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Bits and Bytes

Bits and Bytes

Something to roll your eyes at: Republicans in the US Congress want libraries to block web 2.0 in order to get funding.

The Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) would require schools and libraries to block access to a broad selection of web content, including “commercial Web sites that let users create web pages or profiles or offer communication with other users via forums, chat rooms, e-mail or instant messaging.” Not only would the bill block sites like MySpace—where even libraries have set up their own profiles—it would also block instant messaging, online e-mail, wikis, and blogs.

Something to play with: a web 2.0 app that lets you add a group chat function to any website (even one that’s not yours!) I couldn’t get this to work properly in Safari, but it works nicely in Camino. I hear it works in firefox too! (Cheers to gabbly!)

And thus ends another joyous workweek.



Today I gave a presentation with Derek Williams, a History professor at UTM, at TechKnowFile, the U of T IT staff conference. Right before this started we discovered that they had booked us into a room with a class in it, so we had a last minute scramble to a new room. And then somehow between leaving home this morning and unpacking to give the presentation at 3pm I lost my video out cable, which really bums me out. I loved that cable, man. But amazingly they found me one to use for the presentation.

Anyway, all this is to say, when we started this presentation I was a little off my game, but we picked it up again pretty fast. In the end it was a lot of fun and there were lots of interesting questions afterward. Derek Williams is an amazing guy and a great instructor, and we used this tech_know_file presentation as a moment to talk about what he did with his Latin American history class this winter term. In sum: he gave his students something beyond a grade to work for. He asked his students to improve the content of Wikipedia.

You can download and listen to the presentation here: Wikis on the Move: TechKnowFile.06 [19 meg file].

Edited to add: I found my video out cable. I was on my bedroom floor. Phew.

Radical Trust

Radical Trust

An idea came up at the UTL staff conference on Monday that has stuck with me; it was from Stephen Abram‘s keynote, and it reverberated throughout the day (and the week): radical trust. Stephen was evoking and suggesting (as many people do), that we need to radically trust our users and let them add to our catalogues, add to our resources. Talking about this in terms of radical trust changes the dynamic of the conversation; rather than talking about keeping the catalogue “objective”, we’re talking about how we perceive students, what we expect from them. And I think the issue of trust is a completely relevant one. We tend not to trust students.

And it’s not just us, not by a long shot. This is the real challenge of the so-called “web 2.0”. We can’t control everything. The whole point of interactive technologies is that you can’t control them. The only way we can use web 2.0 applications is by trusting our users. We can anticipate the worst, and even have some policies in place to deal with the worst case scenario, but we have to have a general belief that students have a capacity to engage with each other, to offer something to an academic community, and that they will actually do that if we give them the chance.

The other piece of radical trust is one that shoots straight to the heart of librarianship; we need to let users radically trust us. This is the more dangerous option. In order to serve students well, the best thing we can do is let the students tell us who they are. We need to remember them, tailor our resources to their needs and interests, build on what they’ve done before. This is what does, this is what Google does. It profiles a user and delivers customized information back to them. It profiles a user. We hate this idea, I know we do. It’s tinged with commerciality, it screams violation of privacy. I don’t even know what I think of this one, frankly. We do need real portals. We do need to customize our resources; our information landscape is so turbulent and confusing, we need to offer some support. But do we want students to let us know these things about them? Do we want to keep records on them? We don’t want them to trust us that much. We don’t want the responsibility of that trust, because we can see how easy it would be for that trust to be betrayed. Should they trust us? Can we be trusted? Can we protect them once they do?

Digital Exceptionalism

Digital Exceptionalism

When people stand up to speak about the “information age” we’re living in, they seem to so often jump to the conclusion that the digital world is so radically different from what came before. Digital exceptionalism, of course, does no favours to us as librarians, us as users of information technology, or us as a culture.

I’m writing from the WILU conference at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Last night the keynote speech included a video about the importance of information literacy. Within it, the narrator points out to us a “fact” we’re supposed to already know and accept as a given; a person in 1500 could get by with about the same information as someone in 1400. But now, oh this is longer true now, things change so fast! Someone in 1900 would not have survived in 2000!

The big difference with the print revolution, and the digital revolution, is not that there is more information. The possibility of concieving of more information in the universe is not linked to the technology at all. A sense of how much information there is is something that changed radically in the Renaissance, but that shift had more to do with teleological change than technological change. In a world where you believe that God created a set number of qualities, elements, creatures, and ideas, and that the great multitude existed in the garden of Eden and grows only fewer in the prelapsarian world, you cannot have information overload. It’s simply not culturally possible. The people a generation before you had access to more information than you did, and your children would have access to less than you have. The cultural shift that allowed for the creation of “new” knowledge, and for knowledge to be built, was a bigger shift than the digital one we complain about.

I’m frustrated that anyone would create an information literacy video that was so blatantly ignorant of European history and yet still invoking it. The medieval world was not any less of an information society, nor was it one with less information available. The difference is that today we keep our information in referencable resources (like books, like digital media) rather than in our heads. I’m immediately reminded of the story of Martin Guerre. In short: Martin Guerre grew up in a small French village in early modern France. He married a local girl, and then went off to war. He was gone for over a decade. Then one day he came back. He said all the right things, recognized everyone, reminisced, returned to his wife. But it turns out he was not Martin Guerre. He was Martin Guerre’s friend. He had merely gleaned an entire life’s worth of information from the real Martin Guerre, and managed it well enough to take over his life. If that’s not an information revolution right there in one person, I’m not sure who is. We talk about identity theft now on less dramatic scales. The pre-literate world did not have less information. It merely expected us to keep that informaiton in our heads, to convey it to each other in a clear and accurate way, and process and take in that information quickly and efficiently. The fact that we keep information in books or on the internet is just a relocalization of information. There’s more access to information, because we can get at the information created by or discovered by more people, but we’re also able to be more selective about what information we consult and absorb. The near-constant abuse of history in librarianship circles makes my historian self cringe.

I can’t help but think historically when people speak about ideas about privacy, information overload, surveillance. In the keynote this morning one of the speakers suggested that we’re entering a brave new world, because if she runs a red light, the system takes a picture of her. She’s now always being watched, even if no one is watching her. Of course, before mass urbanization completely took over, if you broke a law in public, you would certainly have been seen and recognized; this idea of privacy, of being completely anonymous in the world, is like a very modern notion. To talk about the tremendous newness of this surveilled society seems like another form of exceptionalism to me.

Collaborative Software Podcast

Collaborative Software Podcast

This morning I gave a short presentation at the UTL Staff Conference about collaborative software. I recorded myself with my ipod and have reduced the original 40 meg file into a 13 meg podcast.

Now, during this presentation I was demonstrating software, so maybe you had to be there to get it. But you can download the file here.

A rough outline of what I was talking about:

1. Our UTM blog. I can’t show you that interface because it’s behind a lock, but it’s a general blog platform (written by UTM computing services) with an upload facility and comments.

2. Our UTM Library wiki. It’s a standard mediawiki like Wikipedia.

3. Writely.

4. Writeboard.

5. The jewel in the collaborative software crown: Subethaedit. This is one you really have to see to believe, I think. But if you have a mac, check it out. (If you have a mac and you want to experiment with subethaedit, ping me on IM or drop me an email! I’m more than happy to demo it with you!)

The podcast is about 38 minutes long.

The Man who Mistook his Wife for an Email Address

The Man who Mistook his Wife for an Email Address

In keeping with my current fixation on metaphors, I present to you our current bugbear, and my pet peeve of the moment: wacky email addresses. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a lot of universities have this same problem; students arriving on our doorsteps already married to a goofy email address, and not feeling any particular need for another (official) one. I’m talking about cuddly_girl1988 and hotstufflolxxox and This is the email address all their friends and loved ones know; so it’s the one they keep on using as students.

It seems to me that email addresses feel akin to phone numbers to people; this is the place at which you can be contacted, it is a set of characters completely without meaning, and you should avoid changing it at all costs to avoid confusion or loss of contact. Sometimes I wonder if an email is also akin to a personal name; you only change it in the case of something truly life-changing, like a witness protection program, an adoption and (maybe) a marriage. No matter how stupid it is (see Peaches Geldof about that one), you don’t change your name on a whim. It’s yours. Having to change it would be a fundamental shift that would throw your whole world into chaos, and no matter how important a change it was, someone would always call you but your former moniker, just because they’re so used to it.

Institutionally, students’ unwillingnes to use their school email accounts is a problem because the probability of these addresses getting typed in wrong the first time is so high. One little typo in results in a lot of errors when we need to send a student something important. It means a lot of password resets when they use these accounts with courseware. Every student’s institutional email address is generated by the system, and thus, it’s far more likely to be correct the first time. We have elaborate password schemes to (try to) ensure that the right person gets the right email. We care about privacy. We care about sensitive information staying controlled. Those are the official reasons for encouraging the use of institutional email.

What I don’t understand is why more students don’t jump at the chance to have an institutional email address. These folks worked hard to get into school; isn’t this email address a mark of that success? You have arrived; you are one of the elite pack. It’s like getting stamped with a particular kind of honour or authority; me @ this great and glorious insitution! ph34r my mad academic skillz! I’m a smrtypants! Yet, it seems like the majority of students don’t bother to ever activate their school email accounts. They stick with instead.

And thus, my latest metaphor: your institutional email is your interview suit. Your church outfit. Your best dress. The clothes you put on when you want to be taken seriously, make an impression, get a job. Institutional email gives you a degree of authority before you even open your mouth. Imagine a room where you need a certain amount of intelligence to get in; your institutional email address is like flashing your sterling transcript at someone, who then taps the bouncer on the shoulder and tells him to make way for you. it’s like saying,hey, I’m an adult, I got into a university, listen to what I have to say! I’m not just some joker. I belong. Not only that, but because this account can only be set up by an administrator, your addressee know for sure who you are; you’re the one with the name in the “from” line. Undebatable. (Though of course there are exceptions…but they are that. Exceptions.) Anyone can get a hotmail account; not everyone has an the right to an institutional email address. It’s a useful priviledge of membership.

Sure, you don’t want to wear your best clothes all the time. Your friends aren’t impressed by them; they know you and don’t care what you’re wearing. They just want to hear what you have to say. Your hotmail email is like your ripped jeans and your favourite t-shirt with the stubborn stain down the front that still doesn’t stop you from wearing it. But do you want to wear that outfit to a job interview? Do you want you thesis adviser or a graduate admissions committee to see you in it? Your might be kicky in some circles, but it’s not really the way you want your instructor to think of you, is it?

I can understand people liking the idea of having just one email to check, but I highly recommend two email addresses for everyone. You should have one for your “professional” activities (that includes your student work and communication), and one for your personal life. Have you ever been in a situation where you need to grab a document from your email in order to do a presentation? Have you ever had to do it from a computer that’s projected onto a screen, in front of a roomful of students and your instructor? Do you really want all your personal email displayed to these people? Do you really want to log in as in a situation like that?

Having two email addresses also means you can shut off school or work. When I need a break, I don’t check my work email on the weekends. Because I have two accounts, I can still check my personal email, and keep in touch with friends and family, without having to get dragged back into work (or school). Doesn’t everyone need a break now and then? Let the school account collect the “work” for you, and keep your personal email for everything else. It’s like having an office, and an office phone; you don’t want it ringing in your face when you’re at home watching a movie.

On the flip side, I’d strongly caution everyone from using work email (or school email) to do anything personal. It doesn’t happen often, but there’s always a possibility that an administrator may at some point be given the authority to go through that email. It belongs to the school/office, after all; that’s in the fine print. Don’t say anything in work/school email that would make you blanch if you knew your boss/instructor/administrator might see it. This is why I think everyone should have two email accounts; we always need a secondary channel. We need to be able to be a little bit off the record sometimes, though committing something to “paper” (even digitally) comes with its risks.

So keep Check it often! But don’t email your instructors from there. It doesn’t look good, and it just means you have to hear back about school stuff when you’re in fun mode. Activate that school account! That way, we all win!

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!

Joy All Over the Place

Joy All Over the Place

Google’s RSS reader. You need a gmail account to use it, but there’s nothing bad about the big guys getting in on the RSS bandwagon. The more readers the better!

In other Google news, Google has created a Librarian Center for librarians teaching Google tools to students. This is a company that just never makes mistakes, isn’t it. Nothing but love from me to the big G.

Yahoo and MSN agree to IM interoperability. This means that Yahoo Messenger users will be able to get in touch with MSN users without jumping platforms. Good news! Now, if AIM would join the party, we wouldn’t need to have three accounts to talk to all the people we want to (ahem).

This one isn’t a good news technology story. This is an op-ed piece by a Luddite writing for Wired. From Dark Underbelly of Technology:

For one thing, human beings are not meant to go as fast as modern technology compels them to go. Technology might make it possible to work at warp speed, yes, but that doesn’t make it healthy. And just because the latest software makes it feasible to double your workload (or “productivity,” to you middle-management types), that shouldn’t give the boss the right to expect you will.

With cell phones, IM and all the personal-this and personal-that, we’re connected all the time, or “24/7” as the unfortunate jargon has it. Is being connected 24/7 a good thing? Isn’t it healthy to be “off the grid” now and then? If you can’t answer “yes” to that question, you may be a tech dynamo, my friend, but please stay the hell out of my cafe.

This kind of stuff is so tedious. Being annoyed by people who use technology is so last week. The people who cling to their ipods are not actually the same people yacking away on their cell phones while you’re trying to have your soy latte. And why are we so worshipful of the notebook-toting poet in the coffee shop and so disdainful of the laptop-toting novelist? Is one inherently better than the other? (I say all this with a wrist brace on, an injury less the result of typing and more of handwriting, thank-you-very-much.)

And I’ll get on board with the “tech is not productivity” crowd as soon as they start making their own clothes from fabric they wove on a loom and washing everything by hand. We’ll see just how productive and efficient they are right around then. And let’s talk about being off the grid; how about you lay off the fossil fuels once in a while, big boy? When was the last time you left the SUV at home and took public transit on your way to get your electrically-produced espresso? The folks who write these “technology is bad” columns have predetermined which technologies they like and which they don’t without being entirely forthcoming or fair. These complaints have been handled pretty well by the “Dear Abby” crowd. Let’s not get too caught up in the glitz and glare from the shiny new laptop screens. Being a jerk in public is still being a jerk in public, whether or not you’re using a device that prefers to be plugged in.

In other news, Blackboard is buying WebCT. I know the whole academic blogosphere is abuzz with this news, and my jaw dropped as much as the next person’s. And yes, this is going to have a huge impact on those of us involved with such systems, whether or not we are current subscribers. Is this going to provide us all with a better option when it comes to course management systems? Is it a response to some of the very cool things going on with Moodle? How will a goliath system effect the development of other open source CMS products (like Sakai)? While I will be directly effected by this move, I have no direct opinion about it, really. I’m not a burning fan of any current CMS, so merges and changes just make me raise my eyebrows and nod dutifully. Will it make things better? Who knows. As long as the APIs are still around, I’m happy enough.

I have I mentioned enough times yet that Meebo is fantastic? It sure is.

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.

Still not Evil

Still not Evil

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

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

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!

ipod sheep, the Ignorance Premium, and Technological Literacy

ipod sheep, the Ignorance Premium, and Technological Literacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the Internet was Created

Why the Internet was Created

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

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

All hail. The man is a genius.

Tuesday Roundup

Tuesday Roundup

You can now post to a Blogger blog from Word.

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

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

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

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

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

A Generation Lost in Space

A Generation Lost in Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return to MOO

Return to MOO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dangerous Waters

Dangerous Waters

“I’ve been a librarian for ten years and I have to tell you, I feel like a fraud. I don’t really know where to start when it comes to figuring out whether a site is believeable or not.”

Wikipedia. The word that makes many librarians (and teachers and academics) tremble, or snort, or turn up their noses. I’ve been reading a fair bit recently about wikipedia and how we’re supposed to react to it, to think about it: there’s the Wikipedia Lesson Plan for grade school classrooms, which, while interesting, seems designed to underscore that the Wikipedia is essentially untrustable and of poor quality as a source of information; there’s the sad mewling at the Chronicle of Higher Education forums, where one academic says,

Having found a fairly serious problem on Wikipedia, I contacted the owners of the site. They were less interested in the problem than I was (they were violating copyright) and one of them argued with me about it. I don’t know what they did about it, but their attitude convinced me that these sites are not vetted carefully and while they might provide some useful information, they are not academic and should not be given even the slightest nod by academics. We could be sending our students into some dangerous waters.

The basic principle I glean from my library school education and from all of the discussions around Wikipedia is this: for a source to be creditable, we want it to pass through the hands of a third party, for-profit company. That is, essentially, the mark of success according to the old rules. Sure, we say we’re looking for peer-review, and most of the time that’s true, but it’s not always true. Do reference works pass through peer review? Not really. They are collected by an editor, but they don’t need to be peer reviewed the way an article does. Or the way a monograph does. I’m fairly sure the Oxford English Dictionary didn’t go out to 3 un-named reviewers before it releases updates. Many of these sources are simply prepared or written by people of some repute, people that other educated people respect. Sources that have been published by one of the Old Boys are waters free from danger, right?

Not to say that there isn’t some validity to the old rules. Having to pass through to a third-party publisher means that at least one other person has read over this work of yours and find it worthy. That vetting process is very important to academics; while so many seem to prize the ancient practice of thinking and writing alone and uninterrupted, they prefer the results of that work to pass through the hands of others. Communal acceptance is one way to divine truth, and since communal acceptance finds its hallmark in publication by one of the Old Boys, that’s one way to provide validation. That’s one way to sort out the truth without engaging with the subject matter.

I understand the fear a lot of people have around Wikipedia, I do; in principle, it’s chaos. Everyone can edit these webpages, and no one is entirely sure who did what. Anonymously imparted information sits there on the page alongside information provided by a known quantity. We can’t tell who has a phd and who doesn’t. We can’t tell who has published books on this subject and who is a construction worker by day and a Pliny fan by night. In the traditional world we want to draw big lines between those people and be able to have a mental picture of the author before we read the work. We want to know if the University of Smart Folks has endorsed this person or not. We want to see the Mensa membership cards before we decide whether or not what you say has value.

Because here’s the problem: while people are upset that Wikipedia isn’t authoritative enough and is likely to contain errors, we largely ignore the fact that the sources we hold so dear, the ones published by the Old Boys , vetted by all the right people, are filled with errors too. Encyclopedia Britannica was proved wrong by a 12-year old boy. There are reportedly numerous errors in the new Dictionary of National Biography. We don’t trust Wikipedia because there might be errors in it, but we have no problem referring patrons to these stalwart pillars of the community, errors and all.

There is a growing disconnect between the traditional conceptions of knowledge we inherited from the Enlightenment and our current understanding of valuable information. As David Weinberger so gracefully points out in his talk to the Library of Congress, Everything is Miscellaneous, the difference between the Encyclopedia Britanica and the Wikipedia is that that one is theirs and this one is ours. And librarians don’t trust ours. There are too many of the unwashed among us. We can’t account for them all.

The ironic thing is that the Wikipedia is the best example we have of pure peer review. There is nothing posted on the Wikipedia that is not vetted by a cast of thousands, including lots of accredited Smart Peopleâ„¢. Writing in the Wikipedia is like writing an article at a conference, with the document itself open and projected on the wall, and everyone in the room shouting out responses as you type, grabbing the keyboard from you, arguing about your facts and interpretations. The errors found in the DNC and Britannica would have been corrected rather than reported had they been wikis rather than paper publications. The problem with Wikipedia is that we don’t trust everyone.

The advantage of the traditional, print reference materials we work with is that we’re used to working with them. We know that they were produced by intelligent, qualified people who may sometimes make mistakes or overlook something or may not be able to remember every single little factoid. They are few and human, after all. But they are humans who have passed through the refining process of graduate school, of the interview and hiring process, the tenure system, and then, finally, through the final sieve of the peer-reviewed print publication process. We rely on all of those steps to create authority for us. We don’t want to look at a source and see if what its saying is reasonable, we don’t want to have to judge a source on what it actually contains. We want to judge this book by its cover. That’s our comfort zone.

But we need to move beyond that. We’re not living in a positivist state anymore. We can’t be objective, we can’t efface ourselves from the catalogues we produce or the reference advice we dispense. We can’t be the 19th century matrons who tell people what’s good for them and keep the stuff that will rot their brains out of the library. We just have to give people the tools to think critically, to ask questions of the sources we help them find. And if we do it right, we help produce the paradigm shifters, the ones who question even the people with millions of publications, with a research chair at Big Whoop Dee Doo University, and a sizzling article in Very Expensive Quarterly. And in spite of all our fetishes around academic publications and citations, that’s’ exactly what we want.

Video Killed The Radio Star

Video Killed The Radio Star

I spent today in Toronto, getting in some quality time with my favourite Torontonians in an outrageously overpriced tea house. The price tag, however, was justified by the fact that we were permitted to spend a ridiculous amount of time hanging out in the comfort of their establishment, hashing out everything from grad school to the future of instructional technology. I was able to show off my incredibly ability to drink two entire pots of tea in one sitting to boot.

I walked back to the bus station through a stunningly beautiful Toronto summer day. And on the way there I saw a policeman on horseback.

I’m used to seeing police on horses. They clop around Queen’s Park all the time, and Queen’s Park is right in the middle of the U of T campus. I used to walk through Queen’s park every day. And nearly every day I saw police on horseback.

Since he was right in front of Union Station at the time, this particular policeman on horseback was getting a lot of attention. All the tourist eyes were on him and his noble steed; the tourists pulled out their cameras, they pointed, their children trotted along beside the horse. No one said anything, but you could very nearly hear them thinking it: wow, look at that! A horse! On a city street! How quaint!

As I say, I’ve seen policemen on horses before, but this time, after an afternoon spent throwing around many and varied ideas about technology, teaching, and learning, I looked at this fellow and his horse a little differently. Here we have a society with a preferred mode of transportation: the automobile. We have built out cities to accommodate them. We build houses with a special added room our automobile can drive right into for the night. There are painted parking spaces on the streets, sized just so, because automobiles are expected to be a certain size, and that size can be predicted. The size of the car is one of the standard measurements of our lives, built into our consciousness at this point.

This is where we can so clearly see how good technology works, how good thinking about technology can lead to impressive results. While one technology may take over, become the standard, the obvious and the unthinkably necessary, the validity and usefulness of older technologies remains. Because there is a standard size for automobiles and because a congested city spawns traffic jams, a horse, which is not the standard size, can evade traffic. The problem presented to the standard technology is no problem at all to a older technology. The fact that one standard took over the transportation business means using a older standard gives police an edge.

In an environment where the latest thing is usually considered the best and only thing, sometimes an older technology can add something we didn’t think possible. Just a nugget of thought on a Saturday.

Mainstream Media Vs. Web 2.0

Mainstream Media Vs. Web 2.0

Moments like the ones we endured this morning, watching the tragedy of the London transit bombings, remind me over and over of the power of the internet. These moments of crisis act as a kind of case in point in the argument between the mainstream media and the forms of media developing online. I remember in the days following September 11th, 2001 that articles were appearing announcing that the internet failed us in the crisis; major news sites were bombarded and being dragged down into uselessly slow loading; while the internet was supposed to be rapid-fire, it wasn’t providing the news fast enough for its hungry audience. Live television, with it’s ability to quickly interrupt itself with the latest news, was faster at getting the news out. There was an air of “I told you so” about the articles, a sort of finger-waggling, reminding us that we still need the wire stories and our tvs. I read these articles and shook my head in disbelief. These people accusing the internet of failure were not looking for information in the right places. The internet did not fail us on 9/11, and it didn’t fail us this time, either.

The mainstream media cannot do what the internet does; it can’t connect us to each other. On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was getting my reports from a friend of mine living in Manhattan, feverishly taking pictures from her rooftop and sending them to me, and waiting for her daughter appear on the street below, her shoes covered in ash. I called her friends in Toronto for her to let them know that she was okay, because the phone lines were down, but her broadband internet connection was still working. She could talk to me, and a whole slew of us who had gathered together in a multi-user synchronous space, but not anyone who was offline. While the anchors on my tv were scanning the latest news release, I was hearing the same information from my earphones, as live streaming radio from the US and from the people in the same virtual room as me, living the events as they occured. I was following this thread (warning: slow loading, as it is a huge, fascinating page) on metafilter, which is a moment by moment group blog detailing each excruciating detail, partly by people at the site itself, in and around New York City, and partly by those around the world watching and listening to the news. Mainstream media can show me the official video and hand me the official stories, but they can’t be hundreds of people on the scene, reporting directly back to me. They can’t be my friends, and I don’t feel for the mainstream media what I felt about the people there that I knew and loved.

Today was a bit different, but not that much; I started my day by hearing the story on the radio and being completely without an internet connection. I felt helpless, my hands tied. I didn’t know what was going on, I was blind and deaf because I didn’t have my contacts at my fingertips. I got into work early and checked on my friends. Someone created a group blogdedicated to check-ins from Londoners; people were desperately logging on, trying to find out if their friends were okay. The phone lines might have been down, but if you were online and had a blog, you could contact your friends and family and fill them in on what’s going on. The comments to these blog posts are filled with comfort, concern, and offers of help.

I talked to a couple of Londoners over YM and AIM; they told me about their empty offices, the long walk home, the eerie calm. We listened to radio streams together, and a friend of mine corrected some misinformation in the cbc radio broadcast. (“It’s not a tourist bus, it’s just a regular one.”) As was the case four years ago, a metafilter thread stands as a historical record of information as it appeared.

When it comes to big events, big tragedies, the internet has not failed us. Expecting the internet to act as if it’s just another version of the mainstream media is setting it up for failure. When it comes to connecting us to each other in ways we were never able to connect before, the internet has provided us with a whole new view of world events. By connecting us with each other, the internet brings the news so close to our hearts it hurts.

P2P as a Function of Democracy

P2P as a Function of Democracy

One of the things that has long bothered me about being a student at Western using Western’s otherwise fantastic T3 connection is the fact that P2P networks are verboten.

P2P: Peer to peer. Peer to peer technology allows two computers to connect without a central server; two users can connect their systems and trade files. Examples of famous P2P networks: Napster, Kazaa, Limewire, etc. From Kazaa’s P2P philosophy page: The most valuable contribution you can make to peer-to-peer is to provide original content for others to enjoy. You can also collect works in the public domain, that are licensed for public distribution (e.g. Creative Commons licenses), or open source software and become a resource for others.

But what P2P means to most people is the quick and dirty ability to steal music.

See, I use P2P systems all the time. Mostly this is because I do a lot of collaborative work, and use mulitple, difficult to network computers. I use P2P networks to trade word files back and forth. To trade links. Software. .php and .html files. The most annoying thing of all time to me when I first arrived at Western is that they shut down the ports that permit P2P sharing. Because, you know, trading mp3s is bad.

The number of assumptions involved in that decision is truly boggling. First, the file extension .mp3 isn’t limited to illegally ripped music files. It also includes recordings of public domain lectures. It includes music files that are owned by, say, me, or my friend Jason. If you’re paying attention to things like Wired or even MuchMusic you’ll know that musicians themselves use P2P networks to collaborate on creating the music we’re not supposed to be sharing over the internet.

So this is just one of those things that ticks me off about internet security. From a campus location, I’m not allowed to recieve or send .zip files (which, for someone like me with 92,000 words of manuscript to fire off, is extremely annoying) or open up my ichat file transfer system and send that zipped up manuscript to my friends in New York for a read through. No, I need to trust the wilds of email, which, by the way, are notoriously insecure and are owned and monitored by the University of Western Ontario. Argh, don’t even get me started.

But here is a good use of P2P: is using P2P network technology to create a Government Document library. From Download for Democracy:

Peer-to-peer file sharing, or “P2P,” is best known for the role it has had in transforming the music industry. But what about using P2P to provide people with a way to rapidly transmit large amounts of political information? This isn’t a new idea – other groups, including the Libertarian Party, have used P2P to transmit political information before. But P2P hasn’t realized its full political potential until it has had a significant effect on a state or national election.

I think the time is right. The Download For Democracy campaign is currently offering PDF’s of over 600 government memos, communications, and reports, all of which were obtained from mainstream media sources, respected legal or academic groups, or the federal government itself.

Now, how about access to P2P gov docs libraries in, you know, libraries? I can feel the shiver starting, can’t you? [via metafilter.]

Email, MOO, and the Lost Protocols

Email, MOO, and the Lost Protocols

I am not particularly fond of email. From the very beginning I didn’t like it. I got my first email account in 1993 and promptly abandoned it. No one else I knew had one, except for my roommate and the girls across the hall, so what could I do with it? And on top of that, it was so slow. Not that sending a message was slow, but it was exactly like sending a letter. I write something out, send it, and wait and wait for a reply. It could take days.

Instead I opted for the various synchronous chat environments I had at my disposal in those days. At the top of my list was MOO. (See also the lost library of MOO, which is not only an interesting slice of what’s been lost on the internet in the last 10 years, but also happens to credit my dear friend Jason). MOO is an old telnet protocol. Man, I don’t even know how to describe MOO anymore. I used to access it with raw terminal telnet, which means command line input, no backspace, and no local echo until you turned it on. (Local echo is when you can see what you type.)

MOOs were so much cooler than email. First, there were hundreds of people on them. There weren’t many people using the internet at the time, but lots of the students who were were logging into MUDs, MUSHes, MUSEs, and MOOs. These systems allowed for hundreds of independent users at once who could create spaces and interact with each other and code stuff. It was real time, there was lots going on, and you could meet people from all over the world. Of course this was before Netscape and even Mosaic, and www was competing with gopher and telnet. I used to work with a black screen and orange type.

But MOOs used to be so busy and so fast that you would log into one and people were talking up your screen before you could blink. I failed typing in high school. I learned how to type by wanting to get in on the conversation.

For the record, it’s because of my MOO experience that I understand SQL and PHP. In case you’re curious.

After MOOs on my list of best communication methods was a little program called Talk. It was connected to the email system, but it was better than email. It worked via Pine (and Elm) and would let you ping someone who was online at another university and talk to them real time. Like, you could see what the other person was typing as they typed it. That was just mind-blowing to me. I loved the talk option, but I really only knew a couple of people outside of my own university who had it by the time I found it, so I didn’t get to use it much.

Today I only email people when I absolutely have to, or it’s clear that that’s their preferred method of communication. The vast majority of my friends close by and abroad communicate with me via instant messaging systems. These are more like the old pine talk and less like MOO, but it works. I’m talking to people real time and if they don’t really want to talk with me I know that right away. Email always feels like you’re taking a chance. Sure, they don’t need to respond right away, but that means they don’t respond right away. I’m used to synchonicity. I have no patience. I want to hear back from you NOW, not next week. Not next month. This is a conversation, not something you can hit the pause button on.

See, I’m a demanding soul.

So this is why I don’t use email as much as some people do. I tend to imagine that it’s more of a conversation, when really what it is is a memo slipped under someone’s door. It’s easy for them to step on it, ignore it or just not answer it. Email doesn’t demand an answer.

Email is a post it note on your mirror that reminds you to do something, or tells you something nice. “You look beautiful today.” “Buy milk.” Email is nice, but it’s not the most efficient means of communication.

Though it’s a dead/dying medium, MOO is the best form of online communication I’ve ever encountered.

In MOO, everything is an object. It’s make believe; when you log on, you are animating a character that you have defined. When you log in, you are seen to “wake up”. Your offline life happens like a dream for this character. In MOO, you walk around from place to place, you can touch people, you can hug them and give them things. You can pick up objects and put them in your pocket, and then when you look down at your “body” you will see what you’re carrying. People can pin things to your shirt.

In MOO you can express a world of emotion without expressing a statement, without actually moving your virtual lips. MOO provided the online self with body language, something IM (instant messaging) systems lack. IM is talk. MOO is heart, body, and soul.

MOO is a present-tense narrative, with dialogue, description, and punctuation that encapulates your speeh and movement. MOO is the sense of place in a sea of ones and zeroes.

The richness of that environment, though increasingly lost, makes me feel the deadness of email.

I don’t write email. I write blog posts to an audience of one.

You Reap what you Sow

You Reap what you Sow

Well, this is certainly interesting.

In sum: Michael Gorman, ALA president elect, jumped up and told us that blogs are dumb and bloggers are dumber. Blogosphere goes balistic, most nod their heads and say, yeah, we knew librarians were stodgy and on their way to extinction. Blogging librarians everywhere have a heartsore day. Next up: Blaise Cronin writes BLOG: see also Bathetically Ludicrous Online Gibberish. Most bloggers, recognizing a troll when they see one, ignore him. Some others respond, understandably miffed and personally affronted.

Blaise Cronin today, reacting to the blog backlash he stirred up:

In the long run, the net effect of such mean-spiritedness will be to chill public debate, deter people from blogging and depress free trade in ideas. Personally, I would much rather face another, even angrier fusillade of blogs than be cowed into silence. And I would expect no less of graduates, past and future, of this school. For now, though, I leave you with the cautionary words of Samuel Johnson: ‘When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency.’

I can’t believe he’s arguing that the response he got from being rude to a very, very large group of people is indicative of some kind of PC big chill. On one hand he wants his voice to never be silenced, but he disapproves of the tools that exist to make sure the voices of the rest of us have the same priviledge. On one hand we’re spilling out of control with our blogs and our endless nonsense; on the other hand, that massive growth is in danger because of our inability to sense anything valid in his petty little derivative screed. You can’t really have it both ways. Too much feedback isn’t likely to kill a genre, generally speaking. When you have a truly democratic space, things sometimes get ugly and loud.

Never have so many tongues wagged so waspishly and wittily in warp time…Old rules and constraints have fallen away…On the Net, every voice is equal.’

And this is his great lament, and a very telling part of his response. First, that he expects his voice to be more weighty than that of anyone else, and expects us to naturally believe that this is the proper order of things. Second, he believes that every voice is in fact equal on the internet. At this point it becomes painfully obvious that Blaise Cronin is yet another old school academic who has not come to terms with the socially vibrant and dynamic world that is the internet. Not every voice is equal here. But every voice gets a chance to be.

But his Samuel Johnson quotation stands. When he opted to troll the blogging community with his clearly insulting and offensive musings, the first shot of incivility was fired.

One wonders for whom these hapless souls blog. Why do they choose to expose their unremarkable opinions, sententious drivel and unedifying private lives to the potential gaze of total strangers? What prompts this particular kind of digital exhibitionism?

We’re wondering the same thing about you, Blaise. There was nothing classy about this op-ed. How could you possibly expect a classy response?



First things first: I don’t think London Transit is being very fair when they have so many buses with 3 in their digits coming to the same stop. I got on the 33 when I thought it was the 13. That was pretty dumb. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I were wearing the skirt with a slit in the back, but I wasn’t so I had to waddle back like a duck. And then there was a detour, and the 4 didn’t come, so I got on a 15, which was just fine. But it took forever and a day to get home.

Okay, so here’s my revelation: I think I do understand SQL. I mean, I’m just reading chapter one in my book, SQL: Clearly Explained, but I discovered something interesting. SQL is an object oriented language.

This isn’t going to make sense to anyone in the normal way, so I’ll be very metaphorical about it, because object oriented languages are metaphorical away. With an object oriented language, you pretend you are actually producing objects. It’s make-believe. You say, I will make this thing, and this thing will have kids, and those kids will have the same qualities as the parent. And then I will take those kids and modify them, and then make them parents, and their kids will have the qualities of two sets of objects, the original object and its own parent. And so forth. And then they all get modified and have kids and those get modified in different ways, and they all branch off, like evolution. Some things go off to become certain kinds of dedicated objects, and others become totally other things. But you can trace them all back to a parent object. Like the missing link.

Reading the installation instructions is like a flashback: in the beginning there was nothing, and we called it #0. And then we created #1, the object that would be the parent of all objects, the object that really doesn’t do anything except bind the rest of the functional world together. #1 is the creator and the created, the beginning of all things and the end of the path of parenthood for everything that will be created from here on in. #1 is God.

And then you type into your little terminal window and get God to create users, and objects, and things. And It was good.

See? It’s not really so complicated. SQL is created by a bunch of nerds who miss ye olde telnet days, that’s all. I too remember the telnet days, and I know an if statement when I see one.

World? Yeah, I can conquer you. You sit back and relax. I’ll be right over.

Let’s Talk about Online Communities

Let’s Talk about Online Communities

It all starts with a girl who tried to kill herself on her webcam. This particular page is NOT flattering to the poor girl, and I don’t particularly agree with the ‘reviewer’. But his collection of comments is interesting.

She writes:i’ve been in love twice. both times i’ve been told at the end that i was not enough.
this is it. i’m not going to do it again. i’m in a world where people aren’t even kind to each other. i think it’s just time to check out. i’m not worth loving even when i try with all my might to be someone else. even when i say, “i would give you anything. i love you so much.”
This is the point when she decides to give the suicide thing a shot. Which I think we can all understand. What’s different, of course, is that she decides to do this while her webcam is running. What results:

This is familiar territory to most of us, I’d say, if not something we’ve experienced ourselves, something we’ve considered, or something we’ve watched others experience or consider. The only difference here is that we get to see pictures, we, strangers, get to watch. Now, where things start to get interesting is in the comments. Here’s a few:

If anyone knows Stacy’s mailing address or how to get ahold of Glenn, please call 911 or Glenn. Stacy has taken pills and is lying on her bathroom floor!!

I called the Brooklyn Police Department a few minutes ago. I don’t have her address, but I gave them her phone number.

oh my stacy! You dont want to do this. I know you are going through one hell of a time right now.. but NOBODY is worth taking your life for.
I just said a prayer for you.
Please hang on

She did make it to a hospital, and when she came out, she was a lot more lucid. Her take:this is not interesting. trust me. not only is it not interesting, it’s over, finished, kaput. never again will i drink activated charcoal and have it pumped out of my stomach via my nostrils. not for love, money, sex, sex toys, cats (okay, maybe cats), ex-husbands, current husbands (if i were living on a planet where THAT might ever happen again) or even for skinny beautiful sexy geeky boyfriends no matter how much i love them or obsess over them or whatever you want to call it. nope, nope, nope. nope. not gonna happen. so this is it: this is as close to the news-of-the-week as you’re gonna get from me. now let’s talk about flower arranging or something.

The fact that this is all documented online is what’s so cool. A process that used to be so private is now so public. This is very much the same and the precise opposite of Kaycee Nicole.

Fan Sites: Turning the Tables

Fan Sites: Turning the Tables

Tom over at Menucha Blog says about fan sites: There is a function for any fan page. Yes, I know this. People like to know things about their favorite personalities in the media, and to feel some connection. We all like connection. Also, In this day and age, knowledge is all the rage. We like to know things that we couldn’t possibly have any use for, but things that might come in handy at the next social gathering we attend. If you can’t say anything nice about yourself, then say something nice about Charlize Theron… or a part of her anatomy… or her career. Whatever.

He then goes on to add his own fan site details: does it make us know something about each other? Is it useful information? In a fan site, it’s typical, what’s the point of it? Since Tom did it, I thought I’d follow suit. (Blogging is, after all, a form of celebrity.)

Rochelle Mazar
Height: 5’6 and a bit-ish
Weight: the relationship between myself and gravity is very, very private.
Hair colour: brownish
eye color: random (bright green first thing in the morning, greyish most of the time, and occaisionally blue, depending on what I’m wearing.)
place of birth: Guelph, Ontario, Canada
Birthday: August 2nd, 1974
Age: 27

Rochelle’s favourite things:
place to visit: my bathtub
colour: yellow and pink
tv show: The star treks, Blind Date, Queer Television
food: chish and fips, cheese of most varieties, guacamole. I only order stuff in restaurants that I can’t make myself, so if I order a sandwich I usually spend the time kicking myself, unless it has grilled portabello mushrooms on it, or something complicated. I’m trying to go easy on the carbs too, and, again, since pasta is so easy to make, I prefer not to order it. But damn, there’s nothing like a good fettacine.
Band: Those ouchless clear elastics that make your braids look like their staying braided miraculously, though i can’t use them any more, as I have no more hair.
favourite thing to listen to: the radio. CBC radio one, This American Life (NPR), anything with reasonably decent talk.
favourite music: random. Whatever the people I love are listening to, unless they listen to something I can’t stand.
CD in the player right now: Shrek soundtrack.
Favourite books of all time: The History of the World in 10 1/2 chapters, Green Grass, Running Water, The Robber Bride, Not Wanted on the Voyage, How we Survived Communism and Even Laughed, Our Lady of the Lost and Found, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Edible Woman.
Favourite Historians: Katharine Park, Lyndal Roper, Deborah Valenze, Clarissa Atkinson, Jane Abray
Favourite academic monographs:The Holy Household, The Reformation of Ritual, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Local Religion
Favourite virtues: Honesty, integrity, nobility of spirit, decency, mercy, kindness, strength to avoid cruel and unreasonable behaviour
Favourite vices: blogging, MOOing, iced tea, Hogaarden, body shop salt body scrub, oversleeping
Folks: dad, Victor, currently not speaking to the celebrity in question because she’s not flawless; mom, Heidi, rock of the ages, joy to behold, 8th wonder of the world; sister, Melissa, artistic genius, crazy woman who only had two (count’em) wedding showers, resident non-hair-brushing expert.

That was fun. Did we learn something?