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.