Monthly Archives: November 2005

Rootkits and Controlled Vocabulary: An Unlikely Comparison

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I’ve been following the Sony-BMG rootkit DRM issues with interest. There’s a series of themes to that scandal that reappear at regular intervals; one of the most compelling to me is the perceptions of the user that’s becoming increasingly obvious. The user as criminal, and as cash cow; the user as high-tech hacker, and then as dumb sheep who pay the ignorance premium.

Sony-BMG is clearly interested more in your wallet than your personal experience of their products. They seem to feel that they’re sitting on hot property and they want to make sure you pay for it, you dirty, dirty commoners. But even more than that, they want to mediate the user’s experience of their product. They want the user to pass through several levels of technology and difficulty (using a custom player, installing software on the your machine, etc.) in order to experience the product in the right way.

While there’s an argument to be made that the malware-inspired rootkit that Sony forced upon its paying users is a sign that technological evolution have had an impact on the way the music industry communicates with us (modelling themselves after crackers rather than the open source movement), on the whole, this whole mess is a testament to an industry that doesn’t want change, that distrusts technology and the people who know how to use it. Some homegrown folks worked out better ways to distribute information and got there first. The big guys are fighting back with traditional ways of thinking and the morality card rather than coming up with a better economic model. The conflict is a perfect description of an industry that is trying to stall technological evolution rather than allowing it to get under their skin and fundamentally change them.

Sony-BMG did not, I’m sure, mean to wreck their users computers and open up gaping security holes in the operating systems of the people who actually paid for their products. The fact that they did shows that they are (I would say) criminally negligent, and that the people making the decisions weren’t qualified to have an opinion about what constitutes fair DRM, and didn’t care enough about their users to ask the questions about the damaging installs. They will blame their tech guys for this. They will blame their own ignorance of things technical. But none of that is fair; the strategic directive behind this is to blame. What they wanted was a controlled product. They wanted to mediate the way we seek out and use their wares, and were not prepared to tolerate anything less.

Looking at all the discussion around the rootkit issue, I’m prompted to make an unlikely comparison to the way librarianship talks about controlled vocabularies. Bear with me on this one; a bit strange, but still revealing.

A controlled vocabulary is sort of like the rootkit of librarianship. In order to find the product (the information you want), you need to play by our predetermined, sometimes nonsensical rules. You can’t use your own language or your intuition, you can’t ask your question and get some answers. You can’t take the skills you’ve honed in your other forms of searching and apply them to the product we manage. No, you need to leave all that at the door and use our system. And in order to use it, you need to learn how we think, and find things by first framing them according to our values and perspective. You need to install the rootkit that we are offering you in order to get where you’re going.

Like the language around DRM, many librarians tut-tut at people who use search systems that don’t conform to the traditional values of librarianship, that reveal information in ways many librarians don’t approve of (see Michael Gorman on Google).

And this is not to say that I’m perfectly uncritical of keywords. I recognize the pros and cons of a controlled vocabulary and human ordering. I guess where this comes from is looking long and hard at what’s going on with Google, and being disappointed that it was them who came up with it. Sure, they have the money and the time and the skills, but still; it disappoints me that it’s Google that worked this one out, and that it’s still Google who’s on the forefront of information organization.

I’m frustrated by Michael Gorman, in his role as the president of the ALA, is telling the world that Google Print (now Google Book Search) is such a bad thing. I’m frustrated that it took someone other that librarians to stop and think that the scanning == indexing equation is a natural progression of subject headings; it’s what the first cataloguers would have done if they’d had the tools to do it. I know about the legal issues around Google’s project, and I’m hoping against hope that Google wins in the end. Because technology has presented us with a better means of getting at the content of books and articles, and it would be a crying shame to lose that. And no, it’s not just about bad keyword searching. (If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone complain that Google’s algorithm is based entirely on how many times a word appears on a page, I’d be a rich woman.) I’m frustrated that so many librarians are willing to stay ignorant about what Google is actually doing and cling to this old trope about how a dumb search engine works. With a combination of human categorizing (tagging/metadata), authority control, and full text searching, we can help users arrive at a better search result that goes deeper than the cover of the book. We can help people find what they’re looking for, which is supposed to be the point. I’m frustrated that Google Book Search seems to mean e-books to people (even to some librarians). Is an index an e-book? Are subject headings giving away too much of the book? Are summaries and abstracts just small, abridged e-books? I’m disappointed by how much of the truly innovative thinking about cataloguing, metadata and searching isn’t coming from the library community, and how much resistance I’ve seen to those non-librarians by some of us on the inside. We should be inspired by these technological advances, not wringing our hands like Sony BMG.

This isn’t about bowing down to the gods of Google. Likewise, I’m not suggesting that the music industry roll over and accept that we’re all going to snag free copies of whatever we want, whenever we want it. What I’m hoping for from all angles is the openness to accept change, to be challenged and changed by it, and to create a better information environment because of it. I’d like to see the music industry stop hating its user base and start catering to it instead; I’d like to see librarians stop hating/fearing Google and start working in partnership with them for the benefit of their patrons.

Since a dear friend of mine has recently been offered a job with Google, I’ve had time to think about what it might mean to consider Google a partner rather than an enemy. There’s so much synergy between us and them, so many interesting ways our worlds intersect. Do we want to be DRM pushers like Song BMG, or do we want to be open source and user-friendly? Be at the forefront of change or in the courts trying to preserve the information landscape of the 1950s?

Find me something

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It’s time for the search strings redux! And I’ve got a lot of search strings to skim through. I’ve handpicked a few along certain themes, because, as always, my interest is in who people think they’re talking to when confronted with a search engine. Can we tell what’s going on in people’s minds by looking at the way they phrase their questions? It can’t hurt to try.

First, the how-tos: people often turn to Google when they want to know how to do something. But, as is often the case, users haven’t entirely parsed exactly what they’re looking for, or how best to ask for it. So, users see an empty search box as saying, “So, what do you want to know how to do today?”

how do you know if a women wants to be that just friends
how to clear search strings
how to care for uncircumsized penis
how start revolution
how to know if you’re blocked on msn
how to get superglue off plastic glasses
how can i get free erotic story to my e mail inbox
how to keep student from being bored
how to break up a ganglion cyst
how to get people to come to library

And then there’s my personal favourite class of search string, which many of those how-tos above fit into: the complete phrase:

what did you think of the july 2005 new jersey bar examination
why do you see laptop as a distraction in class?
what makes people steal
what could i use from todays society to be written like jonathan swifts a modest proposal
what’s so great about reference librarians
what kind of problems do medieval peasants face
why are women complicated
how did people react to swift’s a modest proposal
what was the climax of jonathan strange?
when did cbc go on strike?
what is an academic monograph
how do i become a librarian?
is there profit in bookstores
what have people been searching for lately
why was the internet created
what is a wildcard when writing a search string
what problems are librarians encountering today?
what happened on december 9 2004
if you could change who would you be
what does the eagle has landed mean
does tilex fresh shower really work
who started sociological critcism?

And, I think I have to pick a personal favourite:

find me a coursework story about an assassin

I love this one because of the delightful anthropomorphizing of the Google search that’s going on here. Not only a complete sentence, but one with a directive at the front: find me this. There’s something strange yet endearing about that.

Follow up from Wednesday

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Some Wiki projects of interest that I highlighted in a presentation at OISE this week:

* Wikipedia: The biggest, most obvious example.
* Lessig’s Codebook: I think I forgot to mention this one. This is a collaborative edit of a published book. The book was published, and Lessig is opening it up to edits from whomever wants to edit it.
* ALA Conference Wiki: A wiki used by presenters and attendees of a recent library conference to record the proceedings, among other things.
* Romantic Audience Project: Wiki-based poetry project. (A direct link example page: Ode on a Grecian Urn)
* Lexicon RPG: A proposal for a wiki-based role-playing game.

Enjoy! Good luck!

On Muses: The Process of Learning by Writing

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It amazes me what you can learn by starting to write something. While I’m trying to very hard to plot carefully, and I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about big plot elements and moving things around and being as clear as I can be with myself about everyone’s motives, still the discovery method rears its random head when I actually sit down to write.

I’m not a fan of the concept of the muse. My characters are my own, I invented them, they can’t do or say anything that I don’t imagine them saying (at least, so far, since I have not spawned any fanfiction universes). I get a bit bored when people talk as if their characters lead different lives outside of the writing, or are talking to them personally, or need to be cajoled or prodded into action, so on and so forth. And yet.

I find that I learn so much about a character once I start actually writing them. I can plan them out all I want, but writing seems like actually becoming them, or thinking like them, really getting into their psyche in a way that isn’t as precise in the planning stages. Because once I start writing a character I sometimes get completely new vibes off them. Rather than attributing this to a muse, or to some disembodied version of the character who knows me and can chat with me (I don’t know how people manage this; if my character knows I exist, the plot falls apart because then they know they’re fictional, and it’s a paradox, and argh), I’m attributing it to learning from writing.

I have two examples of this. I have a character who is bisexual. I have always known this about him, and there has never been a moment where I have strayed from that early conviction about his character. But one of the things I never wanted to write about was him telling his parents. I didn’t want to write a coming out story, it’s not the focus of this plot, and just the idea of that conversation made me tired. I just felt there would be drama and there’s enough drama in the book without that sort of thing. I’d rather have his parents die off before he felt any need to mention it. His parents are so committed to a very traditional way of life, I just didn’t see them ever accepting anything so non-traditional.

But then I started writing his dad. Nothing terribly dramatic, just a brief but serious conversation which has already been edited out. But in writing a simple bit of dialogue I just got that this bisexuality revelation wouldn’t break him or throw him into a frenzy. It just wouldn’t, he would just be happy that everyone was healthy and alive and at peace with the world, nothing else would matter. It was just startlingly clear to me. And what a shock, after all my planning told me not to broach this subject between these characters. Now, I haven’t tried this trick with his mom yet. But his dad at least would be on his side in a heartbeat. I’m not even sure they’ll have this conversation. I’m not sure his parents will ever know. But I learned something important about this character I just would not have known until I got inside his head by writing him.

The other thing I’ve been doing, here and there, is writing short scenes in first person present tense. I have such a love/hate relationship with it. In general I don’t like the first person OR the present tense. I feel like if you’re going to go first person present tense you have to write very conversationally, because it’s got to be 100% dialogue. Even when it’s not dialogue, first person is your character talking, even in her/his head. And generally speaking people don’t talk description. People don’t sit there and muse about things with adverbs and adjectives. They think conversationally, actions and people. So if I’m going to write first person present tense, I’m going to do it like a monologue.

But I’ve been writing short scenes to answer my own questions. Things happen in the story and I ask myself, how new is this or that? What’s so-and-so’s experience with X or Y? And these questions spawn these little monologues in the first person, between one character and another. (Not me. No no not ever to me! It’s my question but I guess I put it in the mouth of a character he would feel comfortable with, comfortable telling, and work from there.)

It’s weird to go from writing third person past tense to first person present. Suddenly you have this voice to deal with and that’s really quite interesting. I guess it’s like writing extended dialogue, but I find myself really learning about a character by doing this. What words would he use? How would he structure this story that he’s telling? Is he entirely factual? Does he go back and add his later interpretations of things, and does he recognize that he’s doing that? Does he gloss over things? And I guess the odd part about it is that I don’t seem to consciously ask those questions. I just try it, and do it. Learning as I go.

It’s amazing, really, how much you know about a story that never shows up in the story itself.

I’m not going to say I work with muses. But I can see where the idea comes from.

Radio Open Source, Revisited

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Well, there’s always two sides to every story, aren’t there.

I explained what happened between me and Radio Open Source here. So now I have a rather lengthy addendum.

Brendan, blogger-in-chief at Radio Open Source, was the fellow who made the offending comment, and it was Brendan who got in touch with me tonight to clear it up. He got on AIM and just called me up. That’s bravery: just grab an angry Canadian by the horns, that’s how you do it.

We talked around the issues about nationality, essentially agreeing that while Americans often don’t care about what’s going on outside their own borders, that’s not too much of an excuse for a pithy program like theirs, but yes, the world is wide, and yes, Americans are not very excited about their northern neighbour at the best of times. Sad, but true. He admited that the “us” in “a country none of us care about anyway” was meant to be a wry remark about Americans in general, not Radio Open Source staff in particular. We also discussed the very real issue that media can only talk about media so many times before someone calls them on the navel-gazing, and this is something I can see and do indeed accept.

Brendan, charming man that he is1, understood that in the end the issue was not about a show topic, but about communication. Oh yes, the medium is (as always) the message. Rule #1 in creating an online community/audience: if you want feedback, you’ll get feedback, and dammit you’d better respond to it in some way or the hoards will get prickly and upset.

Throughout this exchange (with Brendan tonight, but primarily prior to it), I’ve been thinking about the advice and guidance provided by Creating Passionate Users. I follow this blog because these folks think so totally differently than I do, and I find their insights interesting. I thought about Radio Open Source as trying to create passionate users, and I saw myself as the passionate user. And I was very much falling into the model. What I learned from CPU is that it’s good if some users (or, in a library context, patrons) love you, and some users hate you, but if there’s too many in the “meh” category, that spells trouble. This to me seems like a valuable lesson and it keeps coming back to me.

And I knew, even as I wrote this frustrated and unhappy post about what had happened, that I was jumping right over that sea of “meh”. I was still a passionate user. Even I as I tried to do the “turn your back” thing, being upset as I was still labeled me a force for…well, something.

I guess the idea is: if you get passionate users of your service, your product, your community, or your library, you should grab them and make use of them. Sometimes they’re going to get upset. Sometimes they’re going to throw themselves a great big tantrum. But you’ve got to listen to them and use them, because passionate users can be your greatest asset.

I have a feeling Radio Open Source may find a use for me yet.

I’m always going on about the power of the internet, the power of blogs, how internet communication can lead to great things, and at times Radio Open Source was being the exception. Until this. All I did was post my Canadian outrage on my own blog. The technology did the rest. My wordpress pinged his wordpress; he got trackback about my post. My post came up as a comment on the post in question on the Radio Open Source blog. My friends and neighbours saw my post and commented; Brendan got to see not just my reaction, but the reactions of those around me. And he in turn edited his blog, as I’m now editing mine. Private discussions become public, and real change comes through it.

Radio Open Source wanted to move at the speed of the blogosophere, and I think for the first time Radio Open Source is participating in a classic blog debate as a blog itself. There were hurt feelings, vague flames, humour that didn’t translate, and finally, reproachment, through the magical joy that is instant messaging.

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1 See, Brendan? I did remark on your charming nature. Just like you asked me to. 😛

Radio Open Source doesn’t Care about Canada

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I’ve been a fan of Christopher Lydon’s for years, ever since 1999 when I moved to Boston. So needless to day I was delighted when I discovered that he was doing a podcast radio show called Radio Open Source.

The spirit of Open Source will be open source — open as to subject matter, open as to views and voices. Our favorite oft-times caller on the original Connection, the famous Amber, once remarked to me: “Chris, you treat your callers like guests and your guests like callers.” We will try to extend the same open manners to the new show, and to the new website that comes with it. We chose Open Source as a name to live up to. [via]

I’ve been an avid listener. I’ve told all my friends about the show and send them links to ones I think they will particularly enjoy. I talk about it at work. So you imagine my joy when they announced three things at once; an open call for feedback on the site, and a live webcast the following week about what more they could do to live up to their name and engage their listeners, and a renewed call for show suggestions. I was so excited! I composed a long comment about web interactivity and some things they could do to help create community through the web. This is something I’ve done a lot of thinking (and writing) about. I was thrilled to be able to participate. I also added a show suggestion: the CBC lockout. If anything changed labour relations through a new means of production, it would be that. I thought someone should do a thoughtful review of those events, but I’m not sure it can happen in Canada (at least, not yet.) I felt like a “source”, just like Chris said. I was thrilled to just be able to make a suggestion, whether or not it was taken.

But then the webcast happened. What happened to the interactivity? There was none. I could hear the webcast, but I couldn’t be heard. There was no forum for users to react and respond; only an email address. A friend of mine, also listening in on the webcast, and I were getting increasingly frustrated as the folks on the webcast talking about how on earth to engage listeners while they devoutly ignored us. The feedback comnents? Didn’t get addressed at all. And the worst of it all was when someone during the webcast joked about how everyone in the room was “backchannelling” on IRC. Ha ha! How funny! What a nice little in circle they have, these folks who asked for our feedback, hanging out together on IRC without extending an invitation to the rest of us! My friend nearly choked with shock; I just felt sad and uninvited. Why did they ask us for suggestions and feedback if they weren’t serious about listening to it?

I was frustrated but was prepared to blame technology. These things happen, right? Maybe they didn’t know how to cope with hundreds of listeners banging on the door. Maybe they didn’t think through what it would mean to webcast something like that; dangling a carrot before us and then never letting us gett a bite.

But add insult to frustration today. Because today they responded to my little show idea with this:

So: not only were my comments barely noted and responded to, now I come from a country they just don’t care about. This, apparently is the best way to increase your interactivity with an audience; ignore them, tease them with the opportunity to “be a source”, and then kick them in the teeth and tell them that you just don’t care.

I’m sad and baffled by this turn of events. I really felt good about these people. I was prepared to do anything I could to help them with this neat radio idea. I was so behind them. And yeah, that phrase is kind of echoing through my head right now. I can’t think of too many things that would have made me turn away from something I enjoyed so much, on a medium I love.

I’m sure they won’t miss one listener from a country none of them cares about.

Edited to add: The resolution of this matter (the dramatic tension! the suspense! Will they resolve their differences? Will it come down to a match of steely wills, broadcaster vs. librarian? Will it be a deathmatch, and if so, will it be in the mud?) can be found here.

Why I am a Feminist

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Because in the US, the latest nominee for the Supreme Court believes that men should have ultimate control over their wives’ bodies.

Because if you give a search for “rape” in Google News, it takes 0.23 seconds to come back to you with 14300 results.

Because in Pakistan, a woman can be sentenced to gang rape on behalf of her brother’s alleged association with the wrong person.

Because vaginal cosmetic surgery and labiaplasty are two of the fastest emerging growth trends in plastic surgery.

Because an estimated 130 million women and girls worldwide have been genitally mutilated.

Because since 1993 more than 370 young women and girls have been murdered in the cities of Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua – at least a third suffering sexual violence – without the authorities taking proper measures to investigate and address the problem.

Because In the US, someone is raped every 2 and a half minutes.

Because combatants and their sympathizers in conflicts, such as those in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, and Rwanda, have raped women as a weapon of war with near complete impunity.

Because <a href="http://mondediplo.com/2001/05/13pakistan in Pakistan, wives, daughters, sisters and mothers are killed for the least sexual indiscretion and upon the slightest suspicion of adultery. Because

poverty is increasingly being feminized.

Because two-thirds of the world’s 875 million illiterate adults are women.

Because Arab militia use ‘rape camps’ for ethnic cleaning of Sudan.

Because the trafficking of women and children into bonded sweatshop labour, forced marriage, forced prostitution, domestic servitude, and other kinds of work is a global phenomenon.

Because a pig farmer in Canada may have killed over 60 sex trade workers before anyone noticed.

Do you doubt that we might organize the world a little differently if we had the chance?