Category Archives: technology

Monkey Delight

Last night I went to Monkeybook 2 at Monkey Town to hear Brad Paley give a fascinating talk about TextArc and a few other projects. I’m still sorting out all of the ideas Brad offered us, but the major concept he seemed to want us to grasp was this: if you want someone to absorb information, offer it to them in a form that lets them find the patterns in it. He repeatedly mentioned that humans delight in finding patterns and pulling together threads of information, which, of course, sent me down a path thinking about the ways library catalogs, article databases and other digital tools don’t delight researchers. Which in turn sent me down one of my favorite paths, which is thinking about how these tools could delight researchers. So many of the aha! moments I see students and other faculty reaching when I’m working with them are moments of “Aha! I finally understand how this crazy database thing works!” rather than moments of engagement with the actual information they’re finding. Shouldn’t the database or catalog be disappearing in that moment? Or, even better, complementing the information in a way that makes it easier to understand? These seem like such simple questions, but I’m frustrated by how few resource providers in the library world even begin to address them.


Annotating the Web with Stickis

I just signed up for a Stickis account, hoping that it might be useful as we’re planning for our new OPAC. I’d like to be able to share annotations of other libraries’ OPACs across the project group. Another possibility would have been to go with Fleck, but Stickis allows for private groups, which seems more useful for this particular project. I’m still trying to understand how all the Stickis features work. Look me up if you want to play along.

ShiftSpace was another possible candidate, but it didn’t seem quite right for this project. Of the annotation tools I looked at, it’s the most interesting to me conceptually– it’s open source, and it’s geared toward reopening the web as a public space. I’m looking forward to trying it out just for fun.

UPDATE: So, Stickis looks like it might be really good for the OPAC review project if the other team members are into it, but my heart belongs to ShiftSpace. So far it looks like people are just playing with it in a really simple way, like kids with crayons on walls, but the implications for it could be so incredible. In a way, it’s sort of like adding comments for any web page where viewers opt in, but it can be so much more than that. While comments sort of sit on top of a page and maybe even create a little dialog around it, eventually spinning out into a broader dialog, they don’t deeply affect the original version of the page unless the author edits in response to the comments. What’s really powerful about ShiftSpace is that it lets the original stand, comments on it, but at the same time allows people to deeply alter the original via the image swap feature and the source shift feature. Theoretically, there could be tons of versions of the same page available at the same time. This is the first project I’ve seen in a long time that actually makes the Internet feel like a public space. Totally beautiful.

thinking about rss

I subscribe to a lot of rss feeds, and I check my aggregator pretty often. The Bloglines interface has become so familiar to me that I’m lulled by it’s design, easily skimming over stories, marking some to save for later, barely glancing at others. I didn’t really realize how personal a feed reader can seem, though, until the past few weeks. And I’m still trying to figure out how it can feel so much more intimate than visiting a web page, how it can feel almost invasive when something troubling keeps showing up in your feeds, over and over.

I subscribe to about 12 blogs and news sites about New York and Brooklyn, and lately they’ve included a bunch of coverage of a really gruesome rape and torture that happened to a Columbia University student. Of course the story needs to get reported, but what I question is the level of detail that needs to appear, and the way in which it’s framed. Each story mentions that she went against her father’s wishes by moving into what he viewed as an unsafe neighborhood, setting up a sort of she-deserved-it-scenario, which is generally what I expect from the news. But then there is a such an obsessive detailing of everything the attacker used and did to hurt this woman, and I just don’t understand what need it serves to lay every last detail out. It creeps me out that maybe there’s some sort of voyeuristic pleasure derived from it– maybe it’s like a car crash? Maybe people are looking so closely because then they can reassure themselves that it didn’t happen to them? I can’t really believe that’s the whole scenario in this case, though. I think maybe in this story it has something to do with our society’s deep-seated, trying-to-be-hidden, shameful pleasure in seeing the methods used to take this young woman down.

So, back to my aggregator– It’s weird to get these details pushed to me every day, to have them slip quietly into a space that I had lulled myself into thinking of as my own. This certainly isn’t the only disturbing story I’ve read via rss– news about war and abuse fill the New York Times feed every day. But maybe because this one is local and so disturbingly detailed, it feels that much closer. I’m not drawing any pithy conclusions from this, just thinking about the ways my emotions and perceptions of information affect and are affected by my use of technology. It looks like I’m not alone in wanting some way to easily filter the news that comes my way (the comments  and Dave Winer’s follow-up posts are worth reading, too).

Highlights from Computers in Libraries 2007

I might still post some more raw notes, but these are the things that stood out as high points of the conference for me..

Possible projects inspired by the conference:

Make library widgets/badges like librarything/flickr/etc. Bloggers, MySpace users, etc. want to share what they’re doing/thinking/reading with other people; make it easy for them to share the way they use the library.

Make Google My Maps for Academic Libraries of Brooklyn and for Metro. UPDATE: I’m making one for ALB. Next step: annotate and add photos, then see if I can mash it up with onNYTurf.

Look at relevant Greasemonkey scripts and maybe make some.

One possible useful way for libraries to use Twitter: library account that im’s twitters to public workstations for quick, spur of the moment instruction sessions (e.g. maybe assignment based when you get a bunch of students in a row asking the same question)

Presentations that were particularly inspiring:

Jesse Andrews gave an awesome talk: The Social Web (on the importance of happy robots). This was the highlight of the conference for me.

Chad Boeninger had some very cool suggestions for using web2.0 technologies to increase active learning: meebome widgets instead of clickers for in-class feedback, feeds for reference, using wikis for instruction instead of handouts.

Tim Spalding reminded us: “The library is the most fun you can have with your pants on,” and encouraged us to link around, both within and without our OPACs to foster serendipity and increase traffic. In another talk he suggested that Books aren’t just items of commerce—they’re conversations, identity, exhibitionism, integral to our perception of ourselves (if we’re book lovers). They create a network of shared mental space (think of the one book one city programs), so why not let people find them and use them in a way that reflects that?

Derek Willis gave a great presentation on implementation of Django at He talked about “bringing beauty out of the data” and creating emotional investment in data, particularly by supporting browsability, not just search.

Marshall Breeding posed some good questions to keep in mind when looking at ILS’s: What’s the impact of who owns the company? Is it operated for long-term or short-term profits? Who’s making decisions? A board interested purely in profit, or people who know the library world? Can they understand libraries as business customers? Organic growth or growth via mergers and acquisitions?

Cool stuff I hadn’t heard of before (or had forgotten about):

From Jeff Wisniewski:
Yahoo Design Pattern Library
Rasterbator— turn any image huge and print it out on multiple sheets of paper for a giant poster.

From Darlene Fichter:
Many Eyes— data visualization and sharing

From Frank Cervone:
dbWiz— database selection wizard

From Steven Cohen:

From Mary Ellen Bates:
Kosmix—very beta, specific search areas are strongest (politics, health, video games—weird selection), can screen politics by leaning (left, conservative, etc.), satire, blogs, etc.

Exalead—lists search tools on advanced search screen, phonetic search, approximate spelling, adjacent words (near operator up to 16—only search engine that allows this?!) database not as large as google

Srchr—results on one page, creates rss feeds of searches, stores buttons, so you can revisit searches easily. Good for remembering complex searches.

Scandoo—metasearch, screens for hate sites, malware, etc.

Yahoo Search Builder—Search box builder. can limit results to specific sites, append keywords behind the scenes, creates search cloud to show what words have been used to search your engine,

Swicki—builds custom search engine, but then as people use it, swiki remembers what people click through to. As more people use it, sites gain weight.

Back from the Dead

It’s been a (very long) while since I’ve posted, partly because I’ve been getting a little overwhelmed lately. There’s so much I want to do and learn, so I think I’m going to go back to using this blog as a sort of personal learning journal. Or a thinking journal. Or something.

The past week was really freaking good.

I walked over and met Tim and Rob at Pratt’s Digital Arts Research Lab. We had a really exciting conversation, and they made me feel like maybe it’s possible to tease out some of my ideas regarding the future of libraries and the way we interact with information, like maybe these huge, messy ideas I have could take some sort of substantial form.

And then I went to see the guys from Graffiti Research Lab talk, and it was so good to see art that’s engaging and beautiful and hopeful all at once.

And then I stayed up until 4 in the morning, talking with Angelica about people and information and interfaces and architecture, and I felt like my head was on fire.

Now I’m at Computers in Libraries, where I’m listening to and talking with all sorts of amazing people, but my internet connection at my hotel is so slow tonight that I can get up and get a glass of water while I wait for a page to load, so I’m going to post session notes later.

What Is a Letter?

I went to hear Johanna Drucker give a talk yesterday: ABC Histories: The Letters, Past and Future. She was asking questions about the ways we conceptualize what a letter is, versus the ways we understand how a letter is produced. It took me the length of her talk to really start to grasp her idea of using aesthesis to get at what a letter really is. In fact, my grasp is still extremely tenuous, but I'm going to try to articulate the way I understand her approach…

When Johanna asks, "What is a letter?" she's not asking, "How is a letter made?" She's not asking what the technology or method of making that letter shape is, or what pen strokes make up a given letter. The question she's asking is harder to get at because we take letters for granted; we all assume we know what an "A" is. We recognize it on the page, we read it, we write it, without taking into account its role as a cultural object that has weight beyond simple linguistic representation.

When we do start to think about what a letter is, we might think of it in terms of its construction (this letter's ductus follows these specific strokes, or this letter is built out of so many pixels), but Johanna's talk focused much more on other ways we understand letters. For instance, she suggested that we might view a letter in terms of its origin (or mythologies of its origin), turning the alphabet into a sort of cultural inventory, or a way of cataloging history into components relevant to our own culture. She used an example of ideas about the letter "A" developing from the shape of tent poles or an ox's skull, references that we use to understand and shape our view of earlier cultures. Johanna suggested we might also conceptualize a letter in terms of its value–numerical, allegorical, symbolic. (As a sort of side note here she mentioned that the alphabet is the first place that we get into symbolic representation, instead of pictograph-type representation, as a culture. The idea of that shift is amazing to me—to go from drawing a little picture of what you're talking about to combining a set of abstract marks to create meaning—it gives me a new respect for each letterform, and a much richer and nuanced way of looking at type and writing. It's one of those ideas that triggered some kind of forehead- smacking recognition: "Of course!" but was totally new to me at the same time. Thanks, Johanna!) She also got into how we use the alphabet for social engineering projects, and how the form of letters can play into asserting cultural values (think of the morals infused into kids' alphabet books), how we might understand a letter form in terms of its efficacy (contemporary readers might prefer Bodoni to Gutenberg's text, but his audience would have recognized his set of letters, as it was based on contemporary letterforms), and how we imbue letters with spiritual or sacred meaning.

So, how does available technology affect the way we conceptualize letters? Johanna made some really good points in getting at this question, and I think a lot of them could be extended to other areas of the ways we understand words, language, writing, reading, and even forms of storytelling or narrative. She pointed out that new forms of technology don't necessarily replace older technologies; instead, they affect the specialization of older technologies. For example, we might use a computer for a lot of our writing, but if we need to jot down a grocery list, most of us will still scribble on a scrap of paper. Or, in my case, computers fascinate me, but I still send handwritten letters to my friends and study calligraphy and typesetting whenever I get the chance.

Johanna made a good point when she mentioned that new technologies offer us a lens for looking at older technologies and questioning the cultural decisions that were made in their usage. I think this is where the really complicated, interesting, and useful part of her talk came in—Through technology, letter forms are infinitely variable; we can, in theory, make any kind of letter form we can imagine to achieve any of the functions listed above. We can extend this view of writing technologies from letters to narratives; I'm thinking of how early writing technologies required a fairly linear version of storytelling, but contemporary technologies offer opportunities for completely insane narratives, really— infinite variations are possible in terms of writing and reading, and Ts'ui Pên's Garden of Forking Paths is possible in a very real way.

At the end of the talk, Warren Sack asked a great question about why, when we have these infinitely variable options for creating and communicating in radically different ways, we repeat the labor methods suggested by older technologies. There was also a really interesting conversation about the authority attributed to mechanically reproduced text, versus handwritten, especially within the context of music notation. What's gained and what's lost in mechanical reproduction of text?

Malleable narratives and digital tools

Yesterday I went to hear Bob Stein, director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, speak at Stanford. One of the things he was talking about is the idea of creating documents with a canvas or desktop layout rather than a linear sequence. He’s working on an open source program called Sophie that aims to give even novice users the tools to develop multimedia documents that include video, sound, graphics, and text. The program looks interesting to me, but the thing I was thinking about during the presentation is how the tools available to authors might affect ideas about narrative.

Sophie is aiming to enable lots of interactivity between authors, books, and readers; in thinking about how I might like to interact with some of my favorite novels if they were available in formats more malleable than traditional books, I started to think about what we do with narratives once we walk away from the actual reading of a book. In remembering a story, I tell myself a very short version of that story, with emphasis placed on the parts that made the biggest impression on me. I tend to think of certain parts first, and then skip around– back to the beginning, to a part that had visual impact, to a particularly gruesome or beautiful scene, to the almost-end, or back to something that happened in the second chapter. I almost never remember a story in the order it was told to me, and I’m certain that what I remember as important passages are different from another reader’s. I remix the story into my own new narrative, just like I might narrate a dream to myself after waking up. The story is slightly different every time I recall it.

Earlier this week I watched a video of a panel discussion called Migratory Narratives: Why Some Stories Replicate Across Media, Cultures, Historical Eras. The speakers described how narratives are constantly shifting through retelling, and how the same story can be used over and over for a different purpose each time. Thomas Pettitt showed how each iteration of a medieval murder ballad emphasizes a different point of view– from the judicial documents and journalistic reports that the song is based on, to the broadside version, to the oral tradition. Richard Howells lectured on the migration of the Titanic’s history across media, highlighting the political and cultural uses that story has been put to. Both of these lecturers asked what the essential element is to these stories that they get used over and over, and they both pointed out that all popular culture has some narrative facility. It seems like the basic skeletal events of a story are all that’s required to allow us to recognize it. I’m not sure how this ties in with the questions I have about how creative tools might affect the use of narrative, but they seem connected to me. If readers are rearranging narratives in their heads already, what is the difference when they do it with digital tools, and when authors are planning for the remix?