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May 31, 2008

Andrew Hinton on info, meaning, and all the rest

Andrew Hinton has posted the annotated slides of his talk at the Information Architecture Summit. While it ultimately is aimed at IA’s who are struggling with their profession’s identity (i.e., all IA’s), Andrew’s talk is quite broad and fundamental, and also engaging and creative. Well worth the read. [Tags: ]

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Scan and Release: Digitizing the Boston Public Library

I’ve lived in Boston since 1986, but have never made it into the great Boston Public Library. Until today. My streak was totally broken because the little group digitizing the BPL’s holdings invited me in to see what they’re doing. And, oy, the work they have cut out for them!

But they’re an intrepid band. And they recognize that they’re up to something important. Although some in the BPL may have thought that digitized prints and photos are just lesser-qualities backups, the group knows that they’re not only bringing hidden images into the public sun, they are engaged in a social project that changes how and what we know. (What’s not to love about librarians?)

The Print Stack, where photos, prints and miscellaneous other objects are stored, only seems to be in the basement. The ceiling is low, there are no windows, and the lighting leaches vitamin D out of your body. It’s long and overflowing, reminiscent of the warehouse that ends Citizen Kane, and that is echoed in two Indiana Jones movies.

Boston Public Library storage area
Boston Public Library Print Stack

If you want to find a particular image in the roughly two million prints and images (no one knows for sure), you ask Aaron. Some bits and portions have catalogs of various sorts, but overall, it’s a disarray of metadata. For example, the Herald Traveler collection of photos has about 1.2 million pieces, arranged in 104 cabinets, each with four drawers. The folders and drawers are labeled, which helps a lot, but they’re not indexed, much less cross-indexed.

Herald Traveler collection in file drawer
Herald Traveler collection

At least those photos have captions. Aaron shows me some beautiful 19th century photographs of Indian architecture. Many years ago, the BPL went to enormous trouble to paste the photos into multiple volumes — turning the photos into a book, as Aaron points out — but didn’t bother to record the notes on the back of the photos. Aaron is now going to have to dissolve the pages to expose the notes.

Eroded negative
Aaron holds up a degraded negative.
A dirigible is barely visible on it.
Tough reclamation project.

The archive doesn’t just have pictures and prints. It’s got, well, everything, including a couple of old typewriters and a collection of matchbook covers from Boston restaurants.

matchbook covers
Boston matchbook cover collection

Of this abundance, the digital group has so far scanned about 24,000 objects. When I point out to Maura Marx, the group’s head, that, given the library’s estimate that it has maybe 23 million objects, she’s looking at a 2,000 year project, she tells me that they’re just getting started. They’re going to bulk up, maybe do some offsite digitizing, and begin to make some serious progress. When I ask Thomas Blake, who does the actual digitizing, how he decides which stuff to do, he laughs a little and says, “What I think is cool.” And, since the public has an appetite for “choochoo trains, maps and postcards,” he’s done a bunch of them. The BPL is, after all, a public institution that both serves the public and relies upon the public’s support.

stacked volumes

The Library has been posting digitized works at Flickr. Take a look at the 19th century photos of Egypt, or, yes, the postcards And the book fetishists among you should definitely check out the “Art of the Book” collection. Predictably and hearteningly, the public — you and me, sister — have been commenting and adding to what’s known. Maura hopes to get permission to put the images into the Commons. Digitizing and posting — “scan and release,” in the group’s memorable way of putting its mission — turns patrons into historians.

The scanning is slow because it’s one guy who’s doing a careful job. The camera has a 22 megapixel chip, but they’ve been known to digitize at 88mps, creating files that are half a gig in size. Tom likes saving the RAW files to avoid unnecessary data loss. You never know what’s going to be useful. For example, he had been scanning postcards at 300 dpi, but a curator pointed out that then you couldn’t see the dotscreen pattern, which might be of interest to someone. So now Tom scans them at 600dpi. Overall, they have about 1.5 terabytes of stored images.

The metadata is a whole ‘nother issue. Chrissy Watkins, who has been there for four days — she had been at the JFK Presidential Library — is working on it. For now, Tom gives every item an arbitrary and unique ID number, the key piece of any metadata scheme. But the BPL is facing the inevitable conundrum: Maximize the metadata but slow the process, or gather less metadata but go at a far faster clip. The group seems to be leaning toward the latter, which makes sense to me. They’ve been using what Tom calls the “Curator Core,” a reference to the Dublin Core metadata standard for books. Trying to capture everything that might be useful is a task beyond daunting. For example, Michael Klein points to “fore-edge paintings,” paintings done on the edges of a book that are revealed when you fan the book slightly. Does the BPL have to come up with a standard that includes whether you fan the book to the left or right? There are so many different types of objects that building a standard or an ontology that captures them all would absorb all of the team’s time. (“The special case is not as special as you’d think,” says Michael.) Instead, they need to scan scan scan, and capture some reasonable set of metadata, to which more metadata can accrete.

OCA
One of the ten Open Content Alliance book scanners.

“We’re going from collect and hide to scan and release,” says Tom. And in so doing, the until-now unpublished holdings are going not just from no value to some value. The digital group is in fact radically multiplying the value of the Boston Public Library’s holdings. And as we the recipients of this gift incorporate the images, adding information to them, and contextualizing them, we are further enriching the holdings, far beyond what any small group, no matter how intrepid, could manage.
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May 30, 2008

Interview

Ulrike Reinhard, of WhoIsWho, video-interviewed me on our back porch last week. She asked me about the need for serendipity, what an “open” Internet means, the costs of social networks, the new sense of privacy, user-controlled identity systems, Web 3.0, market conversations, categorization and control, Twitter, Obama… (I did notice one huge misstatement. In it I say that the percentage of US households with broadband access is falling, which isn’t at all what I meant. Rather, our ranking in the list of nations is falling. Ack.)

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May 29, 2008

The Wikipedia style

Mark Bauerlein has a terrific piece in The Chronicle of Higher Ed that compares the flat style of Wikipedia to that of other encyclopedias. It suffers from taking a single example — the entry on Moby-Dick — but it rings true. At least for some of Wikipedia.

Mark is undoubtedly right that Wikipedia’s stylistic flatness is due in part to the fact that professional writers often write better than amateurs and crowds do. But, it also seems likely to result from Wikipedia’s commitment to neutrality. Perhaps in the process of constructing this article together, the color was driven out as non-neutral.

Of course, we can find out by checking the article’s history. But, there is a complicating factor: The section of the Wikipedia entry Mark cites is the first paragraph of the article. It attempts to characterize the novel as a whole, whereas the passages from the other encyclopedias seem to be introducing Ahab in particular. So, for an apples-to-apples comparison, here is the Ahab section in the current Wikipedia entry:

Ahab is the tyrannical captain of the Pequod who is driven by a monomaniacal desire to kill Moby-Dick, the whale that maimed him on his last whaling voyage. A Quaker, he seeks revenge in defiance of his religion’s well-known pacifism. Ahab’s name comes directly from the Bible (see 1 Kings 18-22).

Little information is provided about Ahab’s life prior to meeting Moby-Dick, although it is known that he was orphaned at a young age. When discussing the purpose of his quest with Starbuck it is revealed that he first began whaling at eighteen and has continued in the trade for forty years, having spent less than three on land. He also mentions his “girl-wife” whom he married late in life, and their young son, but does not give their names.

In Ishmael’s first encounter with Ahab’s name, he responds “When that wicked king was slain, the dogs, did they not lick his blood?” (Moby-Dick, Chapter 16).[10]

Ahab ultimately dooms the crew of the Pequod (excluding Ishmael) to death by his obsession with Moby-Dick. During the final chase, Ahab hurls his final harpoon while yelling his now-famous revenge line:

. . . to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.

The harpoon becomes lodged into Moby-Dick’s flesh and Ahab, caught in his own harpoon’s rope and unable to free himself, is dragged into the cold oblivion of the sea with the injured whale. The whale eventually destroys the longboats and crew, and sinks the Pequod.

Ahab has the qualities of a tragic hero — a great heart and a fatal flaw — and his deeply philosophical ruminations are expressed in language that is not only deliberately lofty and Shakespearian, but also so heavily iambic as often to read like the Bard’s own pentameters.

It’s not clear to me that this writing is substantially worse than the positive examples Mark quotes. It could stand some line editing, but it’s not particularly bland.

Nevertheless, Mark may well be right that overall, Wikipedia is written more flatly than commercial encyclopedias. That would not be a surprising effect of the quest for neutrality. For example, the Moby-Dick article started in September, 2001, with just a few lines. On July 14, 2004, the plot and symbolism sections were still entirely blank. By October 5, 2007, the following passage is in the symbolism section:

The Pequod’s quest to hunt down Moby-Dick itself is also widely viewed as allegorical. To Ahab, killing the whale becomes the ultimate goal in his life, and this observation can also be expanded allegorically so that the whale represents everyone’s goals. Furthermore, his vengeance against the whale is analogous to man’s struggle against fate. The only escape from Ahab’s vision is seen through the Pequod’s occasional encounters with other ships, called gams. Readers could consider what exactly Ahab will do if he, in fact, succeeds in his quest: having accomplished his ultimate goal, what else is there left for him to do? Similarly, Melville may be implying that people in general need something to reach for in life, or that such a goal can destroy one if allowed to overtake all other concerns. Some such things are hinted at early on in the book, when the main character, Ishmael, is sharing a cold bed with his newfound friend, Queequeg:

This writing is indeed pedestrian. For example, the hedge phrases, “widely viewed as” and “can also be expanded” vitiate it. To which I have three replies:

1. These flatfooted reminders that interpretations are not universally shared are in fact salubrious for readers and other students. 2. The article was revised hundreds of times after this. 3. Yes, Wikipedia’s style often isn’t as muscular or punchy as that of commercial encyclopedias aimed at family usage. Sometimes — perhaps even often, although with 2 million articles, it’s hard to be certain — its style could be improved. And should be. But there is also a useful and scholarly humility in a reference work that is written plainly. [Tags: ]

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Verizon’s crank

It turns out that if you’re a Verizon cell phone customer, you should dial *228 every month or so. It updates your software and the list of available towers (or something).

Given the totalitarian control Verizon and the other carriers exert over “your” cell phone, I don’t see why they can’t just do that automatically. Go figure.

Actually, figuring is probably just a waste of time.

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Unuttered famous quotations

Hmm. I went to confirm the source of the famous quotation “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,” and found at WikiQuote that although it’s commonly ascribed to Edmund Burke, he didn’t actually write it. In fact, as far as we (= Martin Porter 1 2) can tell, no one did.

Well, play it again, Sam!

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May 28, 2008

Blog baksheesh

The message I received from M80im, a PR social media company, ends by saying:

M80 encourages full transparency. We welcome you to let your readers know that M80 and Fox contacted you to offer information regarding The Onion Movie.

Excellent. I appreciate M80 making that clear and explicit.

The problem is, M80 and Fox didn’t offer just information. Yes, the message says that because I’ve written about The Onion, the agency wants to let me know what there’s an Onion movie coming out. I can have some artwork, etc. to post on my blog. But, then it continues:

Please email me back if you are interested in working with us in promoting The Onion Movie by posting information regarding the release date of the DVD. I can send you a copy of the DVD on the release date as appreciation for your post.

I recognize that the lines are smudgy. As my disclosure statement says, I sometimes get free copies of books — sometimes unbidden, and sometimes publishers offer to send them to me if I want — and sometimes I do blog about them. And I frequently get into conferences for free as some type of media person. But, the Onion offer feels too much to me like a straightforward pay-for-posting deal.

Does it to you? Tags:

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May 27, 2008

Moral games

Gene Koo sets up the problem: We are wired to react morally to the people we see, but we have trouble extending that to people at a distance. Yet, we have to broaden our moral embrace if we are to make it through another century. So, Gene wonders whether games might help:

Computer games offer at least two possible responses to our collective human predicament. First, they can open players’ eyes to the moral implications of systems by experimenting with them and witnessing the results. Games might offer moments of reflection and of epiphany, connecting personal morality with systemic awareness. A player might see how tweaking health care policies affects a family’s lives, or how environmental regulation could shape the destiny of a polar bear. Games might lead people to begin to see a soul within the machine.

And perhaps systems might begin to learn lessons from game design. Why must the computer systems that exercise more and more control over our daily lives be morally inert? If computer games — mere software — can lead players to weep, perhaps the mechanization of our world needn’t be soulless…

Gene’s not saying that games will save us. He’s suggesting that morally designed games might help.

So, before you point to all the games that seem to abrade our conscience — Grand Theft Auto, just about every first person shooter ever made, even PacMan if you look at it from the point of view of the dots — you might want to note that The Sims has sold 100 million copies.

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ROFLcon post-post-mortem

Christina Xu, one of the founders of ROFLcon, has posted her post-mortem of the event. In fact, she posted this to a mailing list we’re on. Here’s what I posted to that list in reply:

I was there. I thought it was, well, epic.

From the very first sentence of the conference — a call and response
from Leeroy — it was clear that the audience members knew the same
jokes and held the same values, and thus was something more than a
mere audience. The enthusiasm of the attendees was instant,
unbridled and sustained. Given that this was a celebration of a
culture constructed by its own audience, this was appropriate. It felt
more like a movement than a conference.

But, since I am just about three times older than the average
attendee, my reaction is tainted. Oh, sure, I enjoy a funny LOLcats
now and then, but Time magazine covered that meme a year ago. I had to
have a young friend explain the complex history of Anonymous, and the importance of
Leslie Hall only slowly sank in. As for Leeroy, well, I had to look
him up in Wikipedia to get the entire backstory. (This was far more a
WoW than Wikipedia crowd.) It was a revelation to me how far outside
the Net mainstream I’ve become.

So, it’s hard for me to judge how important ROFLcon was. It might have
been a watershed event in which the culture assembled itself into one
physical place long enough to sense its own heft. Woodstock, anyone?
Or it might have been
“merely” a place in which bonds formed and themes coalesced that will
affect the future. I do suspect that it was, in any event, more than
just a good time.

(I might add that, Christina’s modesty aside, the degree of looseness
the event achieved came as a result of especially meticulous,
transparent, organizing by Christina, Tim, and a large, loose cadre). [Tags: ]

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May 26, 2008

Buy It Like You Mean It

BuyItLikeYouMeanIt.org is having a luanch party on Tues., June 3. BILYMI lets people review products and companies, and then publishes a score based on which of the factors matter to you as an individual — how green, how well they treat their employees, etc. According to the press release:

Starting with the chocolate industry, students and volunteers are already reviewing harvesting, mining, manufacturing, packaging, and shipping practices. Shoppers will soon be able to access a single digit product score that summarizes all the information available about a product. This score will be based on a shopper’s unique “portfolio of interests” and will be accessible through: phones, text messages, supermarket shelf labels, and web browsers. Buy It Like You Mean It plans to have over 200 reviews and 1000 ratings by August.

I like the ability to decide for yourself which of the factors matters to you. Very miscellaneous!

The launch party is at 7pm, June 3, at the Taza Chocolate Factory at 561 Windsor Street in Somerville, MA.

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