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This Is Terrorism in the Digital Age

A Seattle Times report outlines how consumer access to powerful global communication tools and our constant appetite for media are used against us.


What Keeps Me Playful

Ever since I latched onto the notion of play as a guiding principle, I've revisited the concept continuously to hash out just what I mean by play. Is it fun? No, not always. As some of my snarkier posts attest, a fair bit of annoyance, even anger, comes out of play. So, then what is it?

I think play is a place to create and try things out and find the new in the mundane. Play is a place that seems safe amidst total uncertainty. And even if it isn't always truly safe, play is a place where we can fail spectacularly, accept the consequences, and move on. Play is about finding the confidence to risk.

One such place for me is Mrs. Librarian. Twists feature prominently in her world—all kinds of twists that explore the literal shifting ground beneath us, as well as the metaphorical shifting grounds of language, meaning, and identity. As you can imagine, she keeps me off balance. But it's a joyful unsteadiness, the way toddlers are when they're about tip yet continue to run, on their toes, mostly because they like the feeling even as they fall.

So if you care to know more about what keeps me Playful or need a dose of play in your world, pay her a visit at With a Twist.


The Twilight of Our Attention Span

The publishing phenomenon that is Stephenie Meyer's Twilight is now apparently becoming a film phenomenon. I have not read the books nor seen the film. As a follower of pop culture, I remain open to the possibility of consuming either, or both. Meanwhile, I follow the press coverage.

The reviews of the movie are rolling in, and I was struck in particular by this passage from Kenneth Turan's take:

The Oscar-winning "Ghost" of several years back had one lover living, the other deceased, and "Twilight's" notion that he's undead and she's not is just as good, maybe better. Connecting this to the extreme emotions of the young teenage world, where every moment is a crisis and the chaste romance of passionate soul mates is more attractive than dubious sexual shenanigans, was the masterstroke that created a phenomenon.
Has our media memory as a society grown so short that Turan—who, as a film reviewer for the Los Angeles Times and NPR, is among our most visible critics—is seemingly unaware that the very fictional "masterstroke" he ascribes to Meyer and Twilight was already thoroughly explored from 1997 to 2003 on television?

Many Happy Returns, Infinite Regress

My friend Tim is a good man. He likes gadgets and beer and good music and many other things that make a Playful Librarian go misty-eyed. And like many budding librarians he has a blog, called Infinite Regress, which celebrated its birthday earlier this month.

Besides a stunningly cool name, what sets Infinite Regress apart from most other blogs is that the birthday it just marked was its eighth, which makes this humble blog feel like its pimply little brother.

Congratulations, Tim. May the Internet be around long enough to see your blog's sweet-sixteen.


Thick, Rich Kinkadey Goodness

For those of you unanointed, Thomas Kinkade is the Painter of Light ™ . And, yes, he does own the trademark to that phrase. He describes himself in such legally protected terms because he infuses his works with light and love. Art critics think them infused with crap.

His Lightly Painterly [note: trademark that phrase] self now extends to the straight-to-video holiday market with the film The Christmas Cottage.

Vanity Fair [via Slog and Mrs. Librarian, (who keeps me Playful)] have uncovered and gleefully reprinted a memo from Kinkade to the film crew detailing "sixteen guidelines for creating the 'The Thomas Kinkade Look.'" It's a great lesson in just how manipulative imagery and other visual triggers can be.

All 16 points follow, interspersed with my commentary.

1) Dodge corners or create darkening towards edge of image for "cozy" look. This may only apply to still imagery, but is useful where applicable.
Is it me, or do dodging corners and darkened edges seem more "creepy" and "Halloween" than "cozy" and "Christmas"? And what happened to all that Painterly Light you're famous for?
2) Color key each scene to create mood, and color variation. When possible, utilize cooler tones to suggest somber moods, and warmer, more vibrant tones to suggest festive atmosphere. In general, create a color scheme for each scene that can be accentuated through filtering, DI treatments, or through lighting. Most of my paintings feature an overall cool color envelope, into which warm accents are applied.
I suspect "cool color envelope" is code for where Kinkade keeps his money after several lawsuits.
3) Create classic compositions. Paintings generally utilize a theme and variation compositional motif. Heavy weighting of the image towards one side, with accented areas of interest balancing it on the other side. Allow the eye to wander into the scene through some entry point. Be aware of where the viewer is standing at all times. Utilize traditional eye levels for setting the shot -- that is, no high vantage points, off-kilter vantage points, or "worms eye view" vantage points. Generally focus on a standing adults viewpoint of the scene at hand.
And by "classic compositions" he means "don't challenge your audience with any artsy shit."
4) Awareness of edges. Create an overall sense of soft edges, strive for a "Barry Lyndon" look. Star filters used sparingly, but an overall "gauzy" look preferable to hard edge realism.
Edges: dark and soft. Got it. And does anyone else think that the "gauzy look" was the only way they got leathery Peter O'Toole to agree to this shitshow?
5) Overall concept of light. Each scene should feature dramatic sources of soft light. Dappled light patches are always a positive, glowing windows, lightposts, and other romantic lighting touches will accentuate the overall effect of the theme of light.
There's the Light &trade he's famous for!
6) Hidden details whenever possible, References to my children (from youngest to oldest as follows): Evie, Winsor, Chandler and Merritt. References to my anniversary date, the number 52, the number 82, and the number 5282 (for fun, notice how many times this appears in my major published works). Hidden N's throughout -- preferably thirty N's, commemorating one N for each year since the events happened.
The drinking games this tidbit will inspire might be cause enough to put it in the Netflix queue.
7) Overall sense of stillness. Emphasize gentle camera moves, slow dissolves, and still camera shots. A sense of gradual pacing. Even quick cut-away shots can slightly dissolve.
"Slow" is not an adjective most directors want to build a production around.
8) Atmospheric effects. Whenever possible utilize sunset, sunrise, rainy days, mistiness -- any transitory effect of nature that bespeaks luminous coloration or a sense of softness.
Luminous and soft atmospherics for all your cinematically bespoke needs.
9) A sense of space. My paintings feature both intimate spaces and dramatic deep space effects. We should strive for intimate scenes to be balanced by deeper establishing shots. (I know this particular one is self-evident, but I am reminded of it as I see the pacing of the depth of field in Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon".)
Um, you might avoid referencing a consensus top 100 film of all time in relation to your own straight-to-video release.
10) Short focal length. In general, I love a focal plane that favors the center of interest, and allows mid-distance and distant areas to remain blurry. Recommend "stopping down" to shorten focal lengths.
Funny, I would have called it a "fecal plane."
11) Hidden spaces. My paintings always feature trails that dissolve into mysterious areas, patches of light that lead the eye around corners, pathways, open gates, etc. The more we can feature these devices to lead the eye into mysterious spaces, the better.
Again with the dodgy corners. Is this A Very Freddie Krueger Kristmas?
12) Surprise details. Suggest a few "inside references" that are unique to this production. Small details that I can mention in interviews that stimulate second or third viewings -- for example, a "teddy bear mascot" for the movie that appears occasionally in shots. This is a fun process to pursue, and most movies I'm aware of normally have hidden "inside references". In the realm of fine art we refer to this as "second reading, third reading, etc." A still image attracts the viewer with an overall impact, then reveals smaller details upon further study.
Okay, "in the realm of fine art," iconography has a long and rich tradition. And the Old Masters didn't have to stoop to "teddy bear mascot[s]," you twit and charlatan.
13) Mood is supreme. Every decision made as to the visual look of each shot should include the concept of mood. Music can accentuate this, use of edges can accentuate this, atmospheric effects accentuate this, etc.
More edges and atmospherics. But with music.
14) The concept of beauty. I get rid of the "ugly parts" in my paintings. It would be nice to utilize this concept as much as possible. Favor shots that feature older buildings, ramshackle, careworn structures and vehicles, and a general sense of homespun simplicity and reliance on beautiful settings.
Kinkade reserves his "ugly parts" for pissing on Pooh.
15) Nostalgia. My paintings routinely blend timeframes. This is not only okay, but tends to create a more timeless look. Vintage cars (30's, 40's, 50's, 60's etc) can be featured along with 70's era cars. Older buildings are favorable. Avoid anything that looks contemporary -- shopping centers, contemporary storefronts, etc. Also, I prefer to avoid anything that is shiny. Our vintage vehicles, though often times are cherished by their owners and kept spic-n-span should be "dirtied up" a bit for the shoot. Placerville was and is a somewhat shabby place, and most vehicles, people, etc bear traces of dust, sawdust, and the remnants of country living. There are many dirt roads, muddy lanes, etc., and in general the place has a tumbled down, well-worn look.
In other words, film in Havana.
16) Most important concept of all -- THE CONCEPT OF LOVE. Perhaps we could make large posters that simply say "Love this movie" and post them about. I pour a lot of love into each painting, and sense that our crew has a genuine affection for this project. This starts with Michael Campus as a Director who feels great love towards this project, and should filter down through the ranks. Remember: "Every scene is the best scene."
Camera? check.
Lights? Check.
Mics? Check.
Love Filter? Check. ...


Vote Early and Often

My friend Josh, whose blog I wrote about here, is now helping to build a social network for people with a social conscience:

Many, including Josh, have watched and commented with interest how Barack Obama mobilized a massive and largely grassroots effort to bring his idea of governance to the White House. Among Obama's primary tools, of course, were digital communications and social media, which signaled to a generation of voters that he might in fact affect the change he has promised.

Well, Josh and his aptly named employer are holding President-elect Obama to his word when he said: "I will open the doors to government and ask you to be involved in your own democracy again." And they are unwilling to let him forget who got him to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. To that end, they have launched a pre-inauguration program, Ideas for Change in America, whose stated mission is:

President-Elect Obama says he wants to hear ideas from all Americans, so we're taking him up on his offer. Here's your chance to pose innovative solutions to the major problems we face and to get them heard.

Submit your ideas for how to change America, and vote for your favorites. The top idea for each cause will be presented to the Obama administration on Inauguration Day, and that's just the beginning.
So I would encourage you to join, submit your ideas, let your voice be heard, and listen to what other voices have to say.

And while you're there, throw in a vote for my idea.


Mind My Social

I received an invitation to take part in an alpha test for SocialMinder, and being an incurable chip-head, I accepted. SocialMinder is an interesting tool that maps your Gmail contacts against your LinkedIn network, builds a profile of your core business network, and gives you updates on the contacts you’re out of touch with. On this level it’s a great sales and career networking tool.

But what really elevated my alert level was my first email "report" from SocialMinder, which told me I was overdue to contact two people in my core network, one of whom I've known since college, the other since grad school. Their calculation for overdue is based, presumably, on an algorithm that takes into account the frequency of my past contact with them. The message followed each overdue contact's name and email address with links to three news items directly related to each contact's hometown or place of work—probably to give you some talking points for when you reach out to the person you're in danger of losing touch with.

Can news get more local or personalized? Probably. Assuming SocialMinder is capturing and processing this data—and, really, of course they are, because such data is their most valuable asset and their only way to refine their mapping methods—and will add other email systems and social networks to their tool, then the semantic accuracy of their matches and the things they can do with such mapping will only increase.

Even as the content of the Web explodes, our respective places in it will seem that much cozier and intimate.


Here's to Hope

As I write this, all major media outlets and polls are declaring Barack Obama the president elect, and there are shouts of celebration outside my apartment window.

No one can predict the future with any certainty, so it's anyone's guess how Obama will perform or how the next four years will play out for the United States. It doesn't matter. Reality is nine-tenths perception.

The moment someone addresses Barack Obama as Mr. President for the first time, old prejudices will be overturned and new ideas of what makes a president will be remade. This is more than simply historic. This election has altered the reality that Americans have lived under and within for 232 years.


Halloween, Information Overload, and Fear

Two things I'll quickly direct you to.

First is this post, now a year old, that I'm still rather proud of. I wrote it in this blog's first month, when it had enough readers to count on one hand. (You need at least two now.) It offers about all that I have to say on this most unusual holiday.

Second is this article from the daily free rag AM NEW York, which notes:

“Throughout history, there are always times when people have been in a state of fear,” said Gerilyn Ross, director of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. “What’s different now, ... because of the onslaught of information we get 24/7, is you can’t turn it off. People are tuned in, turned on, and there’s no escape.”
The churn of new media replacing old media always creates cultural instability. For example, one root cause of the Reformation was likely the cultural shift from an oral society to a literate society. When that new destabilizing medium also completely bathes the public in information—more than they can handle, which itself induces the anxiety of overload—then watch out.

Librarians, here is our chance to prove our value and relevance. Information overload and its accompanying effects are real. If librarians truly are masters of context, critical thinking, and information literacy, then this is our time to shine.


Why Don't You Come Up and Check Out My Patents

Amos E. Joel, Jr., who invented the technology that enables mobile phones to move from one calling region to another without dropping the call, died last Saturday. Though his patent first appeared publicly 36 years ago, it is singularly responsible for what will be the most transformative technology of the 21st century.

According to his New York Times obituary, Mr. Joel, who collected and studied patents in college, also created the greatest pickup line in technology history when, on a blind date, he asked his eventual wife up to his room to look at his patents. As their daughter recalled: "She thought patents was a code name for something else. What she didn’t realize is that our father always had a lifelong fascination with patents."


Ubiquitous Computing in the US Is about to Hit Puberty

According to Popular Mechanics, via Slog and Galleycat, T-Mobile's new G1 phone, which is powered by Google's Android mobile OS, has a neat feature:

Barcode Scanner allows you to "scan" a book's barcode using the phone's camera, then brings up its Amazon page or a nearby retail location on Google Maps. We tried it on a few review books we have lying around (including some that aren't out yet), and it worked every time.
This isn't exactly a Google inovation—several Nokia phones and the iPhone already have built-in scanning capability. However, the growing availability of this feature will certainly make book lovers, who are not traditionally among early technology adopters, squee.

More importantly, with this technology getting more mainstream play, we're likely not too far from seeing phones enabled to scan all manner of barcodes to retrieve information on your location or products other than books, or perhaps even to make automatic payments for purchases.


New York City 500, Brooklyn Librarian 0

Using a sledge hammer to drive home a thumb tack, NYC's Conflicts of Interest Board fined Brooklyn Tech librarian Robert Grandt $500 for promoting a Manga edition of Macbeth that his daughter co-illustrated. Grandt apparently got off easy—the board's original fine was $1,000.

Although Grandt's actions could technically have resulted in a "conflict of interest," it's worth noting that he provided all copies of the book used in his display, donated a copy of the book to his library, and was giving out copies for free to anyone who asked. Neither he nor his daughter made any money directly from the library or its patrons. Furthermore, as Gothamist rightly points out, "Next up for Brooklyn Tech kids: College, where they will be required to buy their college professors' books for courses."

Take Gothamist's point one step further. University libraries, many of them publicly funded, are encouraged and often required to buy books written by faculty members. And we, as tax payers, are asked to fund scientific research that, once concluded, we must then pay publishers to read. Are these conflicts of interest?


Sullivan Channels McLuhan to Blog

Conservative gays, such as Andrew Sullivan, confuse me. Culturally, at least during my life, conservatism has preached a return to an earlier gentler time. Barring that, it seeks to preserve the status quo. Neither earlier times nor the status quo have treated gays gently.

However, if more Republican legislators thought along the lines of Sullivan—whose political conservatism grounds itself in defense, fiscal responsibility, small government, and personal accountability—I'd have more confidence in at least half of the U.S. government. I might not agree with them on every point, but at least I'd feel as though I could reason with them.

In addition to being an interesting writer, Sullivan has always struck me as particularly media savvy. Virtually every magazine he has played a role in succeeded during his tenure, and he has openly and successfully navigated the turbulent waters of being Catholic, conservative, and gay. Further proof of his media savvy can be found at The Atlantic online in his essay Why I Blog.

It’s a difficult balance, between your own interests and obsessions, and the knowledge, insight, and wit of others—but an immensely rich one. There are times, in fact, when a blogger feels less like a writer than an online disc jockey, mixing samples of tunes and generating new melodies through mashups while also making his own music. He is both artist and producer—and the beat always goes on.
The rest of the essay is equally insightful, but this quote is so noteworthy for the concision with which it highlights the fulcral nature of blogs as a medium.

Blogs provide writers—who according to McLuhan's paradigm practice a visual, linear, left-brain art—an acoustic, right-brain, everywhere-at-once space within which to operate. With their concomitant comments and nonlinear, hyperlinked, mashed-up structure, blogs enable writers and readers to exist both visually and acoustically at once.


I Am the Lizard King!

Good thing Marshall, Will, and Holly helped prepare Barack Obama for last night's debate.


The Predictive Power of Satire

Many have pondered why some Americans look to such comedic outlets as The Daily Show and The Onion as primary news sources.

It's not because they are fair and balanced. It's not because they do a better job of chronicling the day's events than The New York Times or CNN. It's not even because they are funny.

It's because they can see the future.


The Inherent Friction in the Web

The Internet has always been a struggle between openness and anonymity, between the public and the private. This is why the Web, and its derivative technologies, is labeled disruptive.

This is also why businesses still largely haven't figured out how to effectively harness the Web.

Business success is determined by branding—by becoming so distinctive that your company's name is synonymous with the product or service, such as Xerox&trade or Band-Aid&trade . Branding includes controlling a company's public identity.

But the Web is about ceding control to the masses. The Internet's history and evolution, driven by sex and socializing, is proof of the power of the hoards.

So, how do you take center stage and stand in the spotlight, the way most companies want to, without having to dodge a few rotten tomatoes? Or, in digital terms, how do companies provide mostly decent, but sometimes faulty, customer service, without having to answer to streams of Tweets denouncing their service?


The Dissolution of New Jersey's Public Libraries

New Jersey's state assembly is considering legislation to put in place a referendum mechanism for the dissolution of public libraries. The bill was introduced by Assemblymen Alex DeCroce (District 26) and Jay Webber (District 26) and Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein (District 14) in late June. According to the bill:

This addresses a recent judicial decision of the Passaic County Superior Court which held there was no mechanism in New Jersey statutory law to facilitate the dissolution of free public libraries. Municipalities may find it cost effective to dissolve their free public library as a result of decreased circulation or a desire to share library services with an adjoining municipality.
The remainder of the legislation can be seen below or found in PDF on the New Jersey Library Association's site.

Read this document on Scribd: demunicipalization

If a municipality chooses no longer to support its public library, it's their choice. And it's up to librarians to convince them that the library is an indispensable service. However, what alarms me about this bill is that only ten days' notice in five public locations and two newspapers is required in advance of a referendum that decides the fate of a major public service, not to mention the jobs of dozens or more of skilled knowledge workers.

Let's face it: few people read the newspaper, fewer pay attention to referendum notices on public cork boards, and fewer still even vote in referendums. Therefore, it's entirely likely that an anti-library or lower-my-taxes contingent could use this mechanism to bull rush their agenda through local government.

Just imagine if former Wasilla, Alaska, Mayor Sarah Palin, an eager banner of books, had such a legislative mechanism at her disposal?


Vicarious Friendship Supplants Vicarious Sex

To those who think the Web isn't changing people's behavior, I offer this Reuters article by Belinda Goldsmith as a counter. Goldsmith's subject is Bill Tancer, general manager of global research at Hitwise, an Internet tracking company, and author of the new book Click: What Millions of People are Doing Online and Why It Matters.

After analyzing millions of Web searches, Tancer discovered that searches for pornography, which once accounted for 20% of all searches, are down by half and have been supplanted in popularity by searches for social networking sites.

"As social networking traffic has increased, visits to porn sites have decreased," said Tancer, indicated [sic] that the 18-24 year old age group particularly was searching less for porn.

"My theory is that young users spend so much time on social networks that they don't have time to look at adult sites."
Of course, young users might simply be getting their porn on through social sites.

Another of Tancer's predictions is the development of software to automatically vet for accuracy, in response to the proliferation of false information on the Internet. Weren't social sites and crowdsourcing supposed to take care of that?


In the Wake of Microblogging

A fair amount of speculation as to the influence microblogging might exert on people has appeared on info-centered listservs and in the press lately, most notably in Clive Thompson's New York Times Magazine piece. Will the 140-character bursts change the way people write or how we define relationships? Too soon to tell.

However, there is one medium where we can observe the effects of microblogging: the good old-fashioned static Web page. Since the advent of such services as Twitter, the public has rediscovered its taste for minimalist aphoristic sites. For evidence, just look to the recent popularity of Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle and Has the Large Hadron Collider Destroyed the Earth Yet?.

Lipstick on a Cunt

Thanks to Cliff Schecter's book The Real McCain, the word cunt found its way into newspapers across the, ahem, country this past April. Reportedly, McCain directed that affectionate term at his wife, as well as the word trollop, which hasn't seen print since Defoe penned The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders.

Does anyone else wonder why the campaign of a man known for such salty talk would try to give Barack Obama a lesson in gender sensitivity for his use of a metaphor that they pulled completely out of context?


New Plastic Logic Reading Device

Via Slog and a tip from Mrs. Librarian [who keeps me Playful]:
Plastic Logic Ceo Richard Archuleta may not be the showman Steve Jobs is, but his product shows significant advances over the design failure that is Amazon's Kindle.

Plastic Logic's electronic reader is, like the Kindle, essentially trying to mimic an old medium, paper, with a new one, which never bodes well for the new medium's survival. However, it pushes the technology forward enough that I can imagine a day in the not-too-distant future when the graphical, processing, wireless communication, and touch-screen capabilities of a tablet computer or the iPhone will fit into the form factor of such a thin device.


Do No Evil? Really?

Google's release of their browser, Chrome, has caused a stir, as all things new and Google usually do. Google amped up the usual hype with an explanatory comic by famed artist Scott McCloud.

But as Ed Champion rightly points out, the interesting thing about Chrome has less to do with what's under the hood than what Google claims they have rights to through the browser. From the Content License section of Chrome's Terms of Service:

11.1 You retain copyright and any other rights you already hold in Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. This license is for the sole purpose of enabling Google to display, distribute and promote the Services and may be revoked for certain Services as defined in the Additional Terms of those Services.
Additional coverage of this issue can be found here and here.

Does this really mean Google can do whatever with whatever one generates as content through Chrome? Who knows if this would ever hold up in court, but why wait to find out? While I don't get anything but self-aggrandizement personal satisfaction from writing this blog, I'd like to think that I don't have to sign over some rights to my work for simply using a tool. Do Bic and Mead have a stake in my notebook scribblings? Does Craftsman take a small percentage of our homes for every nail we strike with hammers made by them?

It might be time for this blog, apparently owned by Google, to migrate elsewhere.


Procrastination Is Watching YouTube

Two wonderful takes on the Eighth Deadly Sin. Enjoy.


Perfectly Cromulent Words

A hat tip to Mrs. Librarian (who keeps me Playful) for pointing out an excellent article in Sunday's Boston Globe by the lexicographer and editor of VERBATIM magazine Erin McKean.

Clearly not a linguistic prescriptivist, McKean reminds us that language is a living thing created by the human imagination to represent ourselves in relationship to the world around us. Indirectly, McKean's argument also highlights that long before the Web or email, language was the first meme generator.

Though some language may be more or less appropriate given certain circumstances, hence the need for an evolving standard all-purpose lexicon, all that ultimately matters is that our words carry meaning and convey understanding. That is the essence of language—meaning, understanding, appropriateness—not whether it is somehow official.

And if someone uses the official-language argument on you, you should wonder why they're trying to control meaning.


Dreaming of a Better Social Web

The way the social Web currently works is that it forces people to manage identities. For instance, say I join Facebook primarily to keep in touch with old college buddies, and in that context I take on my “Kegger” persona. But on LinkedIn I prefer to project a more serious “Business” persona. Meanwhile, I use MySpace to manage the sensitive “Artist” side of me.

This is artificial and cumbersome, if not a little schizophrenic, because people are made of multitudes. People aren’t personas and identities. They are the whole of their interests and experiences, which is greater than the parts.

Some tentative strides are being made to break down the siloed nature of the social Web, mostly in the form of aggregators such as Socialthing, FriendFeed, and [hat tip to Glark for a thorough review]. However, I envision a digital environment that represents people as themselves in all of their experiences and engages them on the level of their interests, no matter how varied they may be.

In other words, don’t give us a place to manage a persona and share a manufactured identity. Give us a place to manage and share our interests and experiences. And build these virtual spaces on open modular platforms that enable members to share their interests and port apps and tools to other social sites or mobile devices, thus enhancing our actual interactions and not just our virtual ones.



I'll leave it to others to discuss the ironies of a film made by Disney's Pixar presenting a dystopian vision of a planet and a people ruined by media, mass consumption, and technology.

More worthy of note, in my opinion, is that the adorable hero of the story—a robot that acquires human traits by collecting and consuming artifacts of human culture, and in the process saves earth—is, in effect, an archivist of ephemera.


The Commandment of Context

On Monday swissmiss posted her 10 Commandments of Web Design. I try to avoid lists of 10. At best they incite argument. At worst they are confining and dogmatic. Besides, I much prefer lists that go to 11.

For what it is, swissmiss's list is fine, offering a reasonable checklist of things toward which most Web designer's should strive. But, as early readers of this blog know, she lost me at 10: "Thou shalt make content king." Perhaps her definition of content and mine are different, but I still argue that no matter how one might want it otherwise, context will always be dominant.

The proof is in the Web itself. Some of its content is good. Some of it is bad. Most of its seemingly endless content is not very well sorted. However, the Web's ability to serve up content quickly, through such tools as Google, is a major reason the Web is putting a serious dent in other media. I doubt anyone would argue that the content of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or Washington Post is inferior to what's on the Internet, but it's available when I want it and is just good enough to make a trip now to the newsstand and later to the recycle bin not worth it.

For further evidence, revisit how Wikipedia dismantled Britannica. Or ask a blind person if content or context is king. I suspect even the best content delivered in any context other than braille or audio would be useless. Or look to the Visual Thesaurus, which swissmiss has deservedly won kudos for designing and has changed the way we think of thesauri through its interface, with or without better content than Roget.

Update: Joshua Porter has a really good post on his blog, Bokardo, about how people and the technology they create co-evolve. Very McLuhanesque. About a few new technologies he has adopted, he writes:

It’s interesting to note that these technologies are late-comers by a long-shot. Many, many solutions had already existed in the marketplace supporting the exact same activities for a long time before they showed up. But this software is designed so smoothly that it actually pushes the state-of-the-art forward…changing the way we do those activities.
Although not directly related to my point about context, Porter's post led me to think: content is the reason why we do something, but context will always determine how we do it.


Virtual Shelves

One thing that old-school librarians like to say about the Internet and search engines and Amazon is that, while they're great at serving up specific information when you want it, they don't allow for discovery. In other words, what if you don't know exactly what you want and just want to browse in the hope you'll find something useful or entertaining? The Web, old-schoolers say, doesn't enable such browsing the way shelves in a library do.

Well, now the Web does, too. Meet Zoomii.

With its drag-and-zoom browsing interface a la Google Maps, wouldn't Zoomii be a great addition to an OPAC?

Thanks to Mrs. Librarian (who keeps me Playful) for finding this on Information Aesthetics.


Toxic Green Sex and Secret Fat Cancer

Those of us who love language like to argue that there's power in words. According to an article in today's New York Times, some words are more powerful than others, especially six of the seven found in this entry's title. To get better press pickup and to enhance the findability of their clients' stories on the Web, public relations professionals now use, unsurprisingly, keyword density tools to analyze their press releases.

I found this article disappointing in two ways. First, I'd love to know how the New York Times editions published over the last month or, better yet, year fare in keyword density analysis. How many buzzwords make their way into Times articles or headlines, and how often? And even if the Times successfully avoids keywords, what are their most common words? Such graphics seem ripe for posting as a Web-only adjunct to the article.

Second, it would have been nice to get some analysis on how newer technology is trumping their use of older keyword-based technology. Referral and crowd-sourcing sites, such as Digg, must mitigate some of the effects of targeted keywords. The localization of search renders much of what's not in your immediate vicinity invisible. And semantic tools, which move far beyond simple keyword matching, are getting better and more mainstream every day. How are marketers responding to the inevitability of such technological enhancements?


Blind Justice

People demand, not unreasonably, a certain degree of insight into human nature from certain professionals. Physicians fit in this category, as do attorneys and judges. They're the ones who see us at our best and our worst, who keep the wheels of our day-to-day lives greased, and who are often the ones we turn to to fix things when our lives are somehow broken.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court overturned a Washington, DC, handgun ban, deeming it in a 5-4 decision that the ban violated the Second Amendment. Justice Scalia wrote for the majority:

There are many reasons that a citizen may prefer a handgun for home defense: . . . it can be pointed at a burglar with one hand while the other hand dials the police. [A PDF of the opinion is available for download on SCOTUSblog.]
Regardless of which side of the case you fall on, I think we can all agree that Scalia showed little insight into human nature with the above statement.

Can you imagine waking one night to find a stranger in your house, point a handgun at him, and dial the phone for help? Add to that a twitchy intruder who, no doubt, is frantically trying to talk you out of shooting him/turning him, while he scans the room for likely escape routes.

And even one does manage the wherewithal to multitask under those conditions, imagine how pleased the cop will be to hear from the 911 dispatcher that a gun is involved in their latest call.


People Are Born without Earlids

The 1964 presidential campaign spurred one of the most influential TV ads in history. Known as the Daisy Ad, this spot aired only once but is still widely discussed in media circles as having changed the course of political advertisement. In it a little girl's counting of daisy petals transitions into a countdown to a nuclear blast.

Whether or not the commercial tipped the balance in Lyndon Johnson's favor over Barry Goldwater, we'll never know for certain. However, it certainly left an indelible mark on the psyches of Americans as to the danger of nuclear power. The creator of that commercial, Tony Schwartz, died yesterday.

Adman, agoraphobe, audio documentarian, and media thinker, Schwartz left perhaps an even bigger mark, if not as spectacular, in radio. Unlike many who predicted that video would kill the radio star, Schwartz was convinced that radio would live on because it connects with humans in a more visceral way.

He once said, as quoted in the New York Times:

The most important thing to realize is that people are born without earlids. So what determines what people hear or listen to? Very simply, they listen to anything that concerns or interests them.

I remember when I was looking for a mortgage, I heard every mortgage commercial. The day I got my mortgage, they stopped running them. I don't know how they knew.
This is so crucial to remember, especially now when true literacy no longer means just textual literacy, when the death of the recording industry doesn't mean the death of music, and when the struggle among multiple media for our attention doesn't mean the death of story and narrative art.


The Digital Revolution Is at Hand! (but first we need a revolution)

Two days ago Intel anthropologists released their "Technology Metabolism Index" (via Wired).

The map is a color-coded display of technology adoption by country, grays representing the latest adopters and reds representing the earliest adopters. Counter to our relative wealth, the United States makes a poor showing while such African nations as Mauritania, Senegal, and Kenya appear eager for the latest in technology.

This is actually not that surprising. Compared to the US, African nations tend to have smaller populations and more homogeneous cultural trends, more government regulation of industry (and, thus, less system standardization), and less legacy analog technology to convert from, making early adoption more feasible.

Particularly interesting, though, is their observation about Estonia's and South Korea's early adopting habits.

As for Estonia and South Korea, her team found that they both have agile governments, strong offline social networks, and major upheavals in living memory (the transition out of Communism and the Korean War). That raised the counterintuitive question: could turmoil actually be good for preparing people for disruptive technologies?


The Kindle Is Dead

Recent efforts by Amazon to tout how the first run of Kindles sold out smacks of desperation, because the fact is we don't know what that means. Amazon refuses to release sales figures. They could have made only 100 devices and sold them all, which would make it hardly the runaway success they're trying to say it is.

Among the many problems with the Kindle I've written about before, add another noticed by Mrs. Librarian (who keeps me Playful): we have yet to see a single person on the subways, buses, or commuter trains using the device.

We don't own a car, so we use a lot of public transportation and have witnessed all manner of human behavior on it. But the Kindle, which is now six months old and was released in time for the 2007 holiday gift-giving season, is not part of it. It has simply not made its way into people's workaday world.

By contrast, within a day of their respective releases, we saw people using Sony's PSP and the iPhone. We also still see countless people reading paper-based books and magazines and newspapers on public transit—this includes, by the way, school-age individuals, who as part of the Google Generation supposedly should have taken to the Kindle like, well, moths to the flame.

I think it's safe to say the Kindle's light has gone out.


Cyndi Lee Dislikes Wii

I've resisted discussing Nintendo's Wii mostly because others better equipped than I have already praised the game system's groundbreaking design and engineering. But the Wii Fit marks an even more impressive debut than the base system, because through Fit Nintendo promotes a social good even as they stand to make a mint off it.

The New York Times interviewed four people, two fitness experts among them, to evaluate Wii Fit. The response was generally positive, if lukewarm. The response that gave me pause, however, was from Cyndi Lee, founder of Om Yoga:

This is a little dumbed down and they are teaching more from a fitness or gym perspective. They’re saying things like, "Tighten your glutes," which we would never say in yoga.
Could she possibly have missed the point any worse? First, the manufacturers of this hugely popular system are trying to encourage gamers to exercise more than their thumbs. Second, they've included yoga—a practice that not too long ago was looked upon with suspicion by a good portion of the American public—as a quarter of Fit's featured exercises.

Perhaps the Wii Fit doesn't, um, fit into Lee's conception of yoga. Perhaps she sees it as a threat to her business or as a dilution of her practice, neither of which can be very strong if Fit truly is a threat. But isn't it possible that a few people otherwise averse to yoga will try it and get hooked? It's even possible that Lee could gain a few new students as a direct result of Wii Fit.


Desiring Sexy Digital Librarians

Recently on the Information Architecture Institute listserv there was a thread regarding job titles. It was merely the latest among many such discussions I've been party to among information workers. Like most information professions, which are by and large still in their relative infancies, information architecture is working out its identity and justifying its existence.

This IAI listserv is private and member-driven, so I won't quote from it or name any of the posters who took part in the thread. I will say that the general tone of the thread was that job titles don't matter—job descriptions, experience, and work samples do. A noble and meritocratic sentiment, one that echoes a larger cultural attitude against pigeonholing people into roles. But I couldn't disagree with this trend more.

Labels and categories can be confining when misused, but they're quite useful, too. And no one should be more aware of this than an information architect, whose sole purpose is to make an information object better, simpler, easier to use. If accurate and descriptive, a job title can be a meaningful thing, and it can do a lot of the heavy lifting up front when it comes to job justification.

I've heard of librarians who, when given the option to assign their own job title, choose "information alchemist." This may be fun and playful and perfectly appropriate to their workplace, but it doesn't tell the average patron what that person can do for them. In fact, the average patron might be a little wary of approaching an "alchemist" for help with homework or finding a good book to read. Furthermore, would the HR manager, or the machine resume screener more and more HR departments are using, know which job the alchemical applicant wants?

The point is that information workers should care about labels. It's what we do. And rather than throw out a whole category of labels as inherently bad, we should be striving to set an example and make them better.

As if to prove my argument that titles matter, my site statistics program tells me that this and this are my two most popular individual entries.


Sucking Fumes

Is there a stronger symbol of American individuality and independence than the car? Setting aside the actual umbilical dependence upon their cars most Americans have, the automobile itself represents power and speed. Most of all, it represents control—over one's climate and one's geography.

Though there are many high points in the history of our autophilia, I think its apex came during the era of the drive-in theater. If not for the extreme love of our cars, why else would Americans take an inherently social and communal activity, as going to a movie is, and relocate it to a parking lot, where we sat in our pods to watch grainy film projected on a far-away screen, listen to crackling audio, and eat greasy concession fare? At least we got to make out.

I was reminded of the drive-in recently when my friend Marc forwarded me coverage of another technology-induced activity that's apparently all the rage among the kids these days, the silent rave. At long last we've overcome the final hurdle to having a good time while dancing—being in complete control of the soundtrack.


Public Libraries and Fiscal Sponsorship

Establishing nonprofit status with the IRS takes so much time and effort that it's a wonder we have any charitable organizations in this country. It does help explain why there are so few successful grassroots nonprofit initiatives, which usually lack the expertise and resources to navigate tax law. And even if they do so successfully, they're often left with little energy to see through their original idea. There is an alternative, though, within U.S. tax code: fiscal sponsorship.

Nonprofit organizations that have already achieved a 501(c)(3) designation from the IRS can act as a fiscal sponsor for people or organizations with a charitable purpose. Basically, the larger nonprofit agrees to be a guardian of grants for the small organization, thus enabling the smaller charity to solicit grants and donations under the aegis of the larger nonprofit and pursue its specific goal.

Usually for the fiscal sponsor this involves receiving moneys for the sponsored program, allotting these funds to the program to cover its expenses, and filing all sponsored program moneys within its own annual audit and tax return. The sponsorship can also include use of the nonprofit's physical or human resources.

The benefits for the smaller charity are obvious. In addition to the infrastructure and 501(c)(3) designation the sponsor provides, the sponsor also offers credibility because benefactors and grant givers are more likely to provide funds to well-established entities.

The benefits to the sponsor are equally tangible. Through fiscal sponsorship, established nonprofits get to support the goals of like-minded people and groups and potentially have a direct impact on their community in a way their larger bureaucracy might otherwise be incapable of. Freed from the concerns of infrastructure, small-scale programs often deliver effectively on their mission and to the people who will most benefit from their projects.

Fiscal sponsorship is a perfect way for public libraries, most of which carry a 501(c)(3) designation, to have an even greater impact on their communities. Through fiscal sponsorship, public libraries could support one-off noncommercial art projects, help launch social startups that otherwise don't have the infrastructure to get off the ground, or provide a foundation for necessary but not-sexy community programs.

Granted, there would be an additional administrative burden placed on the libraries, which are already overburdened in many cases. But the burden would be marginal compared to the potential impact it could have, including improving the local economy and quality of life. Furthermore, sponsoring libraries can legally charge their sponsored programs for services rendered.

Public libraries cannot afford to overlook such opportunities to punch above their weight, especially when there are mouth breathers out there like this guy with a public forum.


Narrative and Classification

Most histories of classification place the origins of the art in the hands of Aristotle. His discussions of “being” in his metaphysical works certainly are among the earliest recorded attempts of making sense of the whole by parsing its parts. However, as Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star point out in Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences, it is likely that homo sapiens have always classified:

To classify is human. Not all classifications take formal shape or are standardized in commercial and bureaucratic products. We all spend large parts of our days doing classification work, often tacitly, and we make up and use a range of ad hoc classifications to do so. We sort dirty dishes from clean, white laundry from colorfast, important email from e-junk.
Though their examples are modern, it is not hard to project Bowker and Star’s reasoning into the distant past. Surely ancient civilizations sorted their laundry, too. And even if they did not, their nomadic ancestors at least had to sort edible plants from poisonous ones, or else we would not have survived as a species. Even that word, species, is a testament to the human drive to classify. For it was the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus who, in the eighteenth century, helped to unify the study of biology around his hierarchies of plants and animals grouped by similar physical traits—and in the process became known as the father of modern taxonomy.

In short, it is safe to say that since humans developed the use of language and other communication systems, we have classified, because to classify is to label and the means of labeling is communication. Language and classification coexist as complementary paths to meaning. They are the tools with which we seek to understand our environments, and like all good tools, they facilitate the building of more specialized and refined tools to further aid understanding. This process explains in brief the existence of the sciences, both hard and social, and it explains why such things as taxonomies, thesauri, ontologies, and indices exist.

Aristotle, it seems, was a busy man, for the roots of narrative analysis are often said to be in his Poetics, which explains the human need for fictions by our equally human need to imitate. Why this need for fictions or, in Aristotle’s word, mimesis? The literary scholar J. Hillis Miller answers in his essay “Narrative,” published in Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin’s Critical Terms for Literary Study:
We learn the nature of things as they are. We need fictions to experiment with possible selves and to learn to take our places in the real world, to play our parts there. . . . A story is a way of doing things with words. It makes something happen in the real world: for example, it can propose models of selfhood or ways of behaving that are then imitated in the real world.
In other words, narratives help us to make sense of the world. Narratives are yet another aid to our anticipation and understanding of our environments and our reactions to them. Put that way, narratives and classifications have much in common on a broad scale. Both grow out of our experiences with our surroundings, yet both likewise inform our future interactions with those same surroundings. Given these broad commonalities, I argue that the study of classification as it is practiced by cultural arbiters both in the for-profit sector—most visibly in Internet commerce—and in the nonprofit sector—most visibly in libraries—would benefit from some of the basic methods of narratology.

A field of inquiry that formed out of Russian formalist and French structuralist literary criticism, narratology coalesced into its own in the 1970s. Although there are myriad approaches and methods to its practice, at its core narratology is the theory and study of narratives and narrative structure and the ways they affect our perception. As M. H. Abrams, himself a relentless taxonomist of literary theories, explains it in his A Glossary of Literary Terms:
The general undertaking is to determine the rules, or codes of composition, that are manifested by the diverse forms of plot, and also to formulate the “grammar” of narrative in terms of structures and narrative formulae that recur in many stories, whatever the differences in the narrated subject matters.
Because narratology is fundamentally structuralist in nature, narratologists tend to categorize to break a narrative down into its most basic constituent parts.

The most foundational and top-level of these narratological breakdowns was devised by Mieke Bal, who identified three levels of narrative in her book Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative:
  1. Fabula, or the sequence of events or raw information.
  2. Story, or the structure and possible paths through the fibula.
  3. Narrative, or the final rendering of the chosen narrative path.
As we see, this process closely reflects the process of taxonomists working within any subject domain.

Viewed from the reverse angle, a taxonomy has all of the necessary elements of a narrative. Taxonomies are built with representative descriptions that exist in defined relationships to other representative descriptions. If one thinks of the representative descriptions—the terms—as nouns and their relationships—how they exist in relation to each other, or their state of “being”—as verbs, then it is easy to see how the collective taxonomy presents meaning in a manner not unlike a narrative. Using Miller’s phrasing, a taxonomy “is a way of doing things with words” through which “we learn the nature of things as they are.”

Viewed in this way, taxonomies and narratives share common DNA.


Shameless Self-Promotion

One of my last acts as an Employee of H. W. Wilson was to edit the collection of essays Celebrity Culture in the United States. It was just reviewed favorably on a site owned by one of Wilson's main competitors. If interested, you can read my Preface to the collection here.

Get Place-Based or Get Better

Fortune magazine's latest issue has an interesting article by Geoff Colvin about China's rising economic influence. According to one forecaster, China is set to take the crown as the world's largest economy as early as 2015, spelling the end of the United States' 125-year run at the top. One thing I didn't realize: when we assumed that mantle in 1890, we took it from China.

According to Colvin:

China was the largest economy for centuries because everyone had the same type of economy - subsistence - and so the country with the most people would be economically biggest. Then the Industrial Revolution sent the West on a more prosperous path. Now the world is returning to a common economy, this time technology- and information-based, so once again population triumphs.
This holds potentially dire consequences for the American worker, who has about a decade to adjust. Colvin's advice:
You can avoid competition with Chinese workers by doing place-based work, which ranges in value from highly skilled (emergency-room surgery) to menial (pouring concrete). But the many people who do information-based work, which is most subject to competition, will have to get dramatically better to be worth what they cost.
The question for librarians, then, is: how do we make ourselves worth more than cheaper overseas information services, or conversely, how do we make our highly skilled work more place based?


I Never Saw Her Shush Me

Screw Black Belt Librarians.
Get me some Ninja Librarians!

[Image from Doug Savage's
Savage Chickens via [BB-Blog]]


Sink or Swim

If this new business doesn't convince libraries to try new service models, nothing will.

Though libraries are free and BookSwim is not, the convenience BookSwim offers trumps the expense, because there's very little people are not be willing to give or give up for convenience. After all, most libraries offer DVDs for free, too, but that hasn't slowed Netflix. Besides, there are no back-end late fees, and subscribers even has the option to buy and keep the books they don't want to part with.

In BookSwim's own words:

We spent our Thursday night as always, freeloading books in our local behemoth bookstore café. When asked to pay for the books along with the coffee, "No, we're just gonna read them and put them back... but thanks for asking."

Now this kind of behavior should never be condoned, but we noticed a pattern - everyone else was doing it, although maybe not so openly. If all of these people are simply reading, why aren't they vagrantly loitering at a library? It's free! Well, there's no double mocha lattes at the library... but through our research to find the answer we discovered that the whole literary distribution model needed to be turned upside down.
Much has been written about the potential threat posed to libraries by such services as Google Book Search and Kindle. But BookSwim seems to me to be the first real and direct threat to the traditional library model.

Just imagine: A student searches his library's OPAC for a book but discovers it is either not part of the collection or is checked out and not due back for two weeks. He then clicks on BookSwim, logs into his account, and receives the book in three days.



Mrs. Librarian (who keeps me Playful) recently pointed out that my last post's headline coupled with my longish hiatus generates a certain creep factor. Sorry if I worried anyone. Truth is, I've been busy. And when not busy, I've been obsessing over my mobile phone in a very unplayful way.

I hate talking on the phone. Always have. It made my love life difficult as a teenager and has made my work life difficult as an adult. I simply and truly loathe talking with another person and not seeing that person's facial expressions. Cell phones didn't improve the situation so I was a late and reluctant adopter, despite otherwise being a certified gadget head.

My current cell is only the second one I've owned, and it's a fairly discrete flip model. I still avoid talking on it every chance I get, and when I can't avoid it, I either end or "drop" the call as soon as possible.

Of late, though, I've been thinking of upgrading to a smart phone. I've played out a few personal episodes of Lost recently, so access to mobile online maps would be nice. And if I've got the Internet, I might as well get email. As we've already determined, I hate talking on phones, so a text-messaging package that charges less than 10 cents a word (ironically, what writers used to get paid) would be nice, as would a full keypad, because T9 behaves no better than a moderately retarded mind reader.

Like any good user-centered evangelist, I've had these thoughts while playing with my current cell phone to get a better handle on its own features that I've never used. And then I noticed something, I'm embarrassed to say, for the first time. Whenever I turn the phone on, it's small screen says, "Welcome."

What, exactly, is it welcoming me into?


Death of a Blogger

It's been a while since my last 'Roll Review, and I intended this entry to be one. Lord knows Mark Federman's blog, What Is the (Next) Message, deserves some praise. He's a McLuhanite pursuing his doctoral candidacy at the source, the Univerity of Toronto, and his posts are always meaningful and mindful.

However, his latest post is a true gem and deserves a mention all its own. Using a New York Times article from April 6 about how for-pay bloggers are driving themselves into the grave, he discusses how we as post-industrial knowledge workers are still being held to an Industrial Age work standard.

He especially nails it on the head when he writes,

It is, I think, incumbent on those of us to claim to understand the effects of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity - that to my mind describes the world as we wittingly or unwittingly experience it - to consciously enact a change to the imposed paradigm of constant competition, continual economic expansion, and the myth that there is some sort of dichotomy between work and life.


The Point

I've long thought of American Public Radio's Marketplace as one of the finest business news sources out there, particularly for interesting things being done with technology. And they proved their mettle once again by directing my attention to The Point.

Though Gladwell's book has come under some intense and convincing scrutiny of late, his title does provide a vivid metaphor for the moment when a social movement takes off. The Point operates on the principle that people will only invest themselves in an idea, a product, or a movement if they know they won't be alone, bearing the entire weight of the burden.

They provide a platform for any kind of group action, be it socially or commercially oriented, allowing people to pledge themselves to that action. The catch is that your obligation is triggered only if a predetermined number of people or sum of money is reached. On the social end of the spectrum, you could organize a boycott against a local business or try to raise money for a nonprofit. Once a reasonable minimum of participants or monetary donations is set, you and those who sign on with you will know if the campaign will move forward and have an impact.

They have several cute animated scenarios of how their service might be used—none of which I could embed for you here, unfortunately. But I encourage you to check them out. This is Web-enabled transparency and group action at its best, and I know of a few librarians out there who could make good use of this.

Update: Found this longish, kind of corny, but very thorough introduction of The Point on their blog. Enjoy.


Digital Desire

Mrs. Librarian (who keeps me Playful) alerted me to this entry at [BB-Blog], which in turn points to this post at Everyone Forever about desire paths. Desire path is a term used by landscape architects to describe those informal dirt walkways worn into lawns or fields by people finding the shortest distance between two points. This is such a wonderful phrase and like most wonderful phrases could be appropriated meaningfully into other contexts—like, for instance, information science, which counts among its primary mandates information pathfinding.

The notion of the desire path reminded me of a new tool brought to my attention earlier this week called ShiftSpace. This open source API that plugs into Firefox builds a metalayer above any Web site, allowing its user to manipulate that page with a suite of tools without changing the site's code at its source—and without the user having to know how to script.

I'll let them introduce the API themselves:

Imagine the possibilities. With such utilitarian tools as Highlights and Notes, librarians could mark up various sites for information literacy sessions or as digital pathfinders. Teachers could annotate sites for lessons on digital resource assessment, then help their students map their own Internet research annotations into Trails, which would facilitate collaborative research among students. With such interventionist tools as ImageSwap and SourceShift, artists could rearrange a corporation's Web pages to create protest or parody pieces. And because the changes are stored locally through the API, rather than through the source code held on proprietary servers, the librarian, teacher, and artist need not wait for access or permission to make their changes.

ShiftSpace is currently only at version 0.10, so it's early days yet for the tool. All Shifts are stored locally, unless designated as Public, in which case they're aggregated on If the user visits a publicly modified page, the API alerts them of it through the browser, so they can activate the console. According to the site, they plan to build social functionality and P2P networking capabilities into future iterations of the tool.

Though it's often described as a public space, the Internet is not one really. All data is stored on servers, and all servers are owned by someone. ShiftSpace promises to enable us to capture that data and do with it as we please. If ShiftSpace succeeds, particularly in their social and P2P plans, they'll manage to subvert the entire proprietary nature of the Internet and create the first truly public digital space—one in which we can create our own desire paths.


April's Fool

An earmark of a clever April Fool's joke is that it is just plausible enough to to give us pause and just outsized enough to make us panicked or outraged.

Yesterday, WNYC's Brian Lehrer offered a fake segment on a Moral Rectitude Index supposedly being implemented by New York City. The "initiative" would tie records of our personal habits to our license plate numbers, which would trigger rebates to the congestion pricing plan proposed by Mayor Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, American Public Media's evening Marketplace report reported on a fictitious plan by the IRS to buy goods for people in heavy debt, rather than send them the $600 or $1,200 they should receive as part of the federal economic stimulus package. The idea, according to the report, is that the government wants to force the money to be spent instead of paying off existing loans, thus actually stimulating the economy, and the IRS would use their extensive financial data on individuals to determine who's at risk to simply use the rebate on debt.

I find it interesting that, in both instances, the hoax was plausible and outrageous for the same information-related reasons: plausible in that the data the government would require to implement both "programs" is out there, ready to be used; outrageous in that it's only their good intentions and some semblance of transparency in government that stops them from doing so.



Search is receiving renewed attention from developers, designers, and venture capitalists, which surprises me not at all.

Some of that focus is placed on semantic search, such as the work Powerset is pursuing. Others, such as Mahalo, have revisited the idea of human-indexed results. And then, of course, there's Twine, which appears to combine the best of both worlds.

But the project I find most exciting has less to do with advancing the actual retrieval function and more to do with improving the manner in which our results are presented. And it would appear, from what little I've seen so far, that they've jumped the search results page ahead a whole evolutionary order, as compared to the standard set by Google. It's as if Lucy gave birth to Einstein.

May I introduce SearchMe:

Applying the look and feel of Apple's popular Cover Flow iTunes interface to search results is a brilliant piece of appropriation—one so simple that it'll have thousands of people asking, "Why didn't I think of that?" which is always the sign of a great idea. The interface shown in the demo is not only beautiful, but it promises to be the first truly intuitive visual results page. Up front it offers a massive amount of information that is easily digested—in much the same way we flip through a magazine—then parcels out additional information on an as-needed basis through subdued textual features.

Considering Tuesday's post, it is particularly interesting to note SearchMe's use of categories to help narrow a search. Makes sense. In such a visually rich environment in which text is at a premium, such classifications can be a powerful tool.

The actual results SearchMe retrieves have been questioned, as has its scant 1 billion pages indexed (compared to Google's 20 billion). That will improve in time, as SearchMe scrapes more of the Web. And once they go fully live, they will likely have plenty of time and money to get it right. As CNET notes, like a magazine, the riffling effect of the interface allows advertising to be inserted among the results.

However, if precision and recall prove to be the company's Achilles heel, I imagine it won't take long for one of the more established engines to buy their interface.


Clay Shirky Is Overrated

It's to Clay Shirky's credit that after three years people still talk about his piece Ontology Is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags. It makes sense we still talk about it because Shirky is clearly smart, is a good writer, and makes a compelling argument. His piece certainly made a few generations of catalogers, indexers, and taxonomists lurch forward and spit up their morning coffee—which is never a bad thing. Keeps us from getting complacent.

There are a handful of good critiques of Shirky's argument, most notably from Gene Smith, who takes on the politicized nature of what should otherwise be a methodological argument, and Peter Merholz, who takes exception with Shirky's classification of what classifications are.

However, there are two fundamental flaws in Shirky's argument that I've not seen addressed, one philosophical and one technological. First, philosophically Shirky takes umbrage with the bias imposed by top-down classification schemes. He's certainly right about that. However, bottom-up classification schemes are just as culturally imperialistic.

We are, after all, talking about tags applied by an Anglophone society. Our use of English, which is no less a classification system than any offered by the Library of Congress, informs how we view the world. As McLuhan rightly noted, English's phonemic system has a profound effect on how we learn, relate to each other, and relate to the world, as opposed to how a people who grow up in a morphemic linguistic system, such as the Chinese, view the world. Neither is better than the other, but they are different.

Just because a majority of people who can read and write English apply a certain tag to, say, a picture of Fenway Park doesn't make it inherently better or any less imposed. What about the minority that doesn't think of that word at all when they see Fenway? At least with an ontology, everyone has to learn the same lingua franca to access the same material. Which is why, incidentally, Latin, French, and now English have all taken turns as the languages of diplomacy.

Shirky's argument is also—and has always been—creaky technologically. He neglects to consider, either from intention or ignorance, that the entire Web, which enables his dream of democratic tagging, is built on structured metadata, which is why it will always operate optimally amidst structure.

Web 1.0? Built on Java, which solidified an entire system of programming, called object-oriented programming, whose power lies in their application of classes and objects. By the way, classes and objects, along with relationships, form the holy trinity of ontologies. Oh, and Web 1.0 was also built on the back of database technology. So, for that matter, is 2.0 and whatever 3.0 will be. Is there anything more structured and more precisely labeled than a database table?

Web 2.0? Built on XML, which allows individual systems to label their data however they want, but insists that they provide crosswalks that enable other idiosyncratic systems to talk to them and use their data.

And Web 3.0 might yet be built on RDF, which creates a lingua franca for predicate logic that will enable systems to make inferences, thus creating a "semantic Web." The result, if anyone actually pulls it off, would be a mash-up heaven for all who venture on the Web, whether they know script or not.

Wouldn't that make Shirky happier than unfettered tagging ever could?


The Clock Is Ticking

I've thought a great deal about this extinction timeline since my last post. It's hard for me to imagine a world with no public libraries, mostly because I don't want to. However, even when I try to cast a cold eye on their life and death, it's hard for me to imagine that public libraries will be "extinct" by 2019.

Sure, I think the monolithic House of Knowledge design model that has perpetuated since Carnegie is dying. But in its place will sprout countless other service models designed by the countless creative librarians I know to be out there. In fact, I think there will be as many different service models as there are communities, however we define community. Because the imperative of librarians is no longer to impose but to adapt.

One of the interesting juxtapositions on the extinction timeline is its prediction that copyright will die one year after libraries. The two are undoubtedly linked, because the success of many of the most prevalent library service models is predicated on their offering free access to not-free and, often, quite expensive items—items whose monetary value rests almost entirely on their copyright. I think the timeline gets it wrong at least in that it puts the death of libraries before copyright. Copyright is clearly the canary in the coal mine for most current public library models, which emphasize the value of content way more than the value of how it's delivered.

Therefore, as more content creators search for and successfully develop new ways to openly license and distribute their work (see open access publishing, Creative Commons, and Kristin Hersh's CASH Music for examples), libraries will also have to develop ways to collect the work, make it seamlessly findable, and make it relevant to their public. In other words, once enough content is freely and widely available, "free content access" is no longer a reason for public libraries to exist. That's when it comes down to community need and community service—community relevance.

Which is why it's so distressing to hear that a new service outreach model developed at the Brooklyn Public Library will likely get shelved because of budget cutbacks. Perhaps 2019 will come sooner than we think.


WTF Is a "Twopointopian," Anyway?

I'd really start to be bored by this argument, if it weren't for the fact that its persistence among librarians bodes poorly for the future of libraries.

Toward the end of her piece, the Annoyed Librarian writes:

We need libraries because we need an educated citizenry. We need libraries because there are people who can't afford books and magazines and computers, and they need help, too. We need libraries because children need to learn the joys of reading.
On these points, we are in complete agreement. However, she loses me in her unfocused search for straw men to knock down.

As the rest of her post—and much of her blog in general—attests, she has some sort of fixation on gaming librarians and something called "twopointopians." Granted, twopointopians is a clever construction. But it's about as empty as the phrase "library 2.0." Web 2.0 is nothing more than another information distribution system. Sure, there's a lot of crap out there in its midst, but it's also done some good by placing some control over content back in the hands of the non-programming public. Is that the issue, control? We all know some librarians have control issues. In any case, it's every librarian's job to understand as much as they can about every form of information distribution.

Besides, does anyone else find it curious that AL vents her spleen and hides behind the anonymity of the flagship 2.0 app, Blogger?

Her concurrent fetish with gaming librarians leaves me with one question: Where in the hell did she get her MLS? Mind you, my program is not housed at Harvard. Then again, no LIS program is. Regardless, I've gone to library school with a couple hundred people, some of whom were gamers, yet none of them were able to get credits for playing Myst. We actually had papers and presentations and other assignments, some of which were hard and made me learn things.

The fact remains that public libraries are underfunded. And they likely will continue to be unless librarians learn to capture the imagination of politicians and taxpayers. The educative mission of libraries is paramount, but let's face it, it's not sexy and it's not as self-evident to others as it is to us. It's like spinach: sometimes you have to saute it in a little butter and nutmeg to make it seem more than simply good for you.

Furthermore, society is changing rapidly, and some of that change is due to digital media. That means that the book-and-periodical model of library service is going to get crowded out, at least a little. One need only look to the NEA's latest research for evidence. As a book person, this saddens me. But as an information person—a librarian—I need to adapt. No one makes this point better than Catch and Release:
I’m not sure that I look at the circulation desk as the service point at which the core competencies of librarianship are being or should be practiced, and because of that I really have no problem with self check machines augmenting and *not replacing* that part of library operations. Further, I think it is important to recognize that the “classic” public library is based on an archaic definition of literacy. Literacy is no longer about just reading text in books. We live in the “information age”, a time defined by complex cultural and media literacies. We need new buildings and new service models to address the new literacy needs of our patronage and our potential, unrealized patronage.
As I see it, it's either evolve or die. And if we do our jobs mindfully, we might just help guide the public through the changing reality. If we don't, then we'll prove right those predicting the death of libraries in 2019.