Category Archives: rumination

a Doc Searls fragment

The whole thing is worth reading, especially if your vision is headed for the suboptimal, but this passage has particular clarity:

All vision is in the brain, of course, and the world we see is largely a set of descriptions we project from the portfolio of things we already know. We can see how this works when we disconnect raw sensory perception from our descriptive engines. This is what happens with LSD. As I understand it (through study and not experience, alas), LSD disconnects the world we perceive from the nouns and verbs we use to describe it. So do other hallucinogens.

Vernacular Architecture of Midcoast Maine

Here’s a bit of text I wrote a couple of days ago, while walking to the post office:

A local landscape is a palimpsest of building history, and any wall or roof or chimney or porch or doorway is a product of choices make by somebody, or a succession of somebodies. Untangling the history is no simple task, even for a single property, but general patterns do emerge if one is attentive to local variation, and local knowledge can be eloquent if the investigator is patient.
The work of architects and builders is ‘vernacular’ insofar as it incorporates local tastes and predilections, and departs from the vernacular to the degree that its design and particulars use other (exogenous, not-popular) design items and materials. The vernacular is ‘popular’ in the sense that it’s how things are done in local tradition and practise.
Architectural history is a fruitful arena for the skills and tools of an anthropologist: there are observables and objective facts, but also plenty of room for the values and notions and delusions of the people who inhabit the architecture. People build houses with materials and tools and ideas congenial to climate and locality. Localities have styles, and variation within stylistic parameters, and the same is true of temporal eras. While uniformities may be imposed by sources of supply (e.g., window styles, shingle patterns, modular construction), there’s plenty of room for the expression of individual tastes and, for any particular feature, a fair bit of variety in details and alternatives. In the search for regional style we surely look for variation and hope for corroboration and patterned consistency at the core of variation, but we also expect and enjoy inconsistency and innovation.
Every house is to some degree an expression of the values and aspirations and preferences of the inhabitants. The dimensions of variation are not simple or without inconsistencies, and every house in the landscape has its own story, awash in accident and exception to whatever rules may seem to apply to the general situation. While occupants surely impress their own personalities onto properties, there are emergent patterns if one looks for long enough and listens carefully to the stories people construct to narrate their surroundings and doings. Even the most ungainly or prosaic doublewide fits somehow into the emergent grand scheme, and every bit of variation in decorative embellishment is potentially a jumping-off place for an essay that may reveal some deeper truth.
As one walks along a road looking at houses, a lot of repurposing is evident. A shed may be linked to a house to create a kitchen in one decade, and sometime later the barn may be liked to the shed and insulated to create more living space. A roof may be raised, dormers may sprout, and the porch may be enclosed to make more space for domestic redeployment. And at the other end of a building’s life cycle, the barn or shed may decay as bits of the roof succumb to time and neglect. Paint peels, stone foundations heave and slump, wood rots and warps, maintenance is deferred. The cribbing beneath an old barn bespeaks rotten sills to be replaced with a new foundation, poured in one afternoon by a cement truck, but probably by next summer nobody will be able to see the vestiges of the repair.
Even windows have complex histories, reflecting changes in construction methods, materials, and the evolution of continent-wide marketing (Pella windows come from Iowa…) as well as style preferences and price considerations. An entirely exogenous force like technological change in the glass industry can shift local parameters quite dramatically –after WWII, plate glass windows became fashionable; in the last decade double-glazing has made storm windows obsolete…

Revivification

I’ve used this blogspace mostly as a means to collect and rediffuse stuff of passing interest, to an audience that I’ve never really defined but generally thought of as my very own self and a few like-minded others who might be following my doings. Beyond its status as a personal lectern, I haven’t really explored what the medium can do as a composition environment, but a couple of days ago it occurred to me that I might use the space as a venue for gathering the ongoing bits of a new project.

I have a glorious history of begun but uncompleted projects, some of which resurface now and again, to be augmented and then maybe shelved again. Files are opened and then closed as my attention is diverted, but I assure myself that gradual progress is made. Since nobody is waiting on me for anything, I can please myself in the matter of what I choose to do from day to day. It All Counts, as Allen Smith once averred.

One of the threads I’ve been following off and on for about 50 years has to do with architecture, or perhaps more broadly with the human activity of building and occupying living spaces. The work I did as a progress photographer on the State Street Bank building in Boston (mostly in 1964) is an example of something I’ve returned to and found new possibilities in (see the building, the first column, construction details). I’ve also pursued a series of renovations and augmentations of my own living spaces, and have kept a weather eye on other people’s building activities, sometimes photographing them but never systematically.
A chance conversation with John Rosenbloom a few nights ago got me thinking about vernacular architecture and I hatched a plot to explore the built environment of Midcoast Maine. Refinements of the scheme are occurring to me with every passing hour, and I need a place to put stuff. And why not the blog? Far better to use the space productively than to let it languish, and it doesn’t need to be polished. Indeed, an omnium gatherum is just what the blog medium is best at: tagging, date-stamping, URLs for fragments, a way to link photographs and other texts… So that’s what I think I’ll try.
And for whom? The primary audience remains my own very, very self, but others might find some of the process of interest, and who knows but what Posterity may even be amused.

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…