mamamusings: big ideas

elizabeth lane lawley's thoughts on technology, academia, family, and tangential topics

Thursday, 3 August 2006

loving and leaving america

Via Anil (who’s finally posting links again, hurrah!), I found this extraordinary essay on the experience of living abroad, and how it can change the way you see your own country. Beautifully written. Here’s a (small) excerpt:

Ten years ago, my sympathies were all with those healthy sunburnt types with the burgeoning dreadlocks and leghair bleached white by salt and sun, and there’s still a lot to be said for living cheap and getting naked without too much critical reflection or hesitation. Those people are having FUN, and they’re learning all sorts of important lessons about any number of things, and I don’t doubt that most of them will be better people because of the time they’ve spent in places like the Coban. Now that I’m older and grumpier, however, I find that I can only really hang with them until that inevitable first bit of geographical comparison, the jabbing aimlessly in midair with a joint or cig, eyes half closed and staring off at some impossible, unreal ocean sunset and declaring that this, and not America, is the good life, the life worth having. “America sucks, man. All that noise, all that dishonesty, all those people too busy to really talk to each other.”

I packed around that baggage for a long time, and sometimes I think the circumstances that landed me in international human rights law have long since receded from their original sincere highwater of post-adolescent big ideas to some sort of reflex globalism, some limbic system level preference for that easy living, nonintrospective rejection of skyscrapers and the need for clean clothes.

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categories: big ideas

Sunday, 25 June 2006

simple (but not easy) advice

Over the past few months, I’ve had a number of people ask me basically how I managed to get to where I am now—doing work that’s professionally and personally interesting and challenging. Since I never really had a master plan for professional advancement, it’s been a challenge to try to reconstruct my process in a way that could be translated into advice for others.

Today I had coffee with a friend-of-a-friend, and I realized that all this thinking had resulted in a few specific pieces of advice. Seems worth sharing those via the blog.

The first, and most critical thing—at least for me—was to always look for and take jobs that were a little (or even a lot) beyond what I thought I could do. It often felt like I was bullshitting my way in the door, but once I got there I worked my ass off to do what I’d been hired to do. I learned RS-232 cable pinouts on the fly when I took a computer support job back in ‘87 and said “of course I can design and help install a computer network.” I leveraged that networking experience into my job interview at RIT, where I told them confidently that of course I could teach introductory networking classes…and then spent most of my first year barely an hour ahead of my students. (Turns out teaching is less about knowing it all, and more about knowing how to connect other people up with what they need…although it’s a helluva lot easier once you know the material well!) There are plenty of other examples. Really, every job I’ve ever had was something that I went into without all the knowledge I needed, and then had to push myself to grow into, quickly.

Doing that has a number of rewards associated with it. First, you learn a lot, quickly—because if you don’t, you’ll be out of a job even more quickly. Second, you get a great confidence boost when you pull it off despite your own doubts and fears. Third, that confidence boost shows in your interactions with others, and you get a reputation for being both fearless and dependable. Saying “yes” to the hard (and occasionally unpleasant) tasks makes people see you as the “go to girl” (or guy), which is a good reputation to have…and when interesting and enjoyable opportunities open up, you’ll then be the first one they think of.

This really isn’t unlike the advice I’ve seen given for any kind of sports or physical fitness activity—to push a little beyond what you think you can do, which will get you further than you expected every time.

The other important pice of advice is to take interpersonal networking very seriously. One of the biggest stress points in my relationship with my family is the amount of time I spend traveling to conferences. And the reason I keep doing it, despite that stress, is that so many of the best opportunities that have come my way in recent years have been a direct result of meeting and talking with someone at a conference. My job at MSR? A result of attending the first social computing symposium? My invitation to the symposium? A result of meeting Clay Shirky at Supernova (I think…or a similar conference). It’s all connected. Carving out the time and money to attend conferences, and then taking full advantage of that attendance to meet and talk with people I respect, pays off handsomely over time.

So that’s it. Simple—but not easy—advice. It’s the best distillation I can come up with of how I got to this point in my career.

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categories: big ideas

Saturday, 29 October 2005

amazing essay on google by george dyson

Presented without comment. (See the previous post…) But here’s a lengthy excerpt from an essay that should be required reading for technologists:

My visit to Google? Despite the whimsical furniture and other toys, I felt I was entering a 14th-century cathedral — not in the 14th century but in the 12th century, while it was being built. Everyone was busy carving one stone here and another stone there, with some invisible architect getting everything to fit. The mood was playful, yet there was a palpable reverence in the air. “We are not scanning all those books to be read by people,” explained one of my hosts after my talk. “We are scanning them to be read by an AI.

When I returned to highway 101, I found myself recollecting the words of Alan Turing, in his seminal paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence, a founding document in the quest for true AI. “In attempting to construct such machines we should not be irreverently usurping His power of creating souls, any more than we are in the procreation of children,” Turing had advised. “Rather we are, in either case, instruments of His will providing mansions for the souls that He creates.”

Google is Turing’s cathedral, awaiting its soul. We hope. In the words of an unusually perceptive friend: “When I was there, just before the IPO, I thought the coziness to be almost overwhelming. Happy Golden Retrievers running in slow motion through water sprinklers on the lawn. People waving and smiling, toys everywhere. I immediately suspected that unimaginable evil was happening somewhere in the dark corners. If the devil would come to earth, what place would be better to hide?”

Dyson closes with a powerful quote from science fiction writer Simon Ings (can’t find what book this is from; if you know, please leave a comment):

“When our machines overtook us, too complex and efficient for us to control, they did it so fast and so smoothly and so usefully, only a fool or a prophet would have dared complain.”
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categories: big ideas | technology

Monday, 17 October 2005

why you shouldn't be reading this

Paul Ford has written a remarkable essay on…well, on everything from interruptions and attention to web2.0 and blogging to philosophy and mortality.

Read it.

Or don’t. That would be good, too.

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categories: big ideas

Sunday, 4 September 2005

unconditional love

I’m not a big fan of self-help books. The few I’ve read have felt like bad mail-order medicine—tastes awful, costs too much, and never works the way it’s supposed to. So I’ve resisted blogging for the past week or two because I’ve found my life substantially changed by a book that you can in fact buy in the self-help section of a bookstore. While I’m not concerned about the book’s labels, I suspected that anything I wrote about it would be perceived negatively by my fairly intellectual audience.

But one of the things that’s starting to change inside of me is my concern about what other people think. I’m discovering how much of an (often unconscious) motivation it has been for my actions, and how crippling that is. I can say without hesitation that as a result of this book, I’m a happier, more centered person today than I have ever been—and that despite some significant personal turmoil over the past few months.

The book is Loving What Is, by Byron Katie. It was recommended to me by my dear friend Linda Stone, someone whom I trust and respect, or I might never have looked at it. I started with the audio version—I have an Audible subscription, and here in Seattle I have a significant (at least an hour a day) commute. What did I have to lose by listening to it? It’s not like the time would otherwise be spent doing something useful. But before I’d gotten halfway through the recording, I knew I wanted the book, as well. And before I was finished with the first book, I knew I wanted the second one, too.

How has it changed me? Slowly but surely it’s helping let go of my unrealistic expectations of the people around me and my unrelenting need to control them, and it’s forcing my attention back on myself and my thoughts. It’s like a crash course in the first step of a twelve-step program. Actually, it’s a crash course in all twelve steps, with a non-denominational spirituality that works well for my world view, and an astonishingly simple (but not necessarily easy) approach to dismantling your own thought process and then putting it back together in better working order.

And because I’ve changed my approach to my own thoughts, I’m finding that I’m less angry, less frustrated, less annoyed, less unhappy. And I’m more centered, lighter, and happier. I laugh more. I cry less. I don’t yell and snap at the people around me. I don’t fume silently because of other people’s actions (or inactions).

How long will this last? I don’t know. But it doesn’t feel temporary. It’s not like a diet, or an exercise program. I don’t think I can stop thinking in this new way now that I’ve started. It feels so right, so unforced, so clear a path. It feels as though I’d have to work much harder to stop feeling this way than to continue. One of the things that I particularly like about Katie’s approach is that it is so much in harmony with other spiritual ideas that have resonated with me—from the 12 steps of Al-Anon to the concepts of attachment and detachment in buddhism to the simple admonition that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

I have no idea if this book will help anyone else around me, and I’m finally reaching the point where I realize it simply isn’t my job to push other people onto a path (although, like Linda, I can see the value in at least pointing out that a path exists). I suspect that it’s much like attending a 12-step program—if you try to do it before your mind is ready, it won’t do you any good at all. But if you come to it when you’re in a place like I was—frightened, angry, lost—perhaps it can help you, like me, find your way out of that, and into a place where you can love yourself, and the world around you, unconditionally.

Posted at 8:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)
categories: big ideas | recovery

Sunday, 27 February 2005

video game store lament

I took my older son to a local game store (HO/RC) yesterday that specializes in used game systems and games, and lets you trade in old systems. He had a GameCube that he no longer wanted, and three games that we don’t play—Super Mario Sunshine for GameCube, and Gran Turismo 3 and GTA Vice City for PS2.

They had a PS2 with a missing drive cover (perfectly functional) for $100, but only gave us $25 credit for the GC and games. When I challenged it, the owner was extraordinarily rude to me, suggesting that I drive around and find out all the places that would rip me off more, and then come back so he could rip me off for less. We had a few more exchanges like that, all of which involved him being extremely rude and dismissive towards me (after all, I’m just the stupid rich mom, right?).

What I should have done at that point was march out the door with our stuff in hand, bought a new slimline PS2 at Sam’s (with 2 games included) for $150, and sold the rest on eBay. But I was tired, and stressed about my slew of upcoming trips, and he so wanted to get it right there and then (I’d been promising this for a while). So I went against my good instincts and did the transaction. It left me with a very sour taste in my mouth, though, and you can bet I won’t be back in that store again—nor will I encourage anyone else to go there.

When I searched for HO/RC just now, I discovered that they’re also a prolific eBay vendor—but with a reasonable number of negative and neutral reviews, which doesn’t surprise me at all. I’d be careful doing business with them, if I were you. That attitude towards customers is a very bad sign.

Sometimes I think that what I ought to do is open up the ultimate gaming spot geared towards parents as well as their kids. There’s not much out there that targets tweens, really. The hands-on museums are for the younger set. The game stores and arcades are more for the teenagers (and the parents hate being there). So why not create a place that tweens will love, and that their parents won’t mind taking them? Model it on places like Chuck-E-Cheese, with food and drink available, and places to sit. Put in a coffee bar and free wifi so that parents are willing to hang out while their kids wander around and/or play. Set it up like CEC, so that kids can’t leave without the adult who brought them—that lets the parents relax, possibly in a separate glass-walled area so their kids can be seen but not heard. Hire teenagers to work there, and have them wandering around, available to talk to/encourage the tweens who are the real target. Sell card games and video games and computer games, and provide space for kids to play—for a price. (Maybe a monthly fee…)

I’m not much of an entrepreneur, but I bet something like this would do really well. There’s a huge market out there that’s pretty much untapped for this age group and their parents. Give us gamer moms somewhere to go that doesn’t leave them feeling the way I did when I walked out of HO/RC. Please.

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categories: Rochester | big ideas | kids

Saturday, 11 December 2004

"there's something big happening"

I’m taking a break from grading my students’ web pages to read David Weinberger’s ongoing coverage of the Harvard “Votes, Bits, and Bytes” conference. Wish I’d been at the session he wrote about this morning, organized by Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon.

Ethan says that we’re here today to talk about blogs as bridges, borrowing Hoder’s metaphor from yesterday (blogs as windows that give you insight into someone’s world, blogs as cafes where people can talk together, and blogs as bridges). There’s something big happening, Ethan says.

Indeed there is.

Omar from Iraq talks about the importance of blogging as a way of routing around propaganda. Then he talks about how the open comments from around the world on his blog helped his nephew “If I visited America a year and a half ago, I would have felt llike a stranger. This time I feel like I’m with friends, and that is the greatest gift I can think of.”

This is how I feel, as well. From Norway to Australia, France to Japan, Brazil to South Africa…I have friends around the world now that I would never have had without this blog to facilitate connections. I can say without a flicker of doubt that my blog is the one technological tool that has most fundamentally changed my professional life.

Sunday, 13 June 2004

blog networks as faculty commons

The past week has been hectic—the combination of japanese, houseguests, and pulling off a wonderful blog panel at MEA took a lot out of me. So blogging has been unsurprisingly light. However, when your houseguest is Jill Walker, and your weekend cookout guests include both Jill and Seb Paquet, it’s hard not to generate some new ideas…so blogging may pick up a bit as I work those out.

The blog panel at MEA was not as well attended as I’d hoped (we were towards the end of the day, alas), but it was great fun to be a part of it. If you couldn’t attend, Collin Brooke did a wonderful write-up of it. Thanks, Collin!

And if nothing else, the panel provided a wonderful opportunity for the five of us to all meet each other—Jill and Seb had never met any of us before, and Alex and Clay had each only met me. The face-to-face interaction is obviously not a necessary component for collaboration and connection, or the panel never would have happened to begin with, but it certainly is a welcome and strengthening addition.

Last night Seb and Jill and I were talking about how the connections we’ve formed through our blogs are actually more important to us in terms of collegiality than the connections we have to people that we work with. I “know” Jill and Seb better (at least professionally) than I know most of the people in my hallway. I think this will be increasingly the case for academics—social software tools will foster and support collaborative networks that cross disciplinary and institutional boundaries, and those networks will become the important spaces in which creativity research develop. As Jill said, these social-software-supported networks have become closer to the ideal of the faculty commons than anything on a real campus has ever been.

So, what happens to research and scholarship—what happens to the current concept of a university, in fact?—when these formerly invisible colleges become not only visible, but more important than the traditional, geographically and disciplinarily (not a word, I know, but there isn’t one for what I want) bound colleges we’re accustomed to?

Virtuality simply isn’t going to replace physicality in toto; there’s too much value in physical presence. That’s why Jill and Seb and Clay were all willing to trek to Rochester for this panel—it was worth the expense (in time and money) to be able to connect in a physical space. Location matters—I live where I live for many reasons unrelated to my job, and that’s true for most of the people I know. So how do we blend our modes? How do we get the most out of the emerging blog commons? I don’t have answers yet, just questions.

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categories: big ideas | friends | research | social software

Sunday, 28 March 2004

safety vs censorship

I’ve been thinking about filtering a lot lately. Much of that thought has been spurred by watching my kids—especially my older son—exploring social software. He’s blogging now, and is reading my blog as well. He’s an IM wizard, enthusiastically working with far more open conversation windows than I can manage without my brain overheating. He hangs out in Neopets, and signs online petitions to allow fan sites to post Neopet photos. He does all this wirelessly from the hand-me-down Powerbook G3 that he got for his birthday this year.

All good things, in theory. What’s not to like for a parent who’s as much of an Internet and social software geek as I am? Well…plenty.

Let’s start with the blog. The benefits of his blogging have ben multi-fold and inspiring—it spurred him to write enthusiastically and in detail about our trip to Asia, it made him aware that he had a platform from which he could explore not just his experiences but also his questions and frustrations (like book censorship, for example), it made his teacher (and his classmates, and their parents) aware of the power of student-generated content generally, and blogs specifically.

But with blog readership comes the inevitable blog spam. After the first few “enlargement” comments, I installed mt-blacklist, which helps a lot. But that’s a short-term solution, since the ingenuity of spammers tends to outpace the rate of solution provision. The new MT comment registration service may help more…we’ll see.

But what’s more challenging are the oh-so-difficult questions of public vs private information online. For example, I know not to put my home phone number and address on my blog. But he and his friends haven’t yet developed those instinctive filters for personal information—and on several occasions, I’ve found our home number, along with those of his friends, in a blog posting. I quickly edited that out on the blogs I control—but it left me more than a little unnerved.

Recently, he and his friends discovered BlogSpot, and decided to set up a group blog to complain about every child’s favorite problem—their parents. Anyone with kids knows that good parenting isn’t always popular parenting, but that doesn’t make it any less painful to see one’s children publicly reviling you for what they see as unfair and hurtful actions.

So we had a talk. He reads my blog, and complains (with reason, I think) if I talk too much about him. There are purists who would argue that if I were a real writer, I wouldn’t allow his reactions (or anyone else’s) to change what I write. But I do think about my audience when I write, and I think about how what I write will affect them and my relationship with them—now, and in the future. And I want him to do the same. “How do you think it makes me feel when you write mostly about what you think is wrong with me?” I asked him. I don’t begrudge him his feelings, or his right to an outlet. But I do want him to understand that publicly expressing those feelings can and will have an effect on the people who read them. It was a good talk, a valuable talk. But it remains to be seen to what extent it changes his use of this exhilarating medium—and it also remains to be seen if my husband and I will continue to encourage this level of freedom of expression if we see it as putting him or his friends at risk.

And while we’re on the topic of risk, there’s that pesky IM thing. I walked into the room where he was typing the other day, and he quickly closed the IM window. My parental radar kicked in immediately. “Who were you talking to?” I asked. “Just a friend,” he answered, intentionally vague. We eyed each other. I told him I really needed to know who it was, but that I didn’t have to see what was being written. . “Was it someone I know?” “No.” “Who was it?” “He’s a kid that T (a neighborhood friend) met online. He’s 13.”

WHOOP! WHOOP! WHOOP! (That’s the sound of the all-hands-on-deck alarm that went off in my head.)

“We had a deal,” I said. “IM only with people you already know in person, and not with anyone Dad or I haven’t approved to put on your buddy list.”

He protested, telling me that he could tell this was a nice kid, that he was smart enough not to reveal any personal information via IM, that obviously I didn’t trust him or think he was smart. To no avail in this case—I’m not willing to budge on this rule, and I made that clear. But I’m deeply concerned—we had the rule in place, and he broke it. How do I know it won’t happen again?

So I’m caught. On the one hand, I want to encourage his exploration and use of online media and interaction. On the other, he’s right—I don’t trust him not to make potentially dangerous mistakes. It’s not that I don’t think he’s smart, or savvy, or listening to my warnings. What he doesn’t understand—what he can’t understand—is how easy it is to be fooled, to be taken in, to be taken advantage of. Especially when you’re honest to a fault, as he is—because it’s that much harder to really understand just how dangerous and dishonest so many people “out there” can be.

(As an example of how this honesty plays out, here’s what happened after we found out the boys had been visiting “NSFW” sites on one of our computers—via a phone call from one of their friends’ parents. I had a serious talk with them about appropriate use of the computers, and the risk of lost privileges. I told them that the computer recorded all the sites they went to, and that I’d be checking that on a regular basis. A day or two later, while I was at work, they came rushing downstairs to talk to Dad. “We accidentally ended up on a page that had grownup stuff on it, but it’s okay. We left the site, and we erased it from the history of the browser so that mom wouldn’t get upset!” He didn’t know whether to be delighted at their honesty or dismayed at their obvious mastery of the technology.)

This isn’t a new problem for parents. We all struggle with the “stranger danger” issues these days—how do we keep our kids from being paralyzed with fear at the sight of a stranger while still keeping them safe from the very really harm that lurks around too many corners? I don’t have answers right now, just questions, and concerns.

For the time being, I’m continuing to err on the side of access, with a healthy dose of oversight and communication. But I’m also hoping that better solutions for children’s use of technology begin to emerge. A kids’ IM client that I can configure in terms of access, for example. An easy to install and configure weblog client that lets me approve posts before they go live. Varying levels of access that i can allow or remove, depending on each child’s activities and maturity. I wish I saw more work happening in this space, though I understand that COPPA makes it difficult.

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categories: big ideas | kids | social software

Saturday, 13 March 2004

great lines from shneiderman's talk

These are some of the things Ben Shneiderman said yesterday in his talk at RIT that really caught my attention—and some of the thoughts that those lines sparked in my mind. Much of this deserves more attention than my sleep-deprived brain can give them on a 6:15am flight from Rochester to Chicago (en route to Austin for SXSW/Interactive), but at least it’s a start.

Visualizations never give you answers, they only give you insights into questions.

Ah, what’s not to like about this if you’re a qualitative researcher at heart? I love data visualizations—at ETech, some of my favorite presentations were the visualizations of Usenet participation by Microsoft’s Marc Smith, and of Technorati link data by Dave Sifry. But Shneiderman nails my interest—unlike many of my colleagues, I see these visualizations not as answers, but as a starting point for asking questions. Thus my interest in better defining the nature of blog genres and interconnections, going beyond the data curves that Sifry can show us based on large data sets.

I’m a qualitative researcher at heart. I’m more interested in knowing the stories behind the numbers than I am in the numbers themselves. Of course, there’s value in quantitative analysis, and in effective visualization of quantitative data. (I’ve got signed copies of Tufte’s first two books…). But too often that data is used to draw conclusions that aren’t necessarily supported by the real experiences of the people that data is supposed to represent.

Studies of computer users show that 42-43% of their time using computers is time lost/wasted due to problems with their system (OS, Internet connection, applications). “When I talk about this at Microsoft, I get ‘I don’t believe your data.’”

Of course, this got the predictable laugh from the audience (populated by a great many Unix and Mac users). But it’s typical of the response of many computer software producers when confronted with user frustration. Which led directly to the next quote…

Bridge the gap between what users know and what they need to know.

He noted that very few users turn to manuals or online help. Why? Sometimes because they don’t know about them, sometimes because they’ve had trouble with them in the past and don’t trust them.

This reminded me of a story I often tell my students in web design. Many years ago, I managed the CD-ROM customer support for an information publishing company. The software interface to our product had extensive online help that my staff and I had written, and every screen of the product displayed the text “F1=HELP” in the top right corner. Nonetheless, we’d get many calls from customers every day who were frustrated because they couldn’t find any help.

Like the programmers I worked with at that company, my students at that point roll their eyes in disgust at the stupidity of the users, and expect me to do the same. But I don’t. I tell them that if the users can’t find the help they need to use their product—whether it’s a CD-ROM database or an e-commerce web site—it’s their product that’s flawed, not the users.

Brenda Dervin, the theorist whose qualitative research methodology I’m using in my NSF grant research, wrote a wonderful article in which she chastised librarians for treating information as “bricks” and users as “buckets”—too often, she said, when the bricks don’t fit into the bucket the librarian assumes that the bucket is flawed, and sets to work trying to mold it into a shape that will better accommodate the bricks. Sounds absurd…until you think about how accurate it is. And it’s not just librarians who fall into this trap—it’s most software and web developers, as well.

Right after Shneiderman talked about how we have to make the interfaces conform to the user needs (rather than the reverse), an audience member asked “But if we make interfaces ‘dumber’ don’t we risk making users dumber, by bringing them all down to the lowest common denominator?” Shneiderman responded that this was wrongeaded thinking—which led to his next great line:

Meaningful information architecture, shorter traversal paths, broad/shallow trees—this helps everyone. If you try to design a better web site for an elderly user with poor vision, you’ll probably end up designing a better web site for everyone else, as well.

At around this point, he showed a web site calledUniversal Usability in Practice, which is a web site developed by his students to show best practices in and resources for usability in design.

Ah. It’s time to “turn off electronic devices and stow all carryons beneath the seat in front of us.” I’ll close with the observation that while the entire auditorium was packed full of students, faculty, and folks from local industry, there were surprisingly few laptops open. Two of my colleagues, I found out later, were taking collaborative notes in SubEthaEdit—wish I’d known, I would have joined in. As for me, I found that being able to pull up sites as Shneiderman talked about them, bookmarking them (in, natch) as I went, was an excellent way to stay engaged in the presentation while still note-taking. I’ve got a post brewing on backchannels and meetings and the all-too-slow shifts that are taking place in this area.

Posted at 3:24 PM | Permalink
categories: big ideas | research

Friday, 12 March 2004

personal medical devices

One of the more interesting topics that came up at lunch today was the work being done by Ben Shneiderman’s students on interfaces for “personal medical devices”—like the monitors used by diabetics to record blood sugar, for example. Coincidentally, one of the faculty members at the lunch was a diabetic, and she was wearing an automated insulin pump—which spurred some interesting dialogue.

Shneiderman told us about a physician he’s been working with at Johns Hopkins who wants to work on how these devices record and report data, so that they (a) better match patient needs for record-keeping (think about all the ways Cory Doctorow criticizes human metadata assignment, and then extend to the even more critical data that medical patients are often expected to record about themselves…the potential for accidental or intentional error is enormous), and (b) better match physician needs for analysis. Even when a patient properly records blood sugar 4x/day in a 30-day log, for example, that information isn’t generally in a form that’s useful to the medical practicioner.

But, says Shneiderman, NIH is unwilling to fund research into interfaces to devices, and visualization of data—because medicine has traditionally not focused on these “peripheral” areas. In Leonardo’s Laptop, Shneiderman uses some other disturbing examples of medical interfaces gone wrong—with disastrous results—and points to Peter Neumann’s document Illustrative Risks to the Public in the Use of Computer Systems and Related Technology. (Neumann is the moderator of comp.risks on Usenet, as well as chair of the ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy.)

This is one of the great frustrations for me (and many others) in academia—the pigeonholing of research, and the difficulty in obtaining support and funding for research that crosses over disciplinary boundaries, no matter how important it may be. My hope that weblogs are a start towards breaking down those boundaries may be naive, but I cling to it anyways…

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categories: big ideas

Friday, 9 January 2004

on love and flight

Cary Tennis,’s “Since you asked…” advice columnist, has a really lovely piece today called “Can love be willed?

If you could not will flight but had to wait for it to occur like a meteor across the sky, it would elude the calculations of aeronautical engineers and the step-by-step catechisms of how-to publishers and come to reside solely in the world of dreams and epiphany. Airline schedules would be even harder to keep than they are today.

But that is the place love occupies. It is not a mineral to be mined or a physical process to be flowcharted and then refined for yearly productivity increases. It is a sudden unexpected taking to the air, as miraculous and as unfathomable.

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that you can have no human relationships of enduring power and depth. It doesn’t mean you can’t love. In fact, if you look down, you may find that you are flying right now, just not as high off the ground as you expected.

There’s lots I could say about varying altitudes in my own relationships. But right now I’m avoiding a lot of work here in my office, so I’m off to focus on that.

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categories: big ideas

Tuesday, 21 October 2003

immersion in narrative

No time today to write the long, thoughtful post that’s rumbling around in my head right now. But I can at least sketch out some of the ideas, so that when I do have time (perhaps while traveling to Albuquerque this weekend) I can expand (expound?) upon them. Or maybe not. Either way, some of this has to get written before the end of the day, or my head’s going to explode.

I’ve been meeting people IRL (“in real life”) after first meeting them online for a lot of years now—starting with the University of Michigan CONFER conferencing system back in 1986. Since then I’ve had in-person meetings with people I’ve encountered on CompuServe’s CB Simulator, Usenet newsgroups. DC-area BBS systems, FidoNet echos, e-mail lists, and most recently, blogs.

But this weekend, meeting Joey deVilla, I had a very different reaction to the in-person encounter than I’ve had in the past. And I’ve had to think about why that is.

Weez has written about her sense of blogs as “first-person narrative in real-time.” (Here, here, here, and here.) Of all the blogs I read on a regular basis (and yes, my blogroll is also my reading list; I’m not an aggregator kind of a girl), Joey’s is probably the most story-like in its presentation. From the title of the blog (“The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century”) to the self-as-narrator voice he regularly employs:

This was end-of-a-John-Hughes-movie moment, the sort of thing airline pilots would call a “textbook landing”. It was time to close the deal. I put an arm around her waist and drew her closer. Our faces were closing, maybe only an inch apart now…

…when I felt a hand on my shoulder, pulling me back. What the hell?

I turned around to see who was trying to ruin the best date ever. (more…

Joey brings you into his story, with detail and—as KF put it—emotional authenticity. You know that it’s real, you understand that this is autobiographical, but it’s still a damn good story, not “just” a journal entry.

So meeting Joey on Friday night, sitting in the Tequila Bookworm, was a mind-altering experience for me. A through-the-looking-glass kind of thing. All of a sudden, I was in the story, sitting with my favorite character in his favorite watering hole. There are plenty of children’s stories based on just this kind of fantasy—even TV shows based heavily on the premise (from Gumby and Poky to Steve and Blue’s “blue skidoos” in Blue’s Clues). But I have to say it’s the first time I’ve ever had such an experience unmediated by a book or screen.

Happily, by Saturday night I’d gotten over that initial sense of disconnect, and was able to genuinely enjoy spending an evening with Joey and his friends.

Looking back at it, I’m still struck by the worlds-collide feeling that I had. It speaks to something being very different about blogs versus other computer-mediated communication. Email, newsgroups, bbs systems—they don’t make it possible to create the kind of personal narrative and sense of place (note to self: go back and re-read Meyrowitz’s No Sense of Place) that blogs seem to facilitate.

There are visual presentation issues with this, as well. I think reading Joey’s posts in an aggregator would have changed my sense of him and his environment. That’s an area I’ve not seen much work in—the extent to which the visual presentation of the blog affects the perception and representation of the writer.

But I’m out of time to explore this, so I’m going to hit post and go back to my crazy daily schedule.

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categories: big ideas

Friday, 19 September 2003

my computer, my self

Jill Walker has a great entry about a quote from Shelly Jackson’s book Patchwork Girl. (Which I’m going to have to read…)

If you think you’re going to follow me, you’ll have to learn to move the way I do, think the way I think; there’s just no way around it. And then you’ll have trouble telling me apart from yourself.

Jill says, and I agree, that “that’s what computers do. Technology. Pens, too, for that matter.”

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categories: big ideas

Tuesday, 22 July 2003

league of extraordinary public-domain characters

Larry Lessig points to this Newsweek review of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Why? Because it’s not so much a review of the movie as it is a passionate and convincing argument about the importance of the public domain.

I’ll probably add this as a copyright-related reading in my intro to multimedia course (which should probably just be called “intro to the internet”).

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categories: big ideas

Thursday, 17 July 2003

depressing demographics

Spent the afternoon at the RIT Board of Trustees meeting. We had a fascinating presentation by demographer Dr. Harold (“Bud”) Hodgkinson.

Hodkinson is a wonderful presenter. But even his wit and presentation skills couldn’t change the depressing nature of the numbers he shared with us.

Particularly striking—and distressing—were the numbers reflecting child poverty. Twenty-two percent of children in the United States live in poverty. Twenty-two percent. That’s the highest rate of any developed nation. And yet, as Hodgkinson pointed out, there’s little or no public outcry or outrage over this horrifying number.

He also showed numbers that illustrated just how bad the gaps are between the “haves” and the “have nots” in the US. For example, the US is #1 in the world in per capita spending on health care, but #29 in the world on life expectancy. And the top 20% income bracket in the US makes 49.6% of the total income, while the bottom 20% makes 3.6% of the total income.

Interesting food for thought. More tomorrow.

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categories: big ideas

Thursday, 19 June 2003

multiple dimension described

Weez has posted her “nerd word” for an upcoming taping of her radio show What The Tech! The word (well, phrase) is “multiple dimensions,” and she does a lovely job of providing a non-nerd’s version of this complex space-time continuum concept.

(Something about upcoming trips seems to throw me into link-and-comment mode, it seems…)

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categories: big ideas

Tuesday, 8 April 2003

living on the edge(s)

A few months ago, I posted about what felt to me like my lack of “original thought” in my blogging. Sébastien Paquet posted a lovely response that cheered me immensely:
This is a core problem of being an ¤eyes-wide-open librarianË. You have such a wide view of things that you inevitable become aware of others╠ ideas that are similar to yours.

Most people focus more narrowly on what they do; as a result they aren╠t aware that they are reinventing the wheel. Fortunately for them, it often turns out that the people who review their work aren╠t either.

Truth be told, there aren╠t that many good, original ideas around, but many people would rather believe it were so.

Good ideas need amplification, explanation, and new angles from other people. How I wish that one could get credit for such creative work.

I thought of this again last night as I was mulling over an e-mail exchange I’d had with Kevin Werbach. I’d sent him mail after posting my extended rant, and he’d sent back a very nice reply in which he asked me to tell him what I might bring to the table.

Now, this is where all the interesting defensive mechanisms in my brain start to kick in. If I put everything into that response, talk about my passions and interests and why I think what I have to say matters, there’s far more risk. Because then if the answer is “thanks, but no thanks,” it’s a rejection of true self. Much easier, then, to toss off a quick laundry list of experience and interest, and try to feel nonchalant about it. That way if it doesn’t fly, I can always say “well, it’s not like I really tried.” I know this is one of my most problematic personality traits (and, alas, it’s one I see echoed in my oldest son, who is more like me than I ever imagined a person could be). You miss out on a lot if you’re not willing to take those kinds of risks—risks that you might not be the best at something, might not get picked, might not get praised.

So last night, I started thinking more about why, exactly, I think I have something to offer to the public discourse on new technologies. I mentally dredged through my postings from the past six months, looking for themes, for core ideas, for things that resonated. What finally made it all click was the title of Meg Hourihan’s upcoming talk at ETCON: “From the Margins of the Writeable Web.”

The margins. The edges. The boundaries. The outlines. After reading about last year’s Supernova, where outlines seemed to be quite a theme, I wrote a bit about outlines and boundaries, but didn’t go nearly as far with that in writing as I’d wanted to. Later, after the Columbia tragedy, I wrote a bit more on the topic:
I thought a lot more about outlines, edges, boundaries, and how the most interesting things seem to happen at the edges. The edge to edge linking of blogs…the interdisciplinary ideas that emerge at the boundaries of traditional thought…and the excitement of crossing boundaries—whether they be physical, intellectual, or emotional. (3 February 2003)

That’s it. Right there. The core of what I’ve been saying to my colleagues, to my friends, to myself. The most interesting things seem to happen at the edges. That’s where the connections happen. That’s where the borders and boundaries are still permeable, where change happens, where innovation thrives.

The problem is, when you’re in the center, it’s hard to see the edges. Joi blogged about this a bit in February, after he and I chatted online for a bit about power and control and the difficulty of effecting change from within the power structure:
Inspired by Clay’s claims about the power law distribution of blogs, I’ve been thinking and writing (with many others) about emergent democracy in the hopes that blogs will not create an elite ruling class, but will allow direct democracy to emerge from the chaos. The irony of my technorati and daypop rankings increasing because of this does not escape me. It feels good to get attention, and this feeling is the lust that drives people to stare at power law curve. Liz and I were chatting in IM about this today and she quoted: “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.” So, who is the Frodo Baggins of the Internet? Are bloggers hobbits? Who can resist the power law distribution and try to create a more democratic process. It is not just the Net that suffers from this. In my attempts to change Japan, Oki Matsumoto and I have been plotting the overthrow of the ruling elite. The problem is, to change anything in Japan, you have to be powerful and elite. Once you are powerful and elite, it is almost impossible by definition to overthrow yourself. (24 February 2003)

So you have a conundrum. The people on the edges are “marginal.” And because they’re marginal, their voices are not central and are harder to hear. And so many of the structures—organizational and technical—that are emerging now tend to reinforce those strata rather than leveling them.

I think about the conferences we’ve been discussing…it makes all kinds of sense to have the people who are at the center of this technical tsunami speaking—people who have founded companies, shaped government policy, written influential tomes. Hey, I wouldn’t be so excited about attending them if I didn’t think that the things being said had value. I’d like nothing more than to be in the audience listening to Meg later this month. But at the same time, I wonder if it doesn’t make sense to have some voices from the edge, as well.

One of the things academics tend to be good at is living on the edges. We’re marginal, almost by definition. We like to watch. I suppose the up side of being in an ivory tower is the view. Ernest Boyer, whose book Scholarship Reconsidered has been much-discussed here at RIT, outlines four different types of scholarship. The most traditional form he identifies is “scholarship of discovery.” But the form that resonates most with me is his “scholarship of integration”:

By connecting knowledge and discovery into larger patterns and contexts, creating new perspectives, the scholarship of integration may transcend disciplinary boundaries [emphasis added] to give meaning to isolated facts. Integration includes, for example, cross-disciplinary activities and the connection of technology with teaching or research.

Which brings me to what I finally realized I’m so very good at—which Seb apparently saw before I did. I’m one of Gladwell’s “mavens.” But I don’t just collect information. I evaluate it, I synthesize it, I integrate it.

If you’ve ever attended Pop!Tech, you’ve probably heard Bob Metcalfe’s infamous wrap-up sessions. He does a one-hour “Summing Up” in which he encapsulates the key points of the conference in a nutshell. It’s entertaining and interesting and a wonderful way to end things. That’s what I’m good at, too. I’m the consummate summarizer. I instinctively know what the important (and the weak) parts of what I’m hearing are. I can view things from the margins, and write the annotations.

And at the end of the day, even if that’s not, as Seb says, a creative endeavour for which one gets “credit”…well, that’s okay. It’s enough to know that I can do it—and to know that people like Seb…and Joi…and Shelley…and Jill (and a host of other people whose ideas I value and respect) appreciate it. The rest…well, as my husband pointed out, “if you’re so happy flitting around the edges, why even try to burn yourself by flying into the flame in the center?”

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categories: big ideas

Tuesday, 25 February 2003

creative commons angst

I find myself deeply puzzled by the anger and angst that some of my most respected blogging friends have expressed lately regarding creative commons licenses in general, and Movable Type’s implementation of those licenses as an option in version 2.6 in particular.

So, dear readers, help me understand why allowing your words to be distributed freely is such a frightening concept, particularly in the context of weblogs.

As someone who’s struggled to get more than one book out under a deadline—and had to live off the fruits of her intellectual and creative efforts for longer than she’d like—I’m certainly not advocating the Swartzian position that profiting from those efforts is a form of theft.

But the CC licensing does not restrict you from profiting from your works. It allows others to distribute your copyrighted work—typically with attribution, and not for commercial use (that appears to be the version most folks choose).

If my weblog content is broadly distributed, with attribution, it helps me. It extends my reputation, makes me recognizable. And if I later choose to write a book that draws from my weblog material, I think it’s that much more likely to have buyers.

Cory Doctorow’s experience with Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom seems to support this idea. While the work is freely downloadable and distributable, it hasn’t stopped him from selling copies of the published work. (Same argument so many use in the context of music distribution—I’m among those who buy more CDs because of the samples of work I download online.)

When I supported myself and my family as an Internet trainer, I made all of my materials available freely online—because I knew that my presentation of the materials was what was valuable. When I bought my copy of Down & Out, I did so in part because I felt it was the right thing to do, but also because I’d much rather read a nicely-bound hardcover book than screen after screen of digital text.

Weblogs are a nice way to read small chunks of content—but I wouldn’t pay for them. I might, however, pay for a work deriving from that content, which is something that most CC licenses do not grant, but that I as copyright holder can create (and profit from).

I think critics are right that it would help if CC provided both sides of the argument on their site. But given that MT is specifically a weblog management system, and that weblogs are a medium based intrinsically on sharing of content (through links at the very least), including CC licensing capability as a part of MT strikes me as a pretty reasonable approach.

In the comments on Tim Hadley’s excellent analysis of the CC licenses, one person asked rather plaintively why anyone would want to use a CC license, and I responded there, pointing to the CC site. I suppose what I’m still looking for is a convincing argument as to why someone wouldn’t want to use the CC license on their weblog. Why shouldn’t the “commons” approach of free distribution of ideas be the default rather than the exception? Can someone pointn me to an example of specific harm—past or anticipated—that they see resulting from these licenses?

A while back, Shelley posted something that confused the issue a bit, by implying that use of a CC license was tantamount to (a) placing a work in the public domain, and (b) renouncing copyright. Neither is true. The example she used, in which she excerpted someone else’s text—without attribution—would clearly violate the terms of most CC licenses. As would her suggestion that “you could even charge for this writing.”

Besides not being an accurate depiction of the impact of a CC license, it also made the error that so many of my students make when they plagiarize on a paper. It confuses the legal obligation of copyright with the moral obligation of intellectual honesty. CC license or no, I’m likely to ask Shelley’s permission before excerpting more than a line or two of her work. And I would always cite her as the source.

Update: Ooops. I goofed. Just noticed that the site Shelley used as an example had used one of the less commonly-used CC licenses, which does in fact dedicate all of the work to the public domain. However, that still doesn’t address the difference between legal and ethical responsibility. While Shelley could legally use Doc’s words under that license, that’s an explicit choice he’s making. And if she does use those words, and fails to cite them, it’s still intellectually dishonest. If she did it on a paper she turned in to me for a class (or in a “briefing document,” as the UK govt did), she’d be called out for plagiarizing. That’s a whole different issue than the legality of using the material…

Jonathon, in his post today, says that CC “does a shithouse job of explaining why people might choose not to use their license … But that╠s less of an issue, now that Tim Hadley has done the job properly.” But I don’t see that in Tim’s analysis. It’s not a discussion of why you wouldn’t want to use the license—it’s a discussion of what the legal boundaries of that license are.

So…”Jonathon”: Shelley? How ‘bout a “non-shithouse” version of why people might choose not to use the license, that can live side-by-side with the CC discussion of why they should? Not a harangue, or a sky-is-falling piece, but a thoughtful analysis of the potential harm that could come to a writer as a result of adding the license to his or her work.

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categories: big ideas

Monday, 17 February 2003

what's the buzz?

Last week, before all hell broke loose with my son's health, I had the opportunity to participate in two conference calls on the topic of "emergent democracy and blogs," arranged by Joi Ito. The participants included Clay Shirky, Ross Mayfield, Seb Paquet, and a number of others (more than I'm willing to type in).

Somebody in the group (Pete Kaminsky?) christened it a "happening," and the name seems to have stuck. As a result, the refrain from a song in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar has been running through my mind..."What's the buzz, tell me what's a-happening." I looked up the rest of the lyrics, and found them serendipitously interesting in this context:

APOSTLES What's the buzz? Tell me what's happening. (Repeat eight times)

I could give you facts and figures.
Even give you plans and forecasts.
Even tell you where I'm going.
[ . . . ]
Why should you want to know?
Why are you obsessed with fighting
Times and fates you can't defy?
If you knew the path we're riding,
You'd understand it less than I.

In the first conference call (which involved only the call, without other media) I asked Clay what his response to the "so what?" comments on his power law essay from people like Jonathon Delacour and Alex Halavais. Part of his answer led to the question of what will happen to blogging as the conversational space scales? He believes what will result will be too complex to have a single name applied to it. The heavily linked blogs will become a form of media outlet (think Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Reynolds, et al). But he didn't really address the part that Jonathon raises, and that I"m most interested in...what's happening "in the middle"?

In my heart, I'm a qualitative researcher, not a quantitative one. I don't want the "facts and figures," "plans and forecasts," so much as I want the stories. It's not that I don't want a big picture, it's that I want one that emerges (there's that word again...) from the details, rather than one that comes from an aerial view. Knowing that we're "baked into" power law distributions doesn't tell me anything. ("If you knew the path we're riding...") I want to get inside that curve, ride it for a while, listen to what people are saying about it, figure out the path ahead from the people who are on it.

We talked about this more in the second conference call, which made me feel woefully inadequate as a multi-tasking member of the new media world. I was tasked with note-taking, which would have been fine if it had just been an audio call. But the call was accompanied by a chat session that had nearly 20 participants at its peak, and by a wiki site that was changing as we went. So I had three windows to work with -- a browser for the chat, another browser for the wiki, and the text document for notes. And I was trying to listen, too. Doesn't work well for me, I found. (And that's a serious understatement.)

But I did still manage to extract key concepts from what we discussed. Key among them was the rallying cry among several participants that "We are not ants!" What does that mean? Well, we were discussing Steven Johnson's book Emergence, in which he discusses the emergent behavior/intelligence in environments like ant colonies. The problem, several of us noted, is that ants do not have much self-awareness, while people do. (Yes, I know, that can be argued on many levels. Let's take it as a given for now.)

Some of the most interesting social scientific writings I've read have looked at social phenomena from a critical theory perspective. Scholars like Anthony Giddens have specifically addressed this reflexive character of human behavior--that when we study behavior, and write about it, what we write feeds back into the very environment we describe.

Bloggers who spend a lot of time "metablogging" tend to get flak about it from readers--but in an environment as fluid as the "blogosphere," those reflections on practice and participants are incredibly powerful in shaping the environment. To dismiss them as "naval-gazing" is short-sighted. As Giddens says, "reflections on social processes (theories, and observations about them) continually enter into, become disentangled with and re-enter the universe of events they describe." This is particularly true with blogging.

As a result of the "happenings," my reading list has grown. I have to actually finish Emergence, which is on my shelf with Smart Mobs, both half-read, half-skimmed. And I've ordered a copy of William Calvin's How Brains Think, which several participants in the call recommended highly.

Happily, our quarter break is approaching fast, so I might actually have a chance to read these books. I hope so, because the conversation that's beginning here is a fascinating one, and I want to be actively involved.

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categories: big ideas

Friday, 14 February 2003

ten years ago today...

I took a Valentine’s Day cruise on the Betsy Ann Riverboat with Gerald.

We’d been together for just over a year. In the fall of 1991, we “met” on a FidoNet echo on, of all things, “New Age Spirtuality.” If you know either one of us, you’ll understand just how improbable that sounds. (When I asked him, months later, why on earth he’d been on that echo, he responded simply “I was waiting for you.”) I was living D.C., in the middle of separating from my husband of three years, and applying for doctoral programs in Library & Information Science. He was in Montgomery, Alabama, doing computer and accounting work for a truck stop.

When I first read his posts, he was holding forth on the word “baraka”. I was taken with his style of writing, and his obvious intelligence and humor, and we quickly moved from echo-based banter to private e-mail to hours and hours and hours on the phone. (I fall quickly and easily for men who write well; I met my first husband on a DC-area Macintosh BBS called TMMABBS.)

As my interactions with Gerald intensified, I wavered between believing that I’d finally met my soulmate, and thinking that I was suffering from temporary insanity brought on by the stress of the separation/divorce and indecision about my future. So to get the whole thing out of my system, and burst the bubble of virtual impressions, I hopped into my car on New Year’s Day of 1992, and drove the 800 miles to Montgomery to meet him in person.

When I tell this story, this is usually where I jump right to “and the next thing I knew, I was barefoot and pregnant and living in Alabama.” :-) But that leaves out a lot. And today I feel like telling the longer version.

I think we both knew, within hours of my arrival, that our instincts had been right on. We were intoxicated with each other, and there was no doubt in my mind that I had to rethink my plans for the future.

I clearly remember calling my father from a payphone in the truck stop (they generally have one at each table, given their clientele), and telling him “Dad, I’m calling from a truck stop in Alabama, and I’ve got something to tell you…” As you might imagine, the news that I’d fallen in love with truck stop employee in Alabama, and was changing my grad school plans to the University of Alabama (rather than Michigan, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, and the other A-list schools I’d been considering), went over like a rock. I’d always been the golden girl of the family—perfect GRE scores, respectable profession, etc. This was a fall from grace that took some time for us all to recover from.

But I knew it was the right thing to do (backed up by the professional opinion of the psychiatrist my mother had paid for me to see, in hopes that I’d realize how insane it all sounded), and U of A snapped me up in a heartbeat. In June I quit my job in DC, emptied out my meager savings to get me through the summer, and headed down to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where the temperature was well over 100 degrees the week I arrived.

Following my heart turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. Gerald and his family made me feel at home in Alabama—a tough thing to accomplish for someone as Northern born-and-bred as I am. (Although I still remember meeting his infamous aunt at one of my first big Lawley family gatherings, and having her say “You’re from Buffalo, aren’t you? We know some people from there. Bless your heart, I hope you’re not as rude as they are.” Delivered with a drawl and a smile, of course.)

It didn’t take me long to feel like part of the family—or to realize that UA was an excellent place for me to study. It was a new doctoral program, and I had the flexibility to define my program in a very interdisciplinary way, taking courses in feminist theory, computer science, and communication theory as well as more traditional LIS offerings. They gave me a full-ride fellowship for two years, so I could focus on school and not live the life of an indentured servant GA. It was a grad student’s dream—weekdays to immerse myself in books, classes, and writing, and weekends with Gerald in Montgomery or at the farm in Lawley.

In January of 1993, Gerald told me that he wanted to move to Tuscaloosa. I knew that wasn’t something he’d do unless he was ready to make a commitment, so I wasn’t shocked by his Valentine’s Day proposal. But I was delighted. He was friends with the riverboat captain, and made sure that they’d have the song I wanted to dance to, and that there’d be a dish of Valentine’s candy hearts (don’t know why I like them, but I do) on the table. The ring was in that dish. I was a starving grad student, and he was quitting his job to finally (at age 41) go back to school and finish his college degree, so the ring’s not fancy, or ostentatious. But it was simple, and beautiful, and just what I wanted.

We got married four months later, barefoot on the beach in Jamaica. His daughters—ages 14 and 16—were in the ceremony, but the rest of our families were at home. It was a second wedding for both of us, so we wanted it to really be for us. And it was perfect. In September, I was pregnant. And in May, our son Lane was born, followed by Alex in 1996.

In 1997, we packed up our belongings and our children and moved north to Rochester, where I found the perfect academic department, and the kids (and I) could be near grandma (and her incomparable chicken soup and brisket).

So here we are now…ten years after that proposal…still in love, still together. There have been plenty of moments over the past ten years when one or both of us has wondered if we did the right thing, and if we’d make it. But we’ve weathered those storms, and come out of them stronger. I look around today at the life that I have, and the political storms of work and world take on far less significance. At the macro level, the world around me often seems in disarray. But at the micro level, it’s better than anyone has a right to hope for.

I love you, Gerald. Thank you for this wonderful life. And Happy Valentine’s Day.

note: minor editing changes/corrections made at 11:30pm 2/14.

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categories: big ideas

Monday, 27 January 2003

blog research progress

First draft of the proposal summary for the "microcontent research center" that Alex and I are working on is on the blogresearch site now. Comments/feedback/suggestions welcome. (No copy editing,'s still a rough draft--am interested in content-related feedback.)

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categories: big ideas

Wednesday, 8 January 2003

rethinking our graduate program

I'm part of a group of people in our department who are beginning to rethink our graduate program, and where it could/should go. It began as a "career-changers" program, because there were no undergraduate programs in IT for it to build upon. But as we--and the field--have matured, there's a growing need for in-depth, graduate level study in more focused areas than what our current program offers.

So the question becomes what, exactly, we want to be teaching. And along with that, what are we best at? And what students do we want? And who will their employers be? And what will those employers expect? Lots of questions, really. But lots of enthusiasm about exploring them.

We've got a number of areas that we're particularly enthusiastic about exploring, many of them related (directly or indirectly) to what many people seem to be calling "social software." We've got lots of strength in HCI, information architecture, XML, web development, game programming, VRML, multi-user media spaces, etc. So how can we knit that into a coherent graduate program?

So, faithful readers, what do you think? What kinds of graduate programs are missing right now? What niches need to be filled? What kind of program would you want to hire someone out of? What kind would you want to attend yourself if you could? I'd love to leverage the expertise of the blogosphere on this question, especially right now during the formative stages of this discussion...

updated 4:40pm
Dorothea asks in her comment for a pointer to our current program. Should have thought to include that to begin with. We've got a "purpose and goals" page, as well as a list of courses in the program. Also, fwiw, here's one to our faculty "research interests."

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categories: big ideas | teaching | technology

Sunday, 15 December 2002

outlines and boundaries

My conversation with Alex yesterday got me thinking a lot about outlines and how they affect writing.

While Alex was talking about outlines in the sense of the boundaries of physical form, and not as a tool for organizing text, the two aren't so very far apart. Outliners impose a specific structure on writing. They produce clear boundaries between sections, and between what's "in" the writing and what's "out." In some cases, that's a useful and valuable thing. I can't imagine writing a grant proposal or research paper without an outline as a strting point. Outlines are ideal for syllabi, and conference presentations. In those contexts, I love them.

But I wouldn't use an outline for a poem. Or for an e-mail message to a friend. I don't use one for my blogging. In those contexts, I don't want the hierarchical structure that an outline imposes. And I don't want the choppiness and bulleted item feel that they encourage. In my classes, in fact, I've stopped using Powerpoint, because when I use it I find I lose the students. It becomes a series of discrete points, not an analog stream. I lose the sense of narrative that makes the classroom come alive for me. Does that mean nobody should ever use PowerPoint in the classroom? Of course not. And in some heavily fact-focused lectures I still use it to make sure that everything gets covered; I just don't like for it to be the basis for all of my presentations.

Dave and Doc both think blogs are essentially outlines. And that shows in the kinds of blogs they maintain. Many of the journalistic blogs seem to have a "bullet points" feel to them. But just because their blogs are outlines doesn't mean that all blogs are outlines. Shelley says "this-is-not-an-outline-dammit", and I have to say that I agree with her--not just about her site, but also about mine, and about quite a few others.

The variation in style and presentation from blog to blog is part of what I love about reading them. That's a big part of why I don't use an aggregator to read my blogroll. The look and feel of Baldur's blog is so very different from Jill's, or from Dorothea's, or from Alex's. To detach them from their visual components, and reduce them to outline headings and text, is to fundamentally change their meaning.

I love Dave & Doc's blogs. I read them every day, I depend on them for all kinds of news and information--about blogging, about conferences, about web services, about the tech zeitgeist. But their blogging style doesn't fit everyone (nor do the tools they use). And if we all blogged alike, we'd all be poorer for it.

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categories: big ideas

Saturday, 14 December 2002

omnipresent outlines

The topic du jour in blogaria...and in my house, it outlines.

Doc says all blogs are outlines. The Supernova bloggers all seemed to report some version of Dave Winer saying that "everything is an outline."

So this morning, I decided to try the OmniOutliner tool that I read about on Joi's blog.

Here's the scary part. As I was reading through the docs, and trying to puzzle out the tool, my six-year-old son Alex was lying on the prayer rug in our living room, tracing the designs with his finger. And he suddenly said "Mom, why does everything have to have an outline?"

Huh? He couldn't see my screen from where he's sitting. I was temporarily speechless, since he seemed to have given voice to my thoughts, and I couldn't fathom how that had happened.

Then I realized that he was talking about the outlines of the images on the rug.

So here's the dialog that followed...

Me: They don't.

Alex: Name one thing that doesn't.

Me: Air.

Alex: [frustrated sigh] I mean things you can see.

Me: Well, what do you mean by "an outline"?

Alex: [in voice reserved for talking with very stupid adults] An *outline*, mom. You *know* what I mean.

Me: Well, if you mean an edge, or a boundary, you may be right. If you mean a line around the outside, lots of things don't have an the chair you're next to.

Alex: That's *not* what I mean. You just don't get it.

[Which, alas, seems to be true more and more often as they get older.]

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categories: big ideas | kids

Wednesday, 11 December 2002

ideas at blog speed

Wow. Watching an idea spread through the blogosphere is a very cool thing. Glad this is happening on a day when I'm not stuck in classrooms!

Dave Winer posted his idea about a blogging conference this morning. Shelley Powers chimed in with some great posts about the conference here and here. Anita Rowland commented on Shelley's post, pointing out that there's a lot that can be learned about conference-giving from the SF Fandom "cons".

I contacted Dave about the possibility of some collaboration on this related to the grant proposal that Jill, Alex and I are working on (along with Joi, possibly...), and he's enthusiastic.

And it hasn't even been 24 hours since Dave floated the idea. Blink in blogworld and you miss a lot. :-)

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categories: big ideas

Friday, 22 November 2002

more simultaneous idea emergence

This morning in the shower I was humming a Christine Lavin song to myself. It’s called Rushcutter’s Bay, and in it, she’s singing about being in Australia. “I can’t believe it’s November, I’m upside down, The other side of the world.”

So then I start thinking about “being upside down,” in relation to location. And from there I wonder to myself whether compasses work the same way in Australia as they do in North America. (Yes, I realize as an educated person I should know this, but I don’t.) Which leads me to start thinking about the concept of compass point directions, and then maps. “How effective were maps before we had compass points,” I wonder. And since Joi Ito recently posted a comment regarding my post on mapping the infome, and I recently posted one to his blog about “maps” of social networks, I then get to thinking about Internet maps, and how perhaps the real problem with all these Internet visualization tools is that we don’t have shared reference points to orient ourselves on them.

As I wasn’t exactly in a place where it would be easy to blog this train of thoughts, I mentally filed it away for later. Then I found a trackback alert in my mailbox this afternoon, showing that Brandon Barr had linked to my post from his texturl blog. I followed the link, to his ghosts in the machine post. In it, he says:

The geographic and topographic metaphors are somewhat problematic to me. Joi Ito’s comment to Liz’s post touches on precisely what I find problematic: the utility of internet visualizations. The utility of Jevbratt’s visualizations is difficult to place, because her maps are counter-inituitive to what we usually think of as a map. I would contend that the power of maps requires a degree of permanence in what they represent—if highways constantly shifted, Rand McNally would be out of business. So, one sees utility in a project to visualize the backbone of the internet, while one might see less hard utility in a static maps of dynamic web information flow. There is utility, but it isless tangible. More like catching ghosts.

Fun stuff, this.

There was more serendipity in the process, as well. While trying to find the link to Joi’s social network diagram post, I stumbled on an other post of his in which he quotes Sean O’Reilly telling his brother Tim “Korzybski’s brilliant observation, in the latter half of the 20th century, that the map is not the territory morphed into the bizarre idea that there is no territory at all, which to most rational individuals is simply absurd.”

I’ve always loved that Korzybski quote—“The map is not the territory, the thing name is not the thing named.” I first encountered it reading Bateson’s Mind and Nature, which I’ve been wanting to go back and re-read lately in the context of the ‘net as an organic entity.

There’s an important thread in all of this, that I can’t quite grasp in its entirety yet. But it helps a lot to put this much into words. More later.

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categories: big ideas

Wednesday, 20 November 2002

no original thoughts

After I finished blogging Jill's talk at HUMlab, complete with my expression of concern about "interaction overload" vs "information overload," I did my daily blogsurfing. And what should I find on Steven Johnson's blog but a reference to fabio sergio's connectedland essay, which contains the following line:

From a world where people's main issue has been managing information we might be thus evolving to a connected world where problems will also come from managing interaction. With content. With other people. With the devices that allow us to interact with content and people.

On the one hand, I love that these ideas seem to emerge simultaneously from multiple sources--it's a validation that I'm making the connections in a way that makes sense to people besides me. On the other hand, I hate that I seem unable to produce an original thought. My skills tend to be in putting the pieces together, in seeing the big picture and then filling in details. But much of what I piece together seems to have been put together--with more grace and style--by others first. <sigh>

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categories: big ideas

Thursday, 14 November 2002

monolithic information structures

Jill Walker has an excellent post on the issue of "hardcoded privilege" in her blog today. (Alas, Tinderbox doesn't support Trackback, so this won't be a bidirectional link. I'll post a note in her comments pointing this way.)

In it, she raises the issue of the growing information aggregation based on Amazon (daypop, allconsuming, etc), and the privileging of amazon that results. She raises it in the context of the impact on smaller bookstores, but that's not the part that scares me.

What I don't like is the narrowing of the information pipelines, and our resulting dependence upon the goodwill of the pipeline owners. Recently, I've seen other people commenting on the danger of treating Google as a public information infrastructure, and the same holds true here.

What happens, for example, if Amazon decides that they don't particularly want to include books on a particular subject in their collection? It's their right--they have no public duty to carry items on their virtual shelves. But if they become the de facto sole source for books on the 'net, it's only a matter of time before that happens.

I don't know what the answer is. But it does make me wary of services that reify this monolithic structure, no matter how seductive the services they provide may be.

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categories: big ideas

Monday, 11 November 2002


Have been thinking a lot today about disciplinary boundaries...and about boundaries in general. The most intimately "life changing" technologies I've encountered (e-mail, laptops, wireless networking, digital video recorders, cell phones) have had as their defining quality the explicit breaking down of time/space boundaries.

Similarly, the theorists who have been most influential in my thinking are those that broke down boundaries between "disciplines." Bourdieu, Habermas, Foucault...all hard to place in one traditional box.

One of the things that drew me into librarianship was that it was an ∏ber-field--a big picture vantage point where one got to see information come together into a coherent whole. Need to revisit the whole issue of how I ended up here, in such a tech-focused environment. Too often drowning in the details of implementation, not enough time spent on the big picture vision. On the other hand, vision without implementation is hollow. Where's the balancing point?

Not enough thoughtful librarian blogs out there, I think. The Shifted Librarian is widely linked to. Fellow UMich alum Lou Rosenfeld has a good IA-focused blog. Jessamyn West's looks interesting. Need to poke around more.

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categories: big ideas

Thursday, 7 November 2002

recursive decontextualization

David Weinberger has an interesting column in Darwin Magazine called "What's Info Got to Do With It?"

Decontextualizing something constitutes changing its nature since context comes first: Things only are what they are in context. Meaning is emergent and irreducible.

So does it follow that blogs, by their nature, change the nature of the content they excerpt and link to? How does my context modify David's meaning? If meaning is irreducible, can it also be endlessly malleable throught this process?

And can I find any other ways to avoid grading exams this afternoon?

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categories: big ideas

natural affinity

Interestingly, the more time I spend reading blogs and following links and searching Google for content, the more I seem to end up in the same places rather than different ones.

I think that perhaps the effect of having this enormous "public sphere" of information is that like minds are better able to seek each other out and make connections. What seems purely serendipitous at first looks more and more purposeful or even inevitable.

Case in point. This week's elections had me thinking about the works by Habermas that I read during my first year of doctoral study. At the time (1992), I was struck by the relationship between Habermas' "ideal speech" situation and the communication environment provide by the Internet (e-mail and usenet, basically; this was still what Clay Shirky calls "the Before Time", pre WWW).

So I went Googling for people who might have explored the connection between blogs and Habermas' "public sphere." Who did I find? Why, Jill Walker again, in a blog called "blogonblog" that she and her colleague Torill Mortensen put together for a paper they'd written.

Somehow, though, this didn't surprise me. In the best of all possible worlds (for me, at least), it's intellectual affinity that draws people together. The fact that my early reading of Jill's current blog led me to link to her site and regularly read her entries seems an excellent indication that we share a common way of thinking about technology and the way we interact with it. This was an affirmation that I can trust my instincts, that if I follow my interests they'll lead me to the people who share them, and that those connections will be the ones that matter.

There's a cyclical component to this, I think. A reaching out and connecting to new ideas and new people, a circling back that affirms the value of those connections and integrates them into your own sphere, then more reaching out, using those new nodes in your personal network. There's a self-limiting quality to the process--you only reach out as far as your capacity allows, returning to the relative "safety" of known entities, adding a node or two at a time, paring the non-essential components as you go.

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categories: big ideas

Tuesday, 5 November 2002

technology enabling connections

I came home tonight and announced to my husband that I've decided blogs are "the way and the truth and the light." Only partially in jest. But in the past few weeks, I've gone through what feels like a genuinely transformative experience. I remember feeling the same way when I discovered e-mail, and CompuServe, and FidoNet, and mailing lists, and ICQ. All of them "social technologies." All of them changed my view of the world. (Hey, I met my husband via FidoNet. 'Nuff said.)

For the past few years, I've been living in too much of a box--interacting only with the people directly around me at work and at home. I feel like a switch has been thrown, and I have a new and insanely powerful communication channel available now--one that lets me connect with people who share my ideas and interests, one that lets me think "out loud" (which has always been how I prefer to think), with immediate feedback and reinforcement.

The connections I've already made through this medium are truly extraordinary. When was the last time I could say that someone I was having a one-on-one conversation with had just had dinner with Lawrence Lessig? Or that I was exchanging ideas about my web design course with someone at the University of Bergen? Or that a major figure in the development of software my students use every day had been reading my online thoughts?

Yeah, so there's obviously an ego thing there. (Shades of Sally Field: "They like me! They really like me!") But it's more than that. It's the thrill of finding kindred spirits--people who are enthusiastic about technology in the way that I need to be if I want to teach it well. These kinds of connections are what can keep me intellectually alive.

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categories: big ideas

doc searls to world: "start a blog!"

Doc Searls has a great post today, entitled "Cause your own effects," in which he discusses giving advice to someone with career woes. What does he say they should do? Start a blog, of course.

Anyway, I was responding to this guy's request by email when I decided to cut the last line and paste it over here. ▄ You can be the pinball or you can be the pinball machine. With a blog you can create your own machine.

Yes, yes, yes! That's exactly why I want to change the way I (we?) teach web design. I want to stop teaching them how to be pinballs in the corporate web machine, and start teaching them how to create their own machines.

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categories: big ideas | on blogging | teaching

Saturday, 2 November 2002

defining a discipline

I've been asked by a group of senior colleagues in our department to participate in a discussion group to help define the nature of our emerging academic discipline.

IT is the perpetual "Rodney Dangerfield" of the academy, generally dismissed as "applied computing." But those of us involved in it know that it's far more than that. We grew out of CS--and HCI, and Instructional Design, and Information Science, and Communication, and MIS--but we're not just "applied" versions of any of them. We go deeper into mechanics than many of the more theoretical fields we draw on, but we focus more on the context of computing than the applied fields.

Our faculty come from a wide range of backgrounds (from Computer Science to Library Science to Chemistry to Philosophy to Education and beyond), and teach in a wide range of areas. We have concentrations in networking & systems admin, learning and performance technologies, web application development, multimedia development, database design & administration, application programming, and more. Our students learn both the how and the why, and not just in a business context.

So, what are we? Right now, the process of defining that is a bit like the blind men and the elephant. We're each focused on our own piece, and while we know that they must be connected, we don't really understand the whole. That's what this discussion group is going to try to do. Can we come up with an effective description of what we do (beyond "contextual computing," which is what I usually call it, for lack of a better term)? Can we develop formalisms to describe the underpinnings of our field?

Or will it turn out that there's "no there there," that we're not in fact a discipline, but rather a collection of teachers and classes that can't coalesce around a meaningful core?

In our first discussion, we all seemed to agree that just as bioinformatics can be traced to a signficiant event/discovery (the human genome project), IT can probably be traced to the point where internetworking reached the desktop, and the graphical web was born. We're not just the study of the Internet, but almost everything we do revolves around the 'net in some way. But what does that mean in terms of defining our underpinnings?

I'm looking for good readings for our group to use as think pieces--things that talk about the changes in technology (and perhaps the study of technology) since the early 1990s. Suggestions welcome.

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categories: big ideas | teaching | technology

Wednesday, 30 October 2002

the aoling of blogspace

So I'm talking with one of my colleagues about blogs, and explaining how only twice in my life have I had this sense that a technology was about to become really important. We're both reminiscing about the early days of post-BITNET e-mail, and the first wave of web sites (remember O'Reilly's Network Navigator?). And then the conversation turns to "what happened to all that promise"? I remind him of the day the AOL floodgates opened and usenet and e-mail were never the same. What's going to be the effect on blogging when/if the exponential curve takes its sharp turn upwards? This LA Times article suggests some possibilities. Looks like "reaching critical mass" is becoming synonymous with "succumbing to the great unwashed masses."

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categories: big ideas | on blogging

Saturday, 26 October 2002

too many books, too little time

Books I want to read (or re-read) seem to be popping up everywhere. PopTech probably spurred some of this...I came home with a signed copy of True Names with related essays, and with a hankering for Small Pieces Loosely Joined and Smart Mobs, both of which were also for sale there. I want to read the AAUW report Tech Savvy, the book on CMUs attempt to improve the number of women in its CS fields--Unlocking the Clubhouse, and reread Turkle's The Second Self. When, o when, will I find the time?

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categories: big ideas
Liz sipping melange at Cafe Central in Vienna