Monthly Archives: August 2005

Still not Evil


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

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

The Revolution Will Be Podcast


To me, the power of blogging is obvious. It was obvious the first time I started a blog back in the old days, back before comments and tracebacks and technorati. The simple act of public reflection seemed so revolutionary then, and the surprising thing to me is that it keeps being revolutionary now, six years later.

I thought all the people who were going to be got on the bandwagon back when the first blogathon kept us posting through the night. It felt then like we had hit market saturation, but clearly I had no idea. Because today I feel like we’re in a totally new blogworld.

There are lots of things that should have clued me in to this along the way. Podcasting, for instance. The sheer rise in the numbers of blogs. The fact that the word gets mentioned in the mainstream media so often you’d think we’re in their employ. But what really drove it home for me was the explosion of weblogs around the CBC lock out.

The background: The CBC is Canada’s national broadcaster. It is, essentially, a government service, with a mandate to provide news and programming to every region in the country. In spite of the government funding (and perhaps because of it), the CBC provides famously good, critical news and commentary. The CBC is our insurance that we won’t be swamped with American programming and news, which, if you look at the film industry, is perilously close to being a reality otherwise.

So the CBC management has locked out the union. The staff is all on the picket lines. In other times, what we would know would be only what the official CBC brass want us to know. But the time is now, and the CBC staff understands the power that the internet represents.

CBC Unplugged is another voice on the whole experience, and tonight (on my nice long walk out along the credit river), I listened to their first long podcast, created out of Vancouver. (I highly recommend it: you can download it here, or subscribe to the feed via itunes. I recommend it if you’re Canadian, or if you’re interested in labour politics in any way.) This is amazing; I’m learning things about this dispute I don’t think I would ever have had access to otherwise. Management has shut down staff email addresses. They talk about a “labour disruption” when it’s actually a lock out, they barred their employees from entering the building. They forced them out on strike. I got to think about this experience from their point of view; Bill Richardson talks about what it’s like to hear his own voice from the archives filling air time, as if he himself (his former self, the part already paid for by the CBC) is a scab. This is amazing.

They can bar access to one means of production, but the world is a slightly different shape these days. People can’t be silenced anymore.

Partly I feel like the right audience for these stories and rants and political outpourings, and partly I feel like a spectator. Part of what these blogs and these podcasts are doing is tying together a diverse and disparate staff. One of the podcasters says that it’s nice to see what’s going on in other cities through the photo blogs; she gets tired of walking around the same block over and over in Vancouver, but she can see that they’re doing that very same thing in Toronto. This is a new kind of solidarity, and I can only applaud the CBC staff’s thoughtful and conscious use of technology. The blogs give them up to the minute communication (audio, visual, text, emotion, politics, ideas, words, slogans) with each other as well as with their audience. The podcasts allow them to derail the “official” line on what’s going on, to put their voices back out there after they’ve been forcibly removed. They are speaking directly to us through every means they can, and they are showcasing not only their own resourcefulness, but also the power of the technologies their using to change the nature of every form of communication, including the managerial one. They even suggest that the blogs are even one way of communicating across the sides of this lock out: staff are reading the blogs of managers, managers are reading the blogs of staff. I don’t know that there’s any kind of precedent for something like this.

All of this has made at least one thing very clear to me; we’re not talking about information technology. We’re talking about communication technology. And that can make all the difference in the world.

Give me back my CBC!


I was watching CBC television some weeks ago now when I was visiting my parents, and they were talking briefly about how some cities in the US had been getting some CBC programs, but that some changes and management decisions meant they wouldn’t see them anymore. So the CBC played a bunch of video letters from American viewers sorry to see the CBC go. It was actually quite heart-wrenching, the way these pleas were framed; not in terms of “but I love that show!” but more like, “this is the only news source I feel I can trust, please don’t take it away.” And as the piece on the American viewers ended, the voiceover noted,

“We’re working on ways to keep bringing that programming to our American viewers.”

That struck me. Here we have this well-paid staff of broadcasters who do their work (mostly) regardless of how many viewers or listeners they have. They have a national mandate to broadcast. Does it matter if Americans are listening to it? Not hardly. This is like the definition of art; you do it for the sake of it, because it’s beautiful, because it brings you joy, not because it’s the popular thing to do. I know it’s idealistic, but it’s so amazing to watch it happen. This isn’t about money, this is about doing something great, and truly worthwhile, about connecting Canadians, and it’s a service that’s truly loved.

How political it is, radio. How political podcasts are, the internet is as a whole. Getting the message out in whatever way you can, that’s power.

So I’m not even surprised that CBC employees are still broadcasting while on the picket line. Talk about taking back the means of production!

Historicity, E-Persistence, and Blogs as E-Portfolios


From Ida takes Tea: why not to use blogs as e-portfolios:

The persistence of blogs (via permalinks, trackbacks etc, to say nothing of the recently-sued Wayback Machine) is at odds with the desire to create a personal repository that can be selectively shared and edited, over time.

Catherine has more to say that this snippet, but this snippet sums up an important piece of her issueswith the idea of blogs as portfolios. Put it out there and it’s out there for good. All data is ahistorical, existing right now even though it may have been created 6 years before. Students are not ahistorical; we need a system that respects the chronological growth of the student’s learning.

I actually found this argument really hard to wrap my brain around. I don’t know why the internet would seem more ahistorical than any other document. Manuscripts from the 14th century still exist, and I’ve even seen and held a few of them. The fact that they exist in the now, that I can pull them out and flip through them, does not convince me that they are of the now. Serial literature is the same way; sure, it might have just come into my hands, but I still look at the date on it. It makes a difference to me if the paper is today’s or one from last week. I see absolutely no difference between that and online publication.

This critcism feels as if it comes from a place without any online information literacy. The internet is full of documents, some of them old and some of the new. There are ways to date an online document, from clues as hazy as the design and layout of the page to as concrete as how many dead links a page contains, or the copyright or ‘last edited’ date. The same skills we teach students about information literacy apply here; does the content tell us anything about the age of the document? Is it full of references to something terrible that happened to the World Trade Center yesterday? “Yesterday” is a subjective term, and in a world where every post is written in the now, maybe this is just something you get used to over time. Diaries tend not to be retrospective of themselves; they are forever reflecting on now as if, well, it’s going on right now.

And actually, the fact that this criticism is being leveled at blogs in particular strikes me as odd. If anything goes out of its way to historicize web documents, blogs do. They are archived by day month and year, they are signed and timestamped. Most blogging software allows for some context for blogs, showing you a calendar and links to the post that came before and after the post you’re reading. Additionally, posts on blogs that are a part of a larger community also come with comments affixed, also time- and date-stamped. So, were I to pull up some posts from 1999, I would see, constantly, that it’s 1999. The comments may give me a sense even of how long that particular conversation went on. The post may be written with a sense of immediacy, but I have every chance to witness its context, its datedness. No document exists in a vacuum, and that’s just as true of online documents as of any other.

To turn this debate around a bit: were it possible for students to submit work to a journal and have it published, should we discourage that as well? After all:

persistence creates the illusion of fixed identity, whereas higher education explicitly conceptualises its mission as formative and processual: we believe that students are shaped, and we want them to be so shaped, by their experience of participating in a learning community.

If persistence disrupts that important process, should we disallow publication altogether? Does the requirement of faculty to publish diminish their ability to be formed by their work, to engage in a process of learning? Does hard paper publication prevent us from being shaped by the experience of participating in any learning community?

Or does publication (in any context) allow students the opportunity to engage in participatory learning? Doesn’t putting something out there allow us to grow while at the same time reflecting the benchmarks of our learning process? Why would a persistent record of that process necessarily be bad? To drag this out to an illogical conclusion, should we suggest that students not speak in class, for fear that they would express an idea that, in a few weeks time, they might think better of? Does student participation in any context limit who a student is by putting unformed pieces of them before the eyes of others?

The key to all of this is context. Something a bit newer in the blog world is the possibility of tagging and categories, and I think that this simple classification method bears mentioning in this debate. While Catherine sees no value in the persistence of blogs to education, doesn’t one old blogged idea now sit within a category of similar ideas, organized chronologically, so that the history of that idea can now be easily traced, with the emphasis placed on the most recent addition? Isn’t that even a better and easier historicity than, say, a paper publication? Or a conference contibution?

All that aside, I get the general argument. At its heart it’s an ethical question: should we be asking students to create a web presence that will be with them for life? This may not be their finest hour. Perhaps at some point later on in life they will want to create a new web presence, and they will have to be dodging the one we forced them to create.

Of course, this is a purely intellectual debate, based entirely on one assumption: blogs must be public. Blogs must be googled, tracebacked, ranked on Technorati, traded on blogshares, and tracked on the way back machine.

There is nothing about the structure or features of blogs that require them to be public. In fact, many of livejournal‘s 8 million blogs are entirely locked to the public. The posts are never found on the wayback machine, Google never peeks in; the posts exist only to the people allowed to see it.

As far as I’m concerned, educational blogs should follow Livejournal’s lead. I know there are educational blogging projects in the UK following that precise route. For an educational blog mandated by schoolwork, there should be multiple options: visible only to you; visible only to your instructor/TAs; visible only to your instructor, guest lecturers, librarians, and your classmates; visible to your friends at the school as you choose them, but to no one else; visible to anyone at the school; and visible to the whole world.

There is absolutely no technical reason why a student shouldn’t have complete control over how their e-presence is created. None of this precludes the use of blogs as educational tools or as e-portfolios. Google and the way back machine should not be figuring into the use of blogs in the classroom anymore than Old Navy and the Gap should. They exist, they’re out there, they’re ubiquitous; but we don’t need to invite them in.

The argument is often made that the public nature of blogs is an educational bonus. Putting your ideas out there for the wild internet to see means you may attract the interest of just about anyone, and you may benefit from their comments and questions. I know lots of people who will make the argument that class work should be available to all and sundry for pedagogical reasons. Since students own the copyright to their own work (including everything they create at the request of the professor and hand in), I think they shouldn’t be asked to put that work in the public eye, but that’s a conversation to have in class #1. There’s no reason why we can’t moderate the degree of “public” that students have to deal with, let them decide what they want to add to the public record and what they want to keep ephemeral.

I get frustrated by criticisms that are hinged on the limitations of one particular version of a technology. One of the best things that can happen to anyone is to learn enough about technology to realize that no interface is unchangeable. Everything can be changed, fixed, transmuted. If something is getting in your way, well just change it.

That’s what I love about the internet. Infinite possibility.

ipod sheep, the Ignorance Premium, and Technological Literacy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actualizing the Experience


One to grow on from Educause:

Once while delivering a paper at a conference of online educators, I was challenged by a participant who thought my online course (being projected onto a screen) was “heavy on the text.” Upon learning that the questioner’s field was American literature, I asked him if he thought Moby-Dick was “heavy on the text.” If the work is compelling, the medium disappears and the experience becomes actual.

While we often get mired in talking about how to get the flashiest interface, the most audio/video, the fanciest graphics, we seem to forget this one very simple point. So we should be focusing on making the work compelling rather than making the interface exciting. Which makes online instruction absolutely no different from face-to-face instruction.

Why the Internet was Created


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

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

All hail. The man is a genius.

Tuesday Roundup


You can now post to a Blogger blog from Word.

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

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

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

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

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

The A-List and the Z-List


I saw the Cites and Insight thing this morning and laughed a little nervously. It’s sort of amusing to watch people get all wrapped up about blog popularity (in this case called ‘reach’), but sort of depressing at the same time. Since it’s at least marginally possibly to quantify it, I know that it’s tempting to do it. I even understand that looked like a good idea at the time.

I’ve been involved in a variety of online communities, and at some point this sort of ranking always comes up. And it universally causes hurt feelings, conflict, and disappointment, and even results in some undue criticism being levelled at the chosen ones. While blogs really exist for the good of their authors more than for their readers, lots of people start up blogs in the hope of getting some limelight thrown their way, and it’s decidedly dark and dim to be among the unwashed in these things if that’s your goal. Is this a sign that no one really cares about what you have to say? Should you just stop now, since no one’s reading you? Have you failed in some way?

And then the chosen few get this moment in the sun, which is nice. But it also means that they get scrutinized a little more than they used to, because everyone’s trying to see what they’re doing that the rest of us aren’t. Nine times out of ten, people come away from such a search shrugging, saying “not such hot stuff, really”. And once those tokens of popularity are handed out, some people, the outer fringe types, the ones who are too cool to be mainstream, too edgy to be with the popular crowd, will start avoiding the big names to underscore their radical otherness. Divisions are made, cliques etched out, lines drawn. And over what? A few numbers that don’t give the whole picture? A snapshot in time that, over a few days, weeks, months, will look entirely different?

Ranking people cheapens the whole process. It creates and fortifies the depths of anonymity and creates the perch from which the chosen will fall.

Popularity is like the little girl with the little curl right in the middle of her forehead. When it’s good, it’s very good indeed. But when it’s bad, oh yes, it’s horrid.

I can say without reservation that I’m certain Walt did not intend to belittle anyone by doing this research. And yet, I can also say without reservation that someone somewhere felt hurt by being left off his ranking, and some librarian somewhere is looking at her blog tonight with a little less delight than she did yesterday. Is the value of this inevitably ephermeral research worth that loss of delight?

For me, the point of blogging, and the joy of blogging, is in having a place to write things down. For me writing is thinking, and I love to be able to share my thoughts with anyone who’s interested. Rankings therefore don’t bother me much, because my goal has never been to please other people. The only way for me to do something like this for as long as I have is to do it for myself. But still, I’m more than honoured that Meredith has called me “the Dorothy Parker of the biblioblogosphere”.

The best thing that can come of Walt’s research, as far as I’m concerned, is that we remember how many of us there are and support each other, reach out more often and engage each other in communication. And the next time someone goes to look at the statistics of the library blog world, he will see a large, interconnected web of full of people, opinions, stories, and delight. Not an exclusive A-list.