March 2007 Archives

three thousand, two hundred, and forty-two


Marc In a press release this morning, the US Department of Defense announced casualty number 3,242 in the Iraqi War: Staff Sergeant Marc Golczynski, who was killed by enemy fire in Al Anbar province on Tuesday, March 27th.

Boy at Cross - Arlington WestFor our family, this wasn't just a number. Marc was my stepdaughter's best friend, someone she's known and been close to since they were both in junior high. In a few days, she'll be in Tennessee for his funeral, along with his ex-wife, his eight-year-old son, his parents, his brother, and dozens of people who loved and cared about him. These same people had planned to be gathering soon, but for a different reason--Marc was scheduled to come home from his second tour of duty in Iraq next month.

Look at this list of DoD news releases. Every single day they release the names of people killed. People with family, with friends, with a life that's been cut short. How many of us are really paying attention? How much faster will this list grow as more troops "surge" into Iraq to replace the ones who have fallen?

the dark side of blogging


I just read Kathy Sierra's blog post about the death threats she's received, and I'm sick to my stomach about the whole thing.

Anyone who's ever met Kathy knows that she's a wonderful, gracious, warm, caring person. It's inconceivable to me that someone would say those kinds of things about her, make those kinds of threats, post those images. Inconceivable.

Why does it not surprise me that a site set up specifically to foster online bullying would eventually lead to this kind of awful result?

Kathy, if you find your way to this post, I hope you know that the number of people who respect you and care about you is far, far greater than those who post or condone that kind of anonymous, cowardly filth. And I hope that you're able to find your way out of the fear and anger and back a place of peace. You have always been an incredible inspiration to me, and I'm heartsick about what's happened.

geek humor starts early


On the way to Buffalo yesterday, this conversation took place in our car. (Context: I was grading student websites on the trip while my husband drove...yay Verizon broadband card!)

Lane: Why aren't your students using Flash on their websites?
Me: Because I don't let them use Flash in this class. The focus is on HTML and CSS techniques. They study Flash in other classes.
Lane: That's stupid. Why do you discriminate against Flash?
Me: (exasperated) I don't discriminate against it, it's just not appropriate in this class.
Gerald: (fanning flames) Admit it, you're discriminating!
Me: No, I'm not. Flash gets "separate but equal" treatment.
Lane: We already know that doesn't work. Just watch--pretty soon there'll be an "Actionscript vs. Board of Education" lawsuit!

the best part of teaching...

| No Comments when, in the second week of the quarter, you realize that you have a lot of really talented students in your classes.


when there are no words


I found out on Monday morning that a close friend's husband had died suddenly on Sunday. He was only 56, and next month would have been their twentieth anniversary.

This week was a blur, spent mostly in Buffalo helping with arrangements and providing as much comfort as I could.

At least three times I've sat down to write about Chuck, and each time I've abandoned it. There are no words. So I'm going to stop trying. Not everything belongs here on this blog, and it seems clear that this doesn't.

But don't expect much chatter here for a while.

cscw course syllabus


The break between fall and winter quarter this year was two weeks, which provided just enough time to relax a bit and then do a reasonable amount of course prep.

The break between winter and spring quarter, however, was only one week--and I didn't have my grades done until Monday of break week. That means I've had basically no down time, because I'm teaching a brand new class next quarter that's also a distance learning class--meaning that the material has to be much more organized than I might be able to get away with in a lecture format.

As a result, I've been cross as a bear for the past few days, as I struggled to get my mind around how to present the enormous topic of CSCW and Groupware in a mere ten weeks of instructional time. Blech.

On the plus side, there were a couple of people who had graciously put their syllabi for similar classes up on the web--most notably David McDonald at UW, and Joe Konstan and Loren Terveen at Minnesota. I drew on their work, as well as my own knowledge of the field, to come up with my syllabus. I know I'm taking on an awful lot of topics, but it's really intended as an overview rather than an in-depth assessment of any one aspect of CSCW.

I'll be filling in more details (particularly readings and lab assignments) over the next week, but at least the basic structure and the first week's materials are available in time for the students to start work on them tomorrow.

why i chose an iud

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Five years ago, I decided I was tired of being on the pill, and that I didn't feel comfortable asking my husband to have a vasectomy. After doing a good bit of research, I decided I wanted to try a new IUD just out on the market--Mirena. It had only recently been approved in the US, although it was already popular in Europe. Like many women I know, most of what I'd heard about IUDs before that was negative, and I was surprised by how positive the overall reviews were for the Mirena--which is different from the older generation of copper IUDs. I liked what I read--that Mirena had a 99.9% reliability rate, for instance, and that for many women it significantly reduced the cramps and heavy flow associated with their periods. I was the first person to ever ask my doctor about it, so he did some research too--and then agreed to insert it in March 2002.

This is the part, of course, where you probably expect to talk about how wrong I was.'s been great! No side effects, no problems. I basically forgot about it--except when gloating about my extremely light and non-disruptive periods (which used to be marked by heavy bleeding and lots of cramps). In fact, it came as a shock to me last week when my husband, after seeing a Mirena ad on TV, asked me if I wasn't about due to have mine replaced. Had it really been five years? (My doctor asked the same thing when I went in today, and then arched his eyebrows in surprise when he leafed through my chart and saw that in fact it had been.)

So I had a new one inserted today, which means no more worrying about birth control for five more years. Yay!

The only downside of Mirena, which I suppose I ought to warn others about, is that the insertion procedure is on the painful side of uncomfortable. It's done in the doctor's office, and only takes a few minutes--but for me, at least, it's a pretty unpleasant few minutes. Both times I've had the procedure done I've had some pretty major cramping, which took about an hour (and a handful of ibuprofen) to finally subside. Still, that's a pretty minor price to pay for reliable, unobtrusive birth control that lasts for five years.

google maps has forgotten where i live

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I don't know when it happened, but sometime in the past few weeks Google Maps has suddenly decided that it doesn't know how to find my house.

This is definitely new--I've used it for mapping and directions since its release. But now, no matter what form of my address I enter, it claims it can't find the address.

Which makes me wonder--how often does this happen? And what recourse do any of us have if Google suddenly makes us invisible, whether it's from missing map data or messed-up page rank? There's nowhere on the Google Maps site to report something like this, so I suppose I just have to hope that at some point the missing data reappears. And, in the meantime, switch to Yahoo Maps (which has updated its interface and is much more enjoyable to use).

apologies in advance on twitter "friend" requests


Because I really like Twitter, and am using it as a way to keep better connected with people I already have at least somewhat strong connections with, I'm not going to be accepting friend requests from people that I don't have a relationship of some kind with already. That means, in most cases, you have to be someone I've met in real life and had a conversation with, or that I have a long history of online interaction with.

If I don't accept your request, it's not a repudiation of you personally; it's simply an acknowledgment that I don't think we're really close enough for either of us to have all that much interest in the minutiae of everyday life.

why twitter matters


I'm completely fascinated by Twitter right now--in much the same way I was by blogging four years ago, and by ICQ years before that.

If you haven't tried it yet, Twitter is a site that allows you to post one-line messages about what you're currently doing--via the web interface, IM, or SMS. You can limit who sees the messages to people you've explicitly added to your friends list, or you can make the messages public. (My Twitter posts are private, but my friend Joi's are public.)

What Twitter does, in a simple and brilliant way, is to merge a number of interesting trends in social software usage--personal blogging, lightweight presence indicators, and IM status messages--into a fascinating blend of ephemerality and permanence, public and private.

The big "P" word in technology these days is "participatory." But I'm increasingly convinced that a more important "P" word is "presence." In a world where we're seldom able to spend significant amounts of time with the people we care about (due not only to geographic dispersion, but also the realities of daily work and school commitments), having a mobile, lightweight method for both keeping people updated on what you're doing and staying aware of what others are doing is powerful.

I've experimented a bit with a visual form of this lightweight presence indication, through cameraphone photos taken while traveling. A photo of a boarding gate sign, or of a hotel entrance, conveys where I am and what I'm doing quickly and easily. But that only works if people are near a computer and are watching my Flickr photo feed, and that's a lot to ask.

I also use IM status messages to broadcast what I'm doing. My iChat has a stack of custom messages that I've saved for re-use, from "packing" and "at the airpot" to "breaking up sibling squabbles" and "grading...the horror! the horror!" But status messages have no permanence to them, and require some degree of synchronicity--people have to be logged into IM, and looking at status messages, while I'm there. Because Twitter archives your messages on the web (and can send them as SMS that you can check at any time), that requirement for synchronous connections goes away.

Blogs allow this kind of archived update, of course--but they're not lightweight. Where one might easily post a Twitter message along the lines of "on my way to work", a blog post like that wouldn't be worth the effort and overhead.

I've heard two kinds of criticisms of Twitter already.

The first criticizes the triviality of the content. But asking "who really cares about that kind of mindless trivia about your day" misses the whole point of presence. This isn't about conveying complex theory--it's about letting the people in your distributed network of family and friends have some sense of where you are and what you're doing. And we crave this, I think. When I travel, the first thing I ask the kids on the phone when I call home is "what are you doing?" Not because I really care that much about the show on TV, or the homework they're working on, but because I care about the rhythms and activities of their days. No, most people don't care that I'm sitting in the airport at DCA, or watching a TV show with my husband. But the people who miss being able to share in day-to-day activity with me--family and close friends--do care.

The second type of criticism is that the last thing we need is more interruptions in our already discontinuous and partially attentive connected worlds. What's interesting to me about Twitter, though, is that it actually reduces my craving to surf the web, ping people via IM, and cruise Facebook. I can keep a Twitter IM window open in the background, and check it occasionally just to see what people are up to. There's no obligation to respond, which I typically feel when updates come from individuals via IM or email. Or I can just check my text messages or the web site when I feel like getting a big picture of what my friends are up to.

Which then leads to one of the aspects of Twitter that I find most fascinating--exploring clusters of loosely related people by looking at the updates from their friends. There are stories told in between updates. Who's at a conference, and do they know each other? Who's on the road, and who's at home. Narratives that wind around and between the updates and the people, that show connections. Updates that echo each other, or even directly respond to another Twitter post.

There's more to it than that, but I'm still sorting it all out in my head. Just wanted to post an early-warning signal that I see something important happening here, something worth paying (more than partial) attention to.

that wasn't fun


Screen shot of the RIT grading site showing my grades have been submitted.

help wanted: ta for rit web design class


I need an RIT student (graduate or upper-level undergraduate) to be a TA for my web design class next quarter. You have to have taken 4002-409 or 4004-737 (and gotten an A, natch), and you have to be enrolled as a student next quarter. My section meets M/W from 4-6pm.

Contact me at my my RIT email (ell at the standard mail dot rit dot edu) if you're interested.

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