s upsides as well? The person leading us at the front end of the rope knows where she’s going, she’s serving a useful purpose. When we hold on to the rope, we’re doing it because we were told to, but also because we want to; we’re complicit in this power relationship. We want to go see the dinosaurs. We don’t want to get lost. The control is not in the person herself, but in what they have to offer right here and now.) With the rope, we can be safely brought to one place to experience something together; we can avoid the confusion of learning all the steps to a particular place in order to get there. That piece of rope is a particular bit of scaffolding to get us all literally and figuratively from one place to another. It’s a ramp to get us over the big procedural learning curve it would take to get there on our own.

We wrote virtual rope. (Well, by “we” I mean Catspaw.) We needed to get students over that hurdle so that they could see the point of learning how to do it on their own. We took control in order to help students come to grips with the meaning of a space, and then gave it back.

I’m still conflicted about power and control in an instruction/learning situation. I don’t want to restrict what students can and can’t do; I want them to explore and build their own knowledge. I’m conflicted by the fact that sometimes taking power and control by the horns and using it deliberately to show students where the tools are, how to use them, how to get comfortable with them and then dismantling it afterwards has good effects.

I just finished writing about a space within a virtual world where I hacked the script on a room that allows students to talk. I actually removed their ability to speak. I knew there were ethical issues with it when I did it, and remember how cautiously I trod with it, but strangely it was shockingly successful, and didn’t put people off at all. Can we be forgiven for these deliberate grabs for power in an instructional situation if it results in a more engaged and motivated student? (NO! shouts the peanut gallery. Okay, okay, mea culpa.)

B612 in Second Life

B612 in Second Life

“I am a fox,” said the fox.

“Come and play with me,” proposed the little prince.

“I am so unhappy.” “I cannot play with you,” the fox said. “I am not tamed.”

“Ah! Please excuse me,” said the little prince. But, after some thought, he added: “What does that mean, ‘tame’?”

“You do not live here,” said the fox. “What is it that you are looking for?”

“I am looking for men,” said the little prince. “What does that mean, ‘tame’?”

“Men,” said the fox. “They have guns, and they hunt. It is very disturbing. They also raise chickens. These are their only interests. Are you looking for chickens?”

“No,” said the little prince. “I am looking for friends. What does that mean, ‘tame’?”

“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. It means to establish ties.”

“‘To establish ties’?”

“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

My attempt to build my own B612. (Click the image to see it bigger.)


Welcome to the World

Welcome to the World

My sister (Melissa) was due with her second child last Friday. Last Friday was also the fifth birthday of her first child (Max). Now, Max himself was a week overdue when he made his entrance into the world, so no one was entirely expecting the sequel to arrive when expected. And so he didn’t! Last night when I spoke to my brother-in-law (Peter), he said they weren’t planning to induce Melissa today, but maybe next Monday or Tuesday.

This morning at 6:30am my phone rang, and I was so dead asleep at the time I didn’t quite register what it was until it had stopped. Got up, checked the messages…it was my dad, sounding very pleased. My new nephew was born at 1:50pm this morning. Yay!

So now I’m trying desperately to get back to Guelph to hang out with the family, but I gotta tell you: for a city that is a lean hour drive from my condo in Clarkson, getting to Guelph is hard. There is no transit link between Mississauga and Guelph at all, so the only way to manage it is to get into Toronto (due east) in order to turn around and go to Guelph (due west). And then, of course, the arrival/departure times don’t match up at all; I took a commuter train into Toronto, and then walked twenty minutes up to the greyhound station, and now I’m parked there waiting for the next bus (2pm). For a 6:30am wake up, you’d think I’d be able to do this a little faster, but there you have it.

Apparently Max has already been in to meet his brother, held him, and sang to him. I’m sure this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship. My mother, minus a great deal of sleep because of the 1am phone call, is currently out sleeping on her patio in the sunshine. My sister, apparently, went into labour so fast there wasn’t time for painkillers. I can’t wait to see her, but word on the street is that she’s doing really well.

I haven’t been officially told the new one’s name yet, but last I heard the frontrunner was Leo. My mom says he’s a very beautiful baby, and that he already looks just like his brother. My mom said, over and over on the phone, “he’s so sweet, so sweet,” which I’m sure makes him a very unique and special less-than-a-day old! He’s nursing already and everything.

On the travel upside: I got on the Toronto wireless network. If only Guelph had one. Hopefully I’ll have some pictures to post, once I get an internet connection again after the big auntie-nephew introductions.



If one becomes a librarian the day one starts one’s first professional library job (debatable: possibly one becomes a librarian the moment one completes a library school degree, or the day one graduates from library school, or some other key date I’m not considering), then today is my two year anniversary of being a librarian.

It doesn’t feel like it’s been two years. It’s really zipped by.

I feel like the luckest person in the world.

Quality Time in SL

Quality Time in SL

Hanging out Me and Jason hanging out in Jeremy‘s Dancing Tree. I’m particularly fond of that rainbow, personally.

Jason looking deviousJason looking particularly devious. Great suit, eh?

Walking in the WoodsWalking in the woods on Info Island.

Relaxing on a stellar verandaThe person who built this is my kind of relaxer; a hedonist’s patio! You can’t see this from the snapshot, but I love how the translucent curtains around it billow in the wind. Really beautiful. You can see Jeremy hunched over idle in the background, poor thing.

Listen to Live Music in SL

Listen to Live Music in SL

This is pretty cool, there’s a group of us hanging out in a Second Life cafe, listening to live music. The quality is pretty great, too; no lag, no skipping.

Live Music streaming through Second Life
Music in Second Life

I really love the way we can listen to one stream all together, and still be all in the same room virtually, interacting and reacting to what we’re hearing. We’re able to communicate with the musician and everything!