Category Archives: rumination

Apocalypso

I dunno how healthy it is to read a lot of ‘dystopian’ fiction (or non-fiction, for that matter), though I guess I’m pretty much guilty of participation in that schadenfreudian excess. Stefan Raets’ review of Will McIntosh’s Soft Apocalypse catches the poignancy very well:

The real sadness of Soft Apocalypse is seeing normal people operating under the illusion that life will still go back to what it used to be. They try to hold down a job or complete a post-grad degree, and even though the world falls apart around them, the changes are too gradual for them to lose hope completely. It’s like watching rats in a maze, unaware that their paths are slowly being closed off around them and the maze is starting to catch fire at the edges. A soft apocalypse, indeed.

A longish rumination on Learning, sound, information management and such-like

(Some think-out-loud stuff that’s been accumulating for a while, and might as well get blogged, and added to via the blog as I progress. Responders might email to blackmerh@wlu.edu since something seems to be amiss with the blog’s Comment facility)

For several years (at least a decade) I’ve played with the idea that Learners need (better, more flexible, purpose-built) management tools for their information universes. Innovations like Tagging have come along to provide some of the wherewithal for what I’ve been imagining, and it’s clear that portable devices (originally mp3 players, now the mobile computing platforms of iPhones and the like) figure into the picture I’ve been developing. A desktop or laptop computer should be fully able to serve as the platform for pretty much anything a Learner wants to do, and the advent of cloud computing in wireless environments goes a long way to making these activities ubiquitous, especially if a Learner’s devices are interoperable (that is, if information in its various guises and formats can be moved seamlessly from desktop to portable device and back again).

My own interests and concerns have wandered pretty widely in the last decade, the interest in GIS and visualization of spatial data waning as fascination with music waxed, and as I became entangled with a growing archive of digitized images. I still think mostly in the frames of alphanumeric text and static images and flowing audio, though I’m ever more aware of the possibilities of video as a means to mix and distribute multiple media types. Throughout that decade I’ve been focused on the distribution of Learner-created material to audiences, via Web pages, blogs, wikis and Web services, with the thought that the main incentive for Learners to create new materials and mashups of old materials is the expectation that there are audiences to hear/see/respond to what the Learner produces, and that such interaction is both gratifying and heuristic (this is certainly an optimistic view of the varied morass of the Web, but I’m more interested in the positive than the defensive).

Aside: postings in the blogosphere are forever inserting themselves into my streams of thought [the Prepared Mind and all that, and perhaps the personal taste for Digression that seems eternal], case in point being one from Jason Scott’s ASCII that just crossed through the RSS membrane with this nugget:

Most people who visit me for the first time walk into my office where I do most of my work for the websites and projects and they stop dead because they are confronted with The Wall. The Wall is this collection of racks that take up a full side of my office. Where most people might have a couple shelves and a desk and some on-tap books and materials, I have this gigantic goddamn tsunami of papers, equipment and media going up and down the horribly-expanded enclosed deck that I took over when I moved into the house…

A bunch of stuff streams into my house, stuff which sometimes asks for attention but doesn’t get it, instead ending up on a to-do pile and then the to-do piles get combined into should-really-do pile and then a bunch of should-really-do piles end up in some sort of mega-meta-super-plus-4000 mecha-pile that makes my room look like I died in it somewhere. So part of this effort was to get a handle on it. Some papers are just obviously mementos or older artifacts; those are bagged into little plastic pouches and prepared for archiving. (In the future I will then take out all archived items of a certain nature and do something with them; or someone beyond me will.) Others are in need of scanning or being handled in some transcriptive manner. Others are just in the room because I like having them around. It ranges. There are still pockets of stuff in this room that will get yet another sorting, and I am sure I will discover many things of the “huh” variety – as you might surmise from the photos, I have an energy drink can collection which needs a more formal presentation environment and I have a few plastic bins of papers which should be sorted through and given the bag treatment. But I will get it all, I promise, and maybe a few people waiting months for me to get back to them will suddenly find themselves with e-mail or webpages. We can only hope. The Wall looks more imposing than it is; it just makes sense to have this X-Y outlook on my stuff and as time goes by it’s helped me keep track of a lot more than I’d have done otherwise. (see the original, with pictures of managed chaos)

((It’s a feature and not a bug that this medium facilitates synchronous call-outs like this))

Back to the main stream of this rumination… which has to do with organizing and working productively with information universes.

So I’ve been wrangling a simply enormous universe of recorded musics, legacy of my packrat tendencies and hydra-headed enthusiasms, trying to figure out how to make some sense of what I’ve accumulated in 50-odd years of collecting and adventuring in the jungles of coordinated sound. There are uncounted vinyl albums, boxes of reel-to-reel tapes, wallsful of cassette tapes and CDs, more and more hard-drive folders of mp3 and other digital formats, a growing shelf of DVDs and a heap of videocassettes, a couple of tightly-packed file drawers of notes and photocopies, any number of groaning shelves of books on more musical genres than I could possibly list, scores of instruments on various hooks and in cases, and a roiling mental stew of bits of information, opinion, preference… Is there any hope for this trove? I stumble around in it myself, with pretty good success when it comes to locating an item I’m searching for, but it fairly screams for audience. In the past, I’ve commandeered audiences by teaching courses in Cross-Cultural Studies in Music, and I’ve occasionally thought of doing a radio program, or of mounting some sort of Web-based distribution utility. The tentacled strictures of copyright make it difficult to imagine a street-legal route to Web promulgation. And in any case the first priority is to organize the whole thing for myself –to make a more orderly study collection of the resources.

I’ll invoke another happenstance of the day, a posting at ReadWriteWeb that greeted me when I fired up Google Reader this morning, Yahoo’s New VideoTagGame Lets You Tag Within Videos, describing “a game that encourages participants to tag sections within a video for better retrieval”. Here’s the nubbin of a problem I’ve been considering for several years: how can a Learner mark a moment or a section of an audio stream for later retrieval, and/or for annotation? What I want is a utility that facilitates transquotation (see the Xanadu sense of the term), and it already exists in video realms via Splicd, which allow you to call out a segment of a YouTube video and encode it in a URL. Jon Udell was working on this problem for audio streams 3 years ago (see his delicious tag ‘soundbite’), but I haven’t found any practical products that developed out of his beginnings. There are (so far as I know) no mp3 players that allow the user to mark a moment of an audio stream for return; there are no schemes that marry tagging with URL-specifiable moments within an mp3 file. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine an interface that would satisfy the requirements, and wouldn’t it have to be server-side anyway? (thus running headlong into the copyright problem).

If I had a URL-based mark-and-retrieve utility, I could work it into a suite of tools that would permit me to annotate a hypertext-based narration of my collections. A clumsy workaround could snip out a bit of a soundfile and save it as a new file, adding to the management problem. What I’d like is to use the original soundfile’s ID3 metadata to store a pointer to the annotation… and here the scheme gets all fuzzy as my imagination outruns my technical knowledge of the media involved.

So that’s what’s on my mind at the moment. I’ll continue this thread as inspiration piques, and/or others contribute comments.

On Rearward Horizons

Two years after the moment of Retirement, a glance in the rear view mirror suggests that Things are indeed Larger Than They Appear, in the sense that they’re disappearing into the distance. They may be Larger, but increasingly I don’t much care, or anyhow don’t care in the ways that I once did. Reform Teaching and Learning? Faugh. Take on and remediate the technological cluelessness of librarians and college administrators? I thumb my nose in your general direction. Carry on campaigns for GIS and Web 2.0? Somebody else can break their teeth on those bones. But still I occasionally find statements that stir some of those former enthusiasms, usually in the edublogs I’m still following (though in ever more desultory ways). Today’s case in point: don’t miss the beloved Stephen Downes’ latest, Stager, Log and Web 2.0 for its array of home truths and eloquent Aux Armes! that are his specialty. A few crisp outtakes:

…the main lesson is, I would say, school reform won’t work. Schools were designed for a particular purpose, one that is almost diametrically at odds with what ought to be the practices and objectives of a contemporary education, an education suited not only to the information age but also to the objectives of personal freedom and empowerment…

…it’s not just that the textbook is an inefficient paper-and-ink publication. It’s the whole idea of standardization and lesson plans and curriculum that the textbook brings with it. We should stop using textbooks because they cost too much. We should stay off textbooks because we get a better education as a result…

As Dave Pollard says, “Bucky was right: ‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’ We won’t win zoning battles or economic control battles or electoral system battles or proportionate representation battles in the courts or the election campaigns or the markets that are controlled by the elite. We must instead walk away from these corrupt and dysfunctional systems and build new ones, responsive and responsible and sustainable alternatives that others can look at and say ‘yes, that works much better’.”

…people have pretty much given up on trying to reform the existing institutions. We’ve seen a lot of people try. Meet the new boss… same as the old boss. Why bother to fight the restrictions. School web is blocked? Just use your iPhone. Policies are overly restrictive? Just ignore them. I mean – what are they going to do, fire you from your $25K job? Why rock the boat when it’s going over the waterfall?

People are not just opting out of traditional education. They are also opting out of traditional business and traditional government. Making their own decisions instead of trying to sway bodies that purport to make decisions for them.

Trouble is, I’m not so sure myself who should be caring about this. I used to think I knew…

Of hoards, troves and legacies

One of the nicest things about being Retired is the greatly increased latitude to choose amongst the things one might do, but there are still nagging reminders of things one has been meaning to get to Real Soon Now. In the last couple of years I’ve been pawing at various collections [Nova Scotia Faces, my various Webstuffs, a friend’s grandfather’s jazz 78s (digitized and databased on a DVD), my own photographs from various eras, a whole lot of file drawers of remnants from my several academic careers, etc.], imagining glorious ways to organize their contents and transform them into distributable resources, and experimenting with assorted media and technologies that might help me realize my heart’s desires. Those desires seem to come down to telling the stories contained in the collections, for whatever audiences might find them interesting.

The Elephant in the Room is my vast musical holdings, the vinyl and CDs and tapes that I’ve been working with and augmenting for most of my life. How can I make Sense out of that, and how can I make its wonders into a distributable resource? Or even a resource more accessible for my own use? The obvious impediments are (a) sheer size of the task and (b) copyright restrictions, and there are daunting questions of format (mp3? audiophiles may sneer) and approach (review Nick Hornby on the subject).

Case in point: I think I can reconstruct the sequence of my fascinations with several European folk music streams (Celtic, Scandinavian, Hungarian, Greek, Klezmer…) through about 30 years of collection, right down to the order of acquisition of records/CDs and the uses I made of their contents. And likewise with American guitar and mandolin, and with blues. And similarly with the various World Musics that fed into courses I taught. Most of those recordings have liner notes, reading of which was essential to my musical education. Wouldn’t it be nice to make all of that accessible, ideally on the Web but perhaps more realistically as private-distribution DVDs with html interface… surely a MegaProject.

It seems pretty obvious that a landscape of hyperlinks would grow pretty quickly once construction was begun, and that it would be wise to think carefully before plunging in, in order to minimize the amount of hand-coding and repetition. I probably need to develop some database and CSS skills that I dimly grasp. I certainly don’t envision digitizing all the vinyl and tape –just the truly significant bits, those that help to tell the story and/or epitomise something. It would be desirable to implant lots of metadata into the headers of those mp3 files, and to ensure that items can be tagged as seems most useful, and that tags can be displayed and searched, and augmented too. It would be convenient to find models to build upon… but I don’t know of any.

What else should I be thinking about as I design this Leviathan?

Summary in medias res

I was answering some personal-narrative questions sent by a friend and got far enough into it (and had enough stuff to link) that it seemed most sensible to do it as a Web page. Take a look, if you’re so inclined.

Some thoughts about the evolution of computing

There’s no doubt that a lot of my life revolves around this machine, before which I spend several hours a day. I’ve been riding this pony since 1992 (when I started building a Gopher presence, soon after I started work as a reference librarian at W&L), or maybe since 1989 when I started playing with HyperCard, or perhaps since 1984 when I bought my first microcomputer (a TI-Pro, still in the barn), or maybe 1979 when I started to play with SYMAP (making maps of demographic data from the Hungarian census of 1900), or maybe 1962 when I first started working with punch cards (as research assistant to Bob Textor in cross-cultural studies). At each of those junctures I had some idea of where I was heading, but the destinations kept changing as new possibilities emerged.
I seem to be in another spate of thinking about the ways the Web is/has been evolving, in the proximal contexts of Licklider‘s Libraries of the Future [1965] (which I’m reading at Gardner’s instigation) and the impending visit of friends with three home-schooled kids (for whom my question is: where does The Computer fit in what they’re doing?)… and reflecting on the many ways in which my life has been tangled up with computers. For at least 45 years I’ve seen them as essential tools for things I needed to do, though generally my imagination has outrun my technical capabilities, and I’ve relied upon the multiple kindnesses of others to assist with practicalities and realize my imaginings. There’s a looooong history of books and articles and Web resources that I’ve been influenced by, and an equally convoluted history of apps I’ve experimented with as I’ve worked at making sense of the potentials. Wish I could reconstruct all the steps…
I started library school in January 1991 with the question What will microcomputers do to libraries? but I certainly didn’t foresee that the most profound effect would be to distribute the end-user’s experience in most information transactions –to make the physical library mostly irrelevant to seeking answers, to enmesh the user in networks composed of nodes that might be on different continents, to make multimedia an everyday experience, and to proffer tools that make the user an active contributor to the construction of distributed knowledge. Two of today’s cases in point:

Harper’s release of 150+ years of full text archive exposes a glorious trove, and the possibility of gathering up David Halberstam’s contributions to the magazine adds a great deal to a resource like Christopher Lydon’s program recorded two days after Halberstam’s death

and

I discover that others who are reading Eco’s Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana have established a Wiki-based annotation project for the book.

At the moment I’m eagerly awaiting the imminent arrival of Dave Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (publishing tomorrow), listening to Weinberger’s Radio Open Source appearance, keeping an eye on Weinberger’s blog around the book, and still savoring a two-hour podcast of Weinberger’s Social Media Cluster talk of last week.

Pirouettes continued

Still thinking about the Prelinger Library article, and considering that we need some models/visualizations for the kinds of distributed collections I’m working on, or toward. I made a marginal note when this phrase tripped through the forebrain:

tesseracted Whole Earth Catalog

and now I want to follow it up with some interlinked digressions.

First, the Whole Earth Catalog and, seriatim, its various successors (CoEvolution Quarterly, Whole Earth Review, the WELL, Long Now Foundation…) have been essential to me for …bless us… almost 40 years, ever since I first frequented the Whole Earth Truck Store in Menlo Park. The basic model of knowledge as a sprawling and interconnected and navigable system of tools for understanding the world has been with me ever since, and some of that snuck into a summary of Goals and Methods of Teaching that I wrote at tenure time, about 12 years ago, and still find apt. And Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism is a fine entrée into the dramatis personae and associated mindspaces.

The word ‘tesseracted’ isn’t one I can remember seeing or thinking before, but it seemed to fit the model of multidimensionally interconnected broad-ranging knowledge that I was imagining as an antidote to the geocentric but shelf-bound linear array that is described as the ordering principle of the Prelinger collection. The ‘tesseracted‘ form turns out to be not uncommon.

I first encountered the Tesseract as a concept in a Robert Heinlein story (“And he built a crooked house”) reprinted in Clifton Fadiman (ed.) Fantasia Mathematica (1958). The book was used as an auxiliary text in a marvelous math class (Plane and Solid Geometry) I had as a high school sophomore, taught by Phil Coyle, who went on to grander things.

Google found a 1996 text by Michael Jensen (now Director of Web Communications at National Academies Press) which is wonderfully prescient: Here there be Tygers: Uncharted Tesseracts in the Age of Disintermediation. Some bits:

Intermediation is what we all do, every one of us in this room, in some form or another. What happens when so many institutions are put in doubt or confusion because their primary role of intermediation is challenged by direct digital access to anything we want?

…Something quite separate from the technology –though predicated upon it– something under the sun that is truly new, something unfathomably transformative, is being loosed upon us: disintermediation.

I think of societial disintermediation as the online tesseract –you remember, the “wrinkle in time” that shortens the distance between two points.

Two things are required to make possible the tesseract of disintermediation: rapid easy access to distant digital content, and easy financial exchange.

The first of the pair is here, as we all know. I can pull down a Web page located in Australia as easily and almost as fast as I can one from Duluth. Any material –whether a recording, a video clip, a multimedia presentation, a monograph, a poem, an encyclopedia– can be put online by its creators, and pulled down and displayed the viewers. In three years, it’ll be absurdly easy.

The second part isn’t quite there yet, but we’re almost there, and that’s online micropayments… To my mind, when I can easily, safely, and comfortably pay a buck, a quarter, a nickel, or a tenth of a cent online, then a day of revolution will have arrived.

I don’t say that lightly, or with too much melodrama. I’m quite serious. Micropayments will be transformative, challenging most institutions, most governments, and most economies, perhaps even more than the Internet itself.

…It was Colin Day, director at the University of Michigan Press, who first described the Internet as a “giant disintermediation machine,” and he’s right. The Internet will be–heck, is–challenging the historical intermediaries like publishers, movie studios, television stations, printing companies, libraries, specialty stores, universities, schools, salespeople, even governments. The filterers, the gatherers, the duplicators, the distributors, the finders, will all find themselves sprinting to restructure themselves in the new economy, and they won’t all make it.

Just how to build and manage tesseracted collections is up for grabs, and seems like sort of an apotheosis of conventional hyperlinkage. I flirt with ‘holographic’ and ‘fractal’ as other terms that might convey the multiple interrelationships among objects in such collections, but I’m not as clear as I should be about where the metaphors outrun the requisite lexical precision. Working on it…

Conceptual pirouettes

Another piece from the May 2007 Harper’s: Gideon Lewis-Kraus “A World in Three Aisles: Browsing the post-digital library” has me thinking about collections, legacies, contextualizations, and the bugaboos I struggled with during my 15 years as a Librarian. With all that, this posting may take a while to unreel itself, and I’m thinking to break it up into money quotes from the article (which is eminently worth reading, even if you are not now nor have ever been a Librarian) and my own ruminations. So (with emphasis added here and there for bits I particularly like):

…why do they [Rick Prelinger and Megan Shaw Prelinger] truck across town to spend their afternoons painstakingly arranging and rearranging fifty thousand uncataloged and whimsically classified items, very few of which are overwhelmingly rare or commercially valuable… (pg 48)

…they want to help preserve a space for the physical, the limited, and the fussily hand-sorted alongside the digital pile. And they think there is a way that the small private library …can be reimagined to do just that. (pg 49)

The first rule [of the classification scheme] is that locality trumps all other considerations (pg 49)

Megan describes the library as fundamentally a physical organization of their own mental furniture. Their assortment maps out the range of future projects they have considered pursuing, and its varying granularity of organization provides insight into what they have worked through and what they haven’t quite gotten around to yet. (pp 50-51)

The charm of the Prelinger Library lies in the canny and pleasantly unexpected ways one subject blends into another [examples]…This latter transition is one of the conceptual pirouettes that Megan is proudest of, as it bridges the gap between the material and immaterial worlds. (pg 51)

The connections in Rick and Megan’s browsable narrative require varying degrees of imaginative exertion. (pg 52)

…the library is in a constant state of associative refinement, what Megan characteristically calls “brushing the teeth of the granularity” –that is, “work,” which also includes the transport of heavy cardboard boxes from one heap to another. (pg 52)

(Public libraries) are increasingly centered around computer terminals and stupidly grandiose atria that make them feel less like book repositories and more like shopping malls or free Internet cafés. The San Francisco Public Library… was constructed at enormous public expense in the nineties, and the result –a vacuous hotel-lobby sort of space, the actual books peripherized as a guilty afterthought— is unanimously considered a disaster… The reference librarians, reconciled to their new roles as customer-service technicians in the guise of advanced-degree “information scientists,” stand behind high oak-paneled counters and field questions about how to use these Internet resources, or more often how to get the printer to work… (pp 52, 54)

[the Prelinger Collection] is not about browsability per se but tailored and pointed browsability —browsability within a narrative structure and in service to some very particular ideas about the ownership of culture and the cultural frameworks of democracy (pg 55)

The promise of the Internet-as-Alexandria is more than the roiling plenitude of information. It’s the ability of individuals to choreograph that information in idiosyncratic ways… (pg 56)

…the Dewey decimal system is a helpful but ossified structure best suited to the bureaucratic centralization of thousands of different libraries (pg 56)

“We want to foment bursts of concentrated discovery across the spectrum,” Megan told one tour (pg 57)

As I read and re-read this article I found myself alternately cheering and tut-tutting, and here and there scribbling something in the margin, and when I add all that up I end up with the label “provocative” for the whole thing. There are some things that bother me, some scabs I continue to pick and itches that will be scratched.

The actual physical environment of the Prelinger collection centers on

haphazardly rigged shelves, eleven-foot stanchions, a gleaming gunmetal… [consisting of] about fifty thousand items… [including] twenty thousand pieces of what they call “ephemera,” maps and charts and brochures and errant scraps of apposite paper (pp 47, 48)

…so it’s different from my private library in being, well, bigger, but a lot of us preside over collections of a lifetime, which we tend and prune and augment and keep in idiosyncratic order (generally less apparent to outsiders than to ourselves), and which contain precisely what we “have worked through and what we haven’t quite gotten around to yet.” Managing such mathom houses, and turning them to productive use, is the greatest of pleasures for some of us. And now we have the means (via the Web) to put such ephemera into context and present some of their facets to a global audience.

The challenges of array and navigation are pretty profound, and I’m not convinced that the Prelinger approach to classification and order (“locality trumps all other considerations”) is of general utility –though I surely have myself bits of shelvage that are ordered by geographical considerations. Really the important point is one that I can’t find mentioned anywhere in the article: every item has more than one quality/characteristic that makes it worthy of membership in a collection, and a user needs to be able to use those earmarks to find associated items, and needs to be able to attach additional earmarks (OK, let’s call them TAGS) as new relationships emerge as a consequence of use.

A physical item pretty much has to reside in one location (its place on a shelf, or a labelled folder, or whatever), and serendipitous browsing is an important discovery method, but systematic frameworks and tools for managing such dynamic collections are essentially non-existent. The world of cataloging standards isn’t much help if the materials aren’t included in the standards (e.g., my collections of photographs, or of musical instruments, or coffin plaques, or extinct mass storage devices…). Thinking through all of this makes me realize the fairly obvious truth that what associates all these things is a narrative structure, the tales they are or can be woven into. Again, we have the medium for curation and distribution of those tales –the Web– but there aren’t a lot of examples or models out there. Perhaps more accurately, most of the existing examples and models are institutional, and based on grants and budgets and administrations. I need to keep a weather eye peeled for the work of others who are thinking along these lines, while continuing to pursue them myself. Expect to see more about this in this space…

Of Practice

In answer to a friend’s question about the upshot(s) of our Kripalu adventure, and so that I can find it again later myself, I’ve written a summary of what seems at the moment to be the outcome and onward vector. This won’t be of interest to all, and it kinda goes on and on (and is therefore a static Web page, instead of a blog entry), but it’s what emerged from a few hours at the keyboard.

Nine-banded satori

You know how it is when your whole life seems to have been the setup for a punchline, and then the Golden Moment arrives?

At Kripalu there’s this Labyrinth, a landscape construction involving spiraling pathways punctuated by items left by visitors, displaying intentions of various sorts (decipherable and otherwise), fairly obviously mystically inflected and semi-informed by various Traditions. Watches left as memento mori, keys as metaphors for… coins, rocks, pinecones… well, you get the idea:
IMG_2391

Somebody has contributed a road-kill armadillo:
IMG_2389
Now, this is western Massachusetts, and the nearest armadillo on the hoof is maybe Texas… so SOMEbody has to have brought this road-kill armadillo from maybe Texas, in order to commit it to its place in the Labyrinth. Setting aside the questions of why and with what mystical intention, we can ask the practical question

HOW was it brought?

And the answer leapt to my mind immediately:

It was brought
as carry-on

There. My life is now complete.