Monday, June 30, 2008

In search of WiFi Down Under

Greetings from Sydney! So far I'm doing pretty well in balancing my MLIS coursework with tourism; in the last 24 hours I've managed to finish writing a paper, film a Jing demonstration, see the Sydney Opera House and harbor, go to an art museum full of great art and botanical gardens full of enormous bats, and listen to a downloaded podcast. Not bad! Given my circumstances, I'm tempted to make this more of a travelogue than a technologue, but given the difficulty in finding any free WiFi in this city (currently paying $8/hour, and my hour is almost up), I'll have to curtail this whole blog entry for now.

Soon we'll be driving southward; perhaps I'll check in again from Woolongong!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Jing demonstration

Thanks to the horrendously expensive broadband at the Hotel Ibis in downtown Sydney, I'm able to upload this demonstration of installing a extension for Firefox. Sure, it's already Monday in Australia, but back home I believe there are still a few minutes before the assignment deadline!

...I tried to embed the video, but after I waited 30 minutes for the upload, it gave me an error message... so here's a link.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Organizing metadata at Gate 22A

My poor neglected blog. I've been traveling recently -- and wondering why I ever thought I could feasibly combine travel and grad school classes -- and at the moment I'm sitting on a hard floor near the only functioning electrical outlet at Gate 22A of the LAX international terminal. I've spent the last hour completing two (2) of my required 25 deposits and citations for ePrints, and (increasingly frantically) wondering if I'm missing a crucial step that would make this assignment quicker and easier.

Up until now I've found this course challenging, but doable; now a host of factors are combining to make me panic!! (OK, breathe, Elizabeth, breeeaaaathhhhe....) I feel awash in a citational sea, uncertain whether I'm doing anything correctly, confused by the onscreen options, and overwhelmed even by the number of discussion board posts that I've yet to read. But maybe that should be my next course of action, if only for the solidarity of seeing that others in the cohort have been through similar uncertainties.

OK, I'm fine, and I know I'll be even better once I've made it through this upcoming 14-hour flight to Australia. Not really relishing the prospect of sitting in my hotel room racing against the clock to tag social networking sites when I could be out petting koalas 'n' stuff, but hey, I chose to jam-pack my summer this way; I can't complain! Sorry for the rambling; I'll post again from Sydney!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dissociative reading hour

I just returned from a four-day music festival in the woods, an interesting blend of rugged wilderness living and ultra-high-tech music, lights, and art. The only reading materials that I brought were the books for my MLIS classes, in an attempt to keep myself on track, but the result was that I found myself sitting in the forest by the riverside, no computer in sight, reading "Google Apps Hacks." While this was an absolutely stunning place to read, it was also, if I may say so, an utterly terrible place to try to read a computer how-to book. What was I thinking?? I was left only with the vague sense that I might someday be able to make some cool spreadsheets and presentations, which mingled with the more concrete sense that I'd just like to go swimming.

In any case, my folly resulted in an interesting conversation when a Swarthmore professor from a neighboring tent noted my reading material and came by to talk with me about computer technology, grad school, software, social constructs of "geekiness," and other such topics. He recommended the book "Beautiful Code," which I'll have to look into when I have a free moment.

Free moment? Ha. Ha. Tomorrow morning I'm flying to Los Angeles, and a couple of days later to Australia -- a trip planned long before I'd seen my summer semester schedule -- but I'll do my best to keep on top of the coursework. My poor blog... I keep meaning to give it more thorough treatment! Ah, well. I'll be listening to some LIS2600 podcasts en route to L.A....

Friday, June 20, 2008

Technological evolution?

I’m learning a lot in this course. Being forced to figure out computer programs and reference systems on my own helps to hard-wire the processes in my brain; surely some of these research skills will be valuable to my future academic and library career.

I just thought I’d start by saying that, since the mandate for this blog is to write about my “technological evolution.” I recently got to thinking about the juxtaposition of these two concepts, technology and evolution. What could it mean, 1), that technology is said to “evolve,” or 2), even if this is clear, that a student is to undergo a “technological evolution” as part of her instruction? In ancient Greek, “techne” meant something like an “art” or “craft,” while “logos” was the word, and came to mean a systematic study. However, the word “technology” wasn’t coined until the late 19th century. Does that mean that what we call “technology” itself didn’t exist until then, or was technological evolution occurring all along? If the latter is the case, what sorts of processes could be occurring right now that we don’t yet have words for?

Meanwhile, the phrase “evolution” glosses over what may actually be happening: there’s no clear analogy between “evolution” proper and anything that happens in technology, since the former points to a natural process whose goal is simply survival and reproduction, while the latter has no such analogy. Or does it? Can machines be seen to exist for their own ends? I’ve already mentioned in an earlier post the way it feels that machines are reshaping our brains. Might we see this as simply an extension of biological evolution? Are humans and machines involved in a sort of co-evolution, or is this something else entirely?

I’ll continue to think about such questions as I “evolve” over the course of this class.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The lifespans of irreplaceable words

Reading Nicholson Baker's Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper for my other MLIS class this semester has been interesting and somewhat heartbreaking; Baker vividly conveys the irreversible loss of historical newspapers and periodicals and the unreliability of microfilm as a backup storage medium. His descriptions of microfilm as an oversold "solution" that risks illegibility, shrinkage, buckling, bubbling, and sticking -- as well as his accurate portrayal of the dizzying text-glide that reading microfilm entails -- make it especially tragic that so many original materials have been destroyed after microfilming. Yet our textbook for this course, Discovering Computers 2009, described microfilm as "inexpensive and [having] the longest life of any storage media," with a "potential life expectancy" of 500 years. (p. 379) How could anyone know that, when the technology hasn't been around nearly that long?

Of course, if you look at the asterisk in the book's Media Life Expectancies table, you see the qualifier "*according to manufacturers of the media". Of course they would make inflated assertions, but Baker's findings prove otherwise. I'm all in support of high-quality digitization of information, but not at the expense of original copies! Have librarians been sold a bill of goods? It seems there should always be space enough somewhere to store original copies, even if not always on handily accessible library shelves. I'm now wondering what other technologies highlighted in our computer textbook could be seducing archivists away from sounder storage methods, or otherwise affecting the longevity or quality of stored information.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Greetings from a low-tech lair

I'm only able to write for a moment tonight. I'm staying at my parents' house, where internet access is dial-up only. So retro! On the radio this evening I heard Obama vow to make broadband accessible to all, an initiative that may help to bridge the digital divide, but still might not do much to propel technology-resistant members of my parents' generation any further into the information age. Of course, there's the question of why they need to go any further, when they're already able to do email and they profess to have no interest in YouTube or online radio. I don't presume to assert what anyone else needs; I just know my daily existence would suffer without DSL! Does that make me the dependent one?

While here in D.C. I've visited the Library of Congress (an aspirant librarian's Mecca!) and the Newseum (image inundation & sound-byte surfeit). I loved the LoC's exhibits; they always feature such thought-provoking documents and artifacts. And my favorite part of the Newseum was the collection of historic newspapers, the raw material of eventual "history." I wish I had more time tonight to reflect on these visits... maybe in a future post. For now, it's time to climb into my childhood bed and dream sweet dreams of all-digital fiber optic blazing-fast internet service!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Open source *this*!

Reading recently about both open source computing and copyright laws got me thinking about the music industry, and companies' purported rights to songs and samples, and how we might measure what's lost or gained for whom when copyright laws put limits on creativity, speech, and commerce. It seems evident to me that the only ones who benefit from tight copyright laws (and even that "benefit" is dubious) are music companies: not the artists, not music purchasers, and certainly not the general public.

I'll take the example of The Grey Album, Danger Mouse's unauthorized mash-up of Beatles songs and Jay-Z lyrics. I'm using this example because I'm an enormous fan of the Beatles' original studio recordings, and I generally don't even have much use for covers of the songs. (I'll make exceptions for, say, The Wailing Souls' amped-up reggae interpretation of "Tomorrow Never Knows" -- they infuse it really well with their own energy; check it out! -- but listening, say, to William Shatner's berserk rendition of "Lucy in the Sky" makes my ears cry.) Anyway, my point is, I have an immense respect for the beauty and purity of the original album versions of the Beatles' songs, so I can even catch a glimmer of EMI's ostensible reasoning when they absolutely prohibit any other artist from licensing a Beatles sample. Of course, their motives are unlikely to be so aesthetic; more likely they want to keep public focus on the studio stars themselves, rather than some underground mixmasters who don't "deserve" to earn money from the guitar strummings of others, funneling it from the original artists. Seems fair enough, on the face of it.

But the example of The Grey Album shows just how inapplicable such justifications for overweening copyright laws are. First of all, in this particular case, Danger Mouse made his album freely available online, so he can't be accused of profiteering. Secondly, I submit that there's scarcely a Beatles fan alive who would merely download heavily remixed versions of their songs instead of buying The White Album, but who would have bought The White Album if only those Danger Mouse MP3s weren't available. That just makes no sense, and it shows how flimsy the financial argument is in this case. As a matter of fact, a freely available version of The Grey Album could potentially serve as excellent free advertising of Beatles songs to the Jay-Z fans who might not already own a Beatles album. Why does EMI want to limit the scope of its own product?

Perhaps they would indeed say it's about musical integrity; they wouldn't want great classic songs to be associated with sub-par or amateurish overlays. That possibility bugs me too, as I hinted above, but I trust that the classics will stand on their own, no matter who does what to certain versions of them. And why should we be prohibited from hearing the vast array of new interpretations that are possible? Listening to parts of The Grey Album for the first time this evening on YouTube I was struck by the way Danger Mouse drew out the most sinuous mini-riffs of "Long, Long, Long" and looped them into their own groovily flowing backdrop; I felt delighted to hear new possibilities within such familiar samples. Then I felt anger: why doesn't EMI want me to hear that? How could it possibly affect them one way or another if I want to listen to the fruits of various artists' combined imaginations?

Of course there's a parallel to open source computing, and the ways free access to code can open up endless possibilities in computing. I love the whole concept of boundless information sharing and its implicit possibilities; I suppose that's one of the reasons I'm becoming a librarian!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

I have become cyborg.

It's a strange feeling to have spent so much time indoors tapping into cyberspace on so many consecutive sunny summer days. Between my two distance-learning MLIS classes and my online editing job, it feels like I'm constantly typing, clicking, scanning, and linking. Even on the last couple of days when I've sat outside to read, my reading material has been Discovering Computers, which makes me feel like I'm online.

I do believe that all this connectivity is affecting the way I think, as well. The more technology evolves, the more it infiltrates our own malleable brains. It's part enhancement, part infestation, part mystery. I read a really interesting article about this phenomenon today:

What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

I can feel the phenomena discussed in the article: I sometimes rely on silicon memory as much as my own; often my concentration doesn't feel as intense as it once might have been; multitasking is a way of life. In casual conversation, when near my laptop, I'm wont to say things like, "That reminds me of... wait, who was the 'reciprocal altruism' guy? ... [Quickly googling "reciprocal altruism" author] ... right, Robert Trivers!" And although I'm glad for the memory boost, I'm unlikely to read a whole article that turns up. But I truly appreciate that I have the option to read not just one but 137,000 pages that pop up instantly!

I'll end this post by embedding my favorite music video, which has everything to do with the way information and technology are saturating our lives today.

(Royksopp: Remind Me)

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Think like a machine

I finally succeeded in importing my reference links from Connotea, Zotero, and into RefWorks, thanks to some helpful tips from classmates and blind exploration. Each of the programs was easy enough to use on its own, but synthesizing different programs created all sorts of little challenges. And I'm still baffled over why the programmers couldn't make certain tasks a bit easier: just for example, why doesn't allow me to create folders? Isn't that a pretty basic element of data organization? (Or did I fail to find the way to do so?)

I've been reminded today of a mantra that my tech-savvy husband has oft repeated when working with computers: "Think like a machine." For instance, when for some odd mechanical reason my RSS feed would only import my 30 most recent items, I found that the best course of action was to find a way to group the remaining items in a separate locale and do a new RSS feed, accommodating its inexplicable quirk. Since, as I pointed out above, didn't let me organize references into folders, I had to find a way to group the remaining items: I tagged each remaining item with a single word ("text"), then bundled every reference with the "text" tag into a new bundle called "Text," and did an RSS feed for the Text bundle. Naturally, if I were working with a human being, a few friendly words could have clarified my intentions in far less time than the bundle project, but I admit that I actually enjoy solving machine-puzzles in creative ways like that. What a feeling of accomplishment to have found a path through the cryptic channels of techno-obscurity!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Information overload!

I've done virtually nothing all day but tag items for our bookmarking/metadata assignment. It's been interesting to skim so many different articles about libraries and digital culture, but tagging them feels a bit arbitrary; it's making me aware that even the same librarian might not tag items uniformly. And even small differences in tagging might limit a search. For example, a savvy researcher would do well to look up both the tags "digital libraries" and "digital library," or perhaps use the search term " 'digital libraries' OR 'digital library'." Of course, I realize that smart search engines (like Google) can adjust for these small discrepancies, but could a search engine also retrieve the tag "classification of information" if you only look up "data categorization"?

During this assignment I've been having unfortunate flashbacks to a week-long job I took in college (a single week was more than enough) as a data enterer. Nothing could be more boring than simple data entry -- insert disk; enter predesignated keypad code; eject disk -- it was like factory work. At least in this case I've been dealing with engaging content, searching according to my own interests, and making informed decisions about labeling and organization. Still, I admit that this assignment has given me stabs of anxiety: are certain types of library work uncomfortably close to data entry?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Open Access and Data Mining

I only recently watched all of the online videos that have been assigned for this course, and I found them very interesting. For example, the video titled Second-Generation Open Access: Building an Open Content really opened my eyes to the necessity of widespread information sharing for making progress in the health field. John Wilbanks did a great job of conveying the importance of a Science Commons in order to manage the flood of scientific information and make it accessible, as well as all the factors that stand in the way of this ideal. It’s a little ironic that economic interests are one of the factors hindering open access, while in the meantime countless redundant studies (that open access could have prevented) create so much financial waste, themselves.

I’m also interested in what Wilbanks said about data mining, such as the current use of (an admittedly flawed) semantic web language to allow fact-extraction through analysis of nouns and verbs within texts. I’m not surprised that the system is, in his words, “inaccurate and lousy,” since it’s always been so very difficult to get machines to understand human language. My husband is a professor of the philosophy of science and the philosophy of language, so he has a great deal to say about the implications of the shortcomings of artificial intelligence and the elusiveness of meaning. Perhaps I’ll link to one of his published articles in my RefWorks account.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Oh no, does PC stand for "poor choice"?

The past week’s course readings seem designed to instill in me an acute feeling of Macintosh envy – something to which I’ve been prone for years, in fact, without ever making the leap to change my PC ways. I’ve heard from many people (and the readings confirm) that Macs are much better for graphic design (in which I had an interest some years ago; I worked a post-college summer internship as a graphic designer) and for electronic music composition, sound design, and sequencing, in which I’m currently developing an interest. Our recent readings showed me some of the reasons Mac software is so diverse and interoperable: for example, with various programmers able to do so many different things with assorted programs and put them on an integrated platform for the user’s simplicity, it’s no surprise that a range of creative applications are possible.

The readings on LINUX I’m finding it harder to get into, because I’ve not yet used this system. I’ve glanced at the technical terminology and such, but I still don’t have a firm idea of how it works; I’ll have to do more investigating.

Finally, I’ve also been reading more in DC2009, and learning many technical details to flesh out my computer literacy. Also interesting are some of the sidebars, especially ones that predict future technology, such as body-heat powered notebook computers: very Matrix!