Second Life OS

So the prof has us brainstorm in class about a "new and different" OS metaphor. I take the bait and throw out Second Life OS. Then he tells us we have to prototype it by Tuesday! Why oh why didn’t I stick with Google OS, which would just be a search box?

SecondLife OS

The fellow in the middle is Caspar David Friedrich, patron saint of POV. I have to say I do like the “reminder flies” buzzing around his head. I wanted to create a really annoying Twitter avatar but being short on time I used a flaming Adium bird instead. (Click through for more notes and larger images.)

Some features: Objects/files are placed in the virtual landscape, in clusters which may be the analogue of “folders”. Other users’ interactions with shared objects are visualized spatially, like the angel reading a PDF in the lower right. The level of animation detail for objects can range from traditional static icons through vanilla widgets (upper left) to biomorphic widgets like the reminder flies and full-blown avatarbots like the Adium bird.

P.S. I know that a Second Life OS is far too obvious to be an original idea. Not only is there plenty of prior art from the earliest days of VR, but it turns out that Scoble says Second Life already is an OS.

Reviving application-based research in computer science

Ed Vielmetti has blogged about his attempt to find good research papers in what he calls “experimental computer science” for a conference to be held in 2007:

Experimental computer science generates “artifacts”, things that you can use and touch and see and experience directly. The most famous example of the field would have to be Doug Englebart’s 1968 demo of his new mouse. Englebart had written some papers about the mouse for peer-reviewed journals, but that did not get his work wide attention. It was putting together a demo and a video that showed the system (not just the schematic) in action and demonstrating what it could do that made it real for people.

(There’s fascinating historic footage of Engelbart’s mouse demo at Stanford’s Mouse Site.)

Ed’s criticism of computer science research resonates with me. I got my undergraduate CS degree in 1984. Since then I increasingly have the sense that if I were to return to a CS graduate program, I’d spend my time doing proofs about algorithms. Personally I’d be more interested in doing research that involved building stuff. (Not building enough stuff is my chief criticism of the non-CS graduate program I did eventually enter, but that’s another story.)

What I want to know is, is there a better name for what Ed wants than “experimental computer science”? Are these “applied” papers, papers about “systems”, “how-we-done-it-good” papers, N-letter acronym or YABA papers? There must be a buzzword that the authors of “micropapers” use to disparage their dwindling competition.

After the publishers walk the plank, will the APA and MLA be far behind?

It’s the time of the semester when grad students get grumpy and it’s showing in our blogs. Elsewhere I’ve laughed a bitter laugh over Laura K and SCIgen. Meanwhile Badger wonders how much of herself she’d have to give up to make it in academia: would she have to mute her feminism and all the intense personal writing she does, not only in her blog but in the poetry zines and literary translations she’s been putting out for years just for the pleasure of it?

It looks to me like it will be a long while before blogging counts for anything at tenure time. However, I wonder whether the open access movement will bring that day closer, or at least reduce the distance between academic writing and blogging.

The stated goal of open access is to counter the greed of the scholarly publishing industry, which makes academic institutions buy their own work back at outrageously inflated prices, and to reduce the delays imposed by the editorial process, when nowadays innovation operates at Internet speeds. In some disciplines bottom-up e-print and e-journal systems are well on their way to displacing the for-profit journals, and in others they’re just getting started, but the trend is clear.

Once academic publishing is in the hands of the people doing the writing, will the reforms stop there? Will researchers accustomed to reading and writing research blogs in a more intimate tone, and where a hyperlink is of more immediate value than a formal bibliographic citation, not want to do the same when they write for peer review? Might people refuse to write in the stuffy and citation-heavy form of academic culture?

If that happened would we all get dumber (no more need to substantiate our assertions with references)? Or would we all get more creative (no more APA or MLA style, no more passive voice, no more stating the obvious and omitting the personal)? I’m not sure. But my guess is that pharmacologists and engineers would still find ways to substantiate their claims (which really live in the data, not the references, anyway — when was the last time a bridge collapsed because of a missing bibliography?) and people working in more free-form disciplines might appreciate the opportunity to be freer in form.

Prison, Queer Eye, Vygotsky and iSchool

My friend Mr. M, having walked out of an abusive situation as a newbie teacher in an inner-city middle school, is now teaching high school in a prison and blogging about it. I have to admire his bravery, both for taking the job and for letting the world know what it’s like. I only hope he doesn’t get dooced.

There are so many gems in his blog that I want to link to all of them. There’s his use of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as a teaching tool — in a prison! Truly the forces of homophobia are in retreat, despite what the red-staters say. There’s his link to an Onion article straight from his first job, “Teach For America Chews Up, Spits Out Another Ethnic Studies Major.” There’s his idea to produce videotaped read-alouds by people who look and sound like his students, rather than their white Middle-American teacher. (Any amateur video producers in the New York area want to help him with that? Or help him webcast the results?)

But what prompts me to post about him here, rather than in my other blog, is some of the things that he and his commenters have to say about teaching methods. One of them asserts that teaching should be boiled down to the Vygotskyan method:

1. I do, you watch.
2. I do, you help.
3. You do, I help.
4. You do, I watch.

There’s not really a lot of doing or watching in the program I’m in — with the exception of public speaking, which may be the most useful specific skill we will all share by the time we’re done. Is there a point at which learning by doing becoming less important than learning about doing? Or is that a classic fallacy of advanced education?

This relates to an interesting discussion of whether learning specific tools should be part of our curriculum (that link is the tip of an offline iceberg), but more on that another day.

DEVONthink / schoolthink

My hunt for a PDF-wrangling tool continues. DEVONthink is a personal knowledge management app for Mac OS X with which you can maintain a collection of text files, PDFs, HTML and XML files, bookmarks, images and so on. Its big claim to fame is associative searching: select a document and it will show you the others which are related to it. The details of the search mechanism are unexplained, but my guess is it’s a form of latent semantic indexing.

DEVONthink got a lot of attention recently when science writer Steven Johnson wrote an NYT piece about it and similar tools, crediting them with helping him come up with the ideas that go into his work. But in two subsequent blog posts he convinced me that his techniques are not generalizable. He had a research assistant to copy quotes and marginalia from his reading into DEVONthink, and he says directly that its success depended on the quality and granularity of what he saved: “most of the entries are in a sweet spot where length is concerned: between 50 and 500 words. If I had whole eBooks in there, instead of little clips of text, the tool would be useless”. Since I need a tool to manage larger, still undigested documents (i.e., PDFs I haven’t read yet), it wouldn’t work its magic for me. Furthermore, DEVONthink only supports a single hierarchical organizational structure without tags or bibliographic metadata. So I’m still looking for a personal library application.

There — I wrote in two paragraphs what it took me eight pages to do for a class assignment this week. I’m having fun at school, but there’s something about the artificial nature of school assignments which makes me feel I’m doing far from my best work. The two contexts I’m used to working in, on the job and in casual (though not necessarily frivolous) online writing, feel very different. They encourage getting to the point, pruning the decision tree, and writing in a tone suited to the job at hand rather than the stilted mock-scholarly voice that intrudes in my head when I’m writing a “paper”. One of my challenges will be to get my own voice back and to get control over the subject matter — if something’s not worth my or the reader’s time, why put either of us through it?

And in case you missed it, I am enjoying school. Class is still a pleasure, and even the occasionaly painful assignments (and the train wreck of a schedule by which they pile up in clusters on my calendar!) give me a sense of having survived an ordeal once they’re over. The bit of dissatisfaction that’s creeping into this experiment has to do with the concern that I may, as Twain put it, let my schooling interfere with my education.

Going meta on metadata

In this week’s Organizing and Access to Information class I fear I steered the conversation into a detour on the subject of metadata. The prof’s introduction to the concept began straightforwardly enough — metadata is data about data, e.g. author, title, publication date, etc. But then as his examples got more complex he began to call things metadata that I would have considered part of the data itself. I don’t have his slides in front of me but I think it started when he put chapter 1, page 1 of Pride and Prejudice on the screen and said that its structure — chapters, paragraphs, etc. — was also metadata. That surprised me, and we spent probably far too much class time working on why. (I feel guilty but not too guilty — I kept offering to drop it, but other people had questions and comments, too.)

It boiled down to this: in my naive interpretation, metadata is information that applies to the “information object” as a whole, or is extrinsic to it in some way. I’d call anything integrated with the meat of the object “data”, not “metadata”. That includes structure and layout information — the information represented in typography and layout on a printed page, or in ordinary inline markup on the web, etc. Of course we can abstract structure away from presentation but that doesn’t mean that the structure is no longer part of the work. Where Jane Austen chose to put her paragraph breaks is as much a part of the novel as the words she chose to put inside them. There were some interesting examples presented in class, such as whether the abbreviation and typography conventions used to identify the parts of speech in a dictionary are metadata. I argued that whether represented through an italic n. or an XML <part-of-speech> entity, the part of speech is an integral part of the content. Or in multimedia terms, the string of bits representing an audio or video stream is the data and it doesn’t make sense to speak of the volume level or amount of cowbell as being a separate thing called metadata.

The prof worked hard to explain his model and I was probably just being thickheaded not to get it. On reflection I see that the concepts of “data” and “metadata” are conventions and where to draw the line is a matter of utility; if it is helpful in a certain setting to call internal markup (or its pre-digital equivalents of layout and typography) “metadata” then so be it. Also, there are many times when it’s good for information to live in both places: you can hear the cowbell in the audio stream, and you may also want an access point in the catalog of your music library which says “Cowbell: track 6890691, timepoint 1:37″.

But I don’t think I’m alone in my naive model. The very next day’s reading assignment was chapter 3 of Erik Ray’s Learning XML, where he defines the term: “Metadata is information about the document that is not part of the flow.” What I’m wondering now is whether these diverging definitions have any consequences beyond occasional confusion.

Personal KM: How do you store journal articles?

[Repurposed from a class blog. Sorry if you see this twice.]

I’m now squirreling away the PDFs of papers that I download for iSchool and once I got into the low double digits I realized that I really need a system. I haven’t found a good one yet. Anybody else?

For starters I’m trying to rename them to something logical (Norman-1993-ThingsThatMakeUsSmart.pdf, Markman-2001-Thinking.pdf).

But beyond that I need to keep them organized (1) in an inbox of assignments to be read and (2) with the courses for which they were assigned. I could also use a way to group them (3) by papers I’m writing. I’ve been bitten by the recent fad for (4) tags, so that would be nice. Since book chapters are often scanned without a title page an ideal system would (5) attach them to whatever I’ve got that resembles a standard bibliographic citation. And (6) any system I come up with should scale up and be portable for longer-term use when the semester or indeed iSchool are things of the past.

I could probably do all of the above except for (5) with aliases: put everything in a single folder and drag aliases into separate folders for each course, paper I’m writing, and topical tag. But that sounds pretty klunky, in part because keeping a lot of Finder windows open is problematic on a 12″ laptop.

So what are other people using?

iSchool day 5, Lackboard and panic at OCLC

Today is my fifth class day at the iSchool. After some rethinking of my class schedule I’ve managed to put together a stimulating and (eek!) challenging set of classes. The hardest part, I think, is going to be time management. As a half-time single parent, the time I have for studying comes in big uneven chunks not of my own choosing. On occasion I’m going to have to get a paper completed a week ahead in order to have a prayer of finishing it at all.

The biggest aggravation to date, upon which the gods of irony are no doubt smiling their wicked grins, has been the “e-learning” part of the work. It takes seven steps to burrow one’s way into the Blackboard discussion session which is required for one of my classes, with of course no e-mail or RSS export to keep tabs on what’s been going on. The electronic reserves and e-journal subscriptions are full of usability booby traps and browser issues. It’s all an excellent object lesson in how we need to improve things for our users, although my TAs swear that’s not intentional.

One of the online readings has been an interesting, if uneven, survey of the state of libraries from 2003: 2003 OCLC Environmental Scan: Pattern Recognition. I don’t know what “environmental scan” or “pattern recognition” are supposed to mean but what the heck. The report is full of statistics divorced from context, a few charts that would make Edward Tufte scream in pain, and the shifts in style that plague anything written by committee, but it makes some points worth reading. What’s interesting is the air of panic that seems to have replaced the techno-utopianism of a few years ago. There seems to be a lot of angst around the fact that people use Google more often than they use libraries (which I don’t think should in itself be alarming unless you believe it’s a zero-sum game) or that young people today do a lot of IMing and gaming. There’s a quaint sidebar about gen-X librarians vs. boomer librarians which implies that they may find common ground in their equal fogeyhood in the eyes of those scary young people.

The piece writhes with envy over the successes of and Barnes & Noble and implies that libraries should do more to emulate them, while notably leaving out the anxiety I hear from other quarters that people are buying more books now but reading them less. I don’t know that the latter claim is true, but if so it suggests that maybe libraries should claim a territory distinct from that of the big retailers.

I’d like to know more about the politics behind the sections on the “open access” movement (mostly academics who want to cut the middleman out of scholarly publishing) and on digital rights management. Last I heard OCLC wasn’t exactly in the business of free information, even if its member institutions are, so I have to wonder about a conflict of interest. There’s some talk about how DRM is extremely difficult but an inevitable development in order to make e-publishing work; the preservation section later in the report says only that DRM is “complex” and in “tension” with the open access community and stops short of saying what it really means for preservation, namely total annihilation. I’m convinced that ubiquitous DRM would in time be worse for preserving our intellectual and cultural heritage than if someone were running around burning down libraries.

Finally, for all of its obsession about Google the report couldn’t of course anticipate the news from the end of 2004 that Google is about to start scanning entire libraries and making their contents available online, beginning with those of Stanford and Michigan. Seems to me that will make bigger changes in the “environment” than everything Google has done to date.

iSchool day 1

Lou Rosenfeld has been begging me to use this blog for an exposé of the seamy underbelly of iSchool, so here you go, Lou, this is for you:

seamy underbelly of iSchool

I don’t know what this piece of equipment does but it’s about ten feet tall and was humming busily to itself under the iSchool offices when I walked by this afternoon. Is that seamy enough for you?

Day 1 of my return to student life was fun, if you can believe that. It was nice to go to a physical place to meet face to face with other people engaged in intellectual activity, something I haven’t had enough of in recent years. The faculty seemed to be enjoying themselves and welcomed participation from the class, although that was something of a challenge in one overcrowded section, and none of the students fell asleep or did any detectable IMing. Both faculty and students seemed a lot more clueful about technology than during my brief experience in the program ten years ago (which I guess is no surprise — perhaps there’s a School of Luddite Studies somewhere for which that’s not a true statement). If they were any more up to date they’d be in danger of accusations of trendiness; one course will be using a collective blog, the other a wiki, and one prof even used the bookstore that recently arranged its stock by color to illustrate a point. No explicit mention of or Flickr yet but I think they’re coming.

My schedule may be ambitious: a one-hour pass/fail general intro class, an intro to organization of information, and courses on knowledge management, information retrieval and DBMSs. No GIS course, a subject where I’d hoped to assemble a minor concentration to complement the information studies program, but that may be hard as other departments’ schedules for GIS courses conflict with the iSchool’s. And by starting out with three electives I may be in danger of a crunch when I try to squeeze in all my required courses later.

I wish I weren’t getting so many concerned looks when I tell people about my total of 13 hours, but since 9 hours is considered a normal load it doesn’t seem that far out of line to me. I admit to feeling a bit daunted by the growing reading list. I’m also uncertain about the many group projects are supposed to work, especially group presentations; will they be more like a barbershop quartet or an improv comedy troupe? But it’s good that I’ll be somewhat outside my comfort zone.

Speaking of comfort, on Tuesdays I’ve got six hours straight with no lunch break. If anyone can recommend a good brand of energy bar, preferably without a crinkly wrapper, let me know.

Back to school

As I’ve alluded elsewhere, I have left my job of 13 years as Rice webmaster and will be going back to school as a full-time student at UT’s School of Information.

The iSchool as it’s affectionately called (does it come with white earbuds?) is an outgrowth of the library school. I was briefly in the program ten years ago, but when Malini came along I decided I couldn’t handle fatherhood + job + school and dropped out. My interest in seeing how library science could be applied to this new interweb thingie was probably pushing the envelope of what they had to offer anyway.

The iSchool has come a long way since then. They’ve hired new faculty and added an Information Architecture track, the one I’ll be in. I’m hoping to squeeze a two-year master’s into a year and a half. Several people have asked whether I wouldn’t want to go for the PhD; if I enjoy myself that might be tempting, but at my age and with family responsibilities I doubt that it will be realistic unless I find some unusually generous support.

People keep asking what I’ll be studying and what I plan to do with it. The short answer to the first question (as I understand it at this time) is techniques for helping people organize and find information, especially as applied to information technologies like the web. When people’s eyes glaze over I say, well, you could think of it as high-level web design with a lot of library science concepts thrown in. I’m not happy with that answer, even though more people seem to understand it, because it sells the field short and sounds like something you could do by reading a For Dummies book. I guess I need to find a few examples to wow ‘em with. As for the second question, I’m purposely not answering that one yet. I’m going back to school to open doors, not to close them.

I’ve had a couple of experiences to make me feel like a student already. I got advised, and while my advisor is very encouraging and supportive, there’s something inherently humbling about the faculty-student relationship that will take some getting used to after all these years away from it. In my work and out here in the blogarium I’m used to floating a vague idea and having people say “cool” or “that might not work because” or “take a look at so-and-so who’s doing something similar”. When I did the same to my advisor his response was, “well, there’s thirty years of research on that”. Gulp.

I’m a bit concerned about my schedule. Of the thirteen hours I plan to take, I can only find open sections for seven; despite my having several alternates everything else is waitlisted. And new students are last in line. I’m counting on some seats to open up. Also, I’m thinking of trying out a sideline in geographic information systems in another department, but the most likely intro GIS class in Geography conflicts with my core iSchool classes. That probably means putting it off for a semester and reducing what I might do in GIS by a third right off the bat.

Orientation is on the 12th and classes start on the 18th. I’m itchy to get started.