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VWBPE’s Steampunk Social

Last night I attended a networking and fundraising event for the upcoming Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference. The theme was steampunk and the music tended toward the blues.

VWBPE Steampunk Social

A friend asked why I volunteer with VWBPE (or attend, when I can’t help out). I’m not an educator; sessions on techniques for increasing classroom engagement with virtual elements or public health simulations don’t apply to me at all. What’s in it for me?

VWBPE is a group that sees potential in the virtual. The people I’ve met there aren’t always the most tech savvy, adept with Blender, or conscious of varied SL communities, but they are passionate subject matter experts who want to innovate and improve. They’re a diverse bunch. Going to the conferences, I see people observing something and saying, “I think I can make that better. Let me roll up my sleeves and give it a try. Look at the cool ways we can approach the problem!” Those are the kind of people whose company I appreciate.

Last night I danced, I donated, and I chatted. Afterward, I took a break in the library below the event. I’d had fun customizing my avatar with a mix of things from my inventory and new purchases. I even added a new prosthetic leg to my collection — a copper model instead of the high tech version I often wear. Azoury makes such beautiful things.

Resting in the library
That’s part of what I love about SL. In the physical world, my titanium parts are under skin and I can often hide my pain. In SL, I can work an expression of the way I feel into my outward appearance, with lovely aesthetics (and wearing heels I’ve never been able to manage). Sometimes it feels confrontational in a way that would be uncomfortable to me in RL, and I enjoy experiencing that change of mood.

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Posted by on February 22, 2019 in Culture, Embodied Experience, virtual worlds

 

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An hour in Sansar

When I read about a historic roleplaying sim moving from Second Life to Sansar, my reaction was surprise that it was still a thing. I know, I know; while I was away from SL, I didn’t frequent the virtual world blogs either. I had an hour and a decent desktop computer, so I took a Sansar trip.

The software installed while I picked up some free clothing in the store and read help articles to learn basic functionality. A little customization and voila: Sansar me. My avatar won’t win any beauty contests and I was surprisingly annoyed that I couldn’t change eye color — live 40+ years with an unusual eye color in RL and it starts to become part of your identity — but I love what can be done with Marvelous Designer clothing.

avatar

I visited Sky Naturae Virtualis by Alex and the Lost Art of Star Wars by Hollywood Art Museum, but it was No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man by Smithsonian American Art that made me start to feel impressed. Sure, my avatar was clumping awkwardly through the rooms, but the displays were gorgeous. I’m a virtual art aficionado and the detail, lighting, moving elements, and sound integration had me gobsmacked. The camera controls or lack thereof were frustrating; I’m not sure if that was my newness or limitations in the Windows version of the app.

artofburningman

burningman2

burningman4

There were a few people here and there, but I didn’t stop to chat. I still had a little time and decided to see what creating an experience of my own would be like. The easiest way seems to be to choose a starting layout and then play with the tools. I… well, I learned how to throw things.

thrown

They’re planning to put Sansar on Steam by the end of the year, and I can see going back as a virtual tourist again. I think it was a little easier to get started in Sansar than SL, though I had to restart on my first try. It was very pretty. Does that sound like faint praise? I suppose it is. With all that Linden Lab should have learned in the past 15 years, I thought that at this point in Project Sansar, the effort would either be dead or far further along.

 
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Posted by on November 29, 2018 in Art in SL, Culture

 

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Multilayered communications in an MMORPG

When I was in my mid-20s, if I wanted to talk with another person while we were gaming together, we needed to be in the same room. Fast forward a couple decades and I find myself in an MMORPG, communicating with dozens of other players over numerous simultaneous text channels and on voice in TeamSpeak. At the same time, I can talk to my husband across the room and to friends in Skype and Facebook Messenger. Heaven help me if my phone rings!

This got me thinking about how people use those available communication layers and I started paying more attention while playing ArcheAge. What options are available and frequently used? How do players decide which channel to use for which message? Are there norms that have arisen and if so, what happens when someone transgresses them? Gratuitous sea battle photo below, simply because sea battles in AA can be crazy fun.

ScreenShot0025

Since ArcheAge is the example I’m working with, these are the primary ways I’ve observed people communicating:

  • In-game multiplayer text chat channels – A player can choose to watch all of these simultaneously, in which case the channel messages are interspersed and in different colors, or organize channels with tabs. The channels that can be seen in ArcheAge are:
    • Local – close communication only
    • Shout – wider range, but still in the vicinity
    • Trade – intended for commerce, want to buy/want to sell
    • Party – limited to up to 5 people in the same party (will also work for raid members)
    • Raid – limited to 50 people in the same raid
    • Guild – limited to members of registered guild, up to 100 people
    • Family – limited to 8 affiliated members
    • Trial – chat limited to the Defendant, Jury, and Judgebot, but broadcast to entire Faction
    • Faction – there are 2 Faction channels and which one you can see/chat in depends on your avatar’s race. One is open to all of the East (Harani and Firran races) and the other is open to all of the West (Nuian and Elf races). I should add that East and West speak different languages, but it is possible to gain skills to read/write the other Faction’s language.
    • Nation – there are 3 Nation chat channels that are exclusive of each other, like Faction chat: East, West, and Pirate.
  • In-game private chat – though it has been requested many times, it’s not yet possible to set up a custom channel for any group of invited members, so conversations are limited to the privacy afforded by the groupings above, or
    • Whisper – one on one communication
  • Voice chat – there is no voice option in the game, but voice communication is still important
    • TeamSpeak – people host TS servers for their guild, public use, raids, or just to talk with friends. A TS server can have multiple chat rooms, keeping some rooms private and others open to anyone with the login info.
    • Skype – best for one-on-one or small group, some players use Skype with friends while playing
    • In the same room – some players I know are cohabitating (as a couple or roommates) or get together with nearby friends to play
  • Broadcast – nowadays in a virtual space, someone could be recording or live broadcasting at any time
    • Twitch – some players live stream their gaming sessions
    • YouTube – quite a few players share videos of gameplay, informative videos (walkthrough, how-to), or AA machinima
    • Screenshot saved and shared in any of the places below
  • Game forums – not immediate communication, but regularly used
    • Official ArcheAge forums
    • ArcheAge subreddit
  • Guild websites/blogs/social media
  • Player websites/blogs/social media

Needless to say, if you want to get a message across to other ArcheAge players, you have plenty of ways to do it. I’m sure I’ve missed some. So, what sort of messages are being conveyed?

  • Current events – arranging groups for raids and dungeons, sharing news about enemy movements, asking for help
  • Trash talking and dramatics – taunting, whining, stirring things up, gossiping, raging, threats, etc.
  • Coordination – essential communication when working together
  • Commerce – buying and selling
  • Information – discussing new elements in the game, providing details about gear/dungeons/quests
  • Companionship – chatting among friends/acquaintances/romantic partners, or just goofing around with strangers

I generally keep all possible channels enabled when I’m playing, though my attention isn’t always fixed on chat. I also have a few chat tabs with filters applied so that I can focus on, say, guild chat and whispers or raid and guild chat. I almost never join in, but I observe the public drama when I’m online (and honestly, at least one of my guild mates is usually in the thick of it). I also sign onto my guild’s TeamSpeak sometimes, to hang out and hear if anything interesting is happening or for coordination during guild activities.

ScreenShot0071

Considering just the two dimensions of conversation medium and content creates a vast matrix of possibilities. The complexity increases when we consider that one conversation might have simultaneous overlapping threads. For example, it’s not uncommon for someone in another guild to talk trash about my guild’s leader. This usually takes place in Faction chat, where everyone on our half (more or less) of the player base can see it. That may trigger simultaneous discussions in our private guild chat channel and on TeamSpeak, of the “hey, did you see that?” and “who the hell is that guy?” variety. My guild leader lacks restraint sometimes and may reply in Faction chat, which shakes the hornet nest. People begin sending private Whispers back and forth.  I have to assume that side conversations about the trolling are also occurring in other private and guild channels. Guild mates and allies jump into the fray, which might get shifted to the Nation channel to avoid pirates. Last week, one exchange like this moved to the Trade channel. People may start broadcasting on Twitch or recording video or taking snapshots to share later.  So, instead of a conversation having one set of participants and being limited in time and location, it can branch into multiple lanes that have exclusive or overlapping participants, and through sharing can be continued in another venue — YouTube or forums — with a new group of players. On our half of this particular server, those conversations are usually in English with some Spanish, though the participants are from (at least) four continents.

Generalizing about how players decide which channel to use is out of my depth, but I’ve observed a few specific instances. A player may choose to listen in TeamSpeak but not activate a microphone, which means that in order to add to the audible conversation, he has to type in the Raid or Guild channel. This often leads to confusion as not everyone is watching the text. During public drama in Faction chat, players may discuss their plans to jump into the fray in another channel first. On the other hand, a player’s friends may use private channels to try to keep him from amping up the rhetoric.

When someone uses an inappropriate channel for his message, others are quick to correct him. This could be a gentle nudge but often, the rebukes are fast and rude. I found that very intimidating during the months when I was a solo player, because the last thing a shy person wants is to extend herself in public and be hammered down for asking a n00b question.

In a typical evening, I’ll be on TeamSpeak with other members of my guild (and an occasional guest). Those of us who are working together might also use the text Raid channel to include those who aren’t in TS. We’ll comment in TS about things that scroll by in Faction or Nation chat and we’ll recruit others to join our shenanigans in Guild chat.  When things are quiet, I’ll lift off my headset and check in with my husband, who may be on another TS server with guys from World of Tanks or chatting with people in Second Life. And, at some point, my Skype icon will light up and I’ll start text chatting with a friend I first met in SL, switching back and forth between that and my game until I sign off, and then maybe flipping open a video chat. None of this feels disconnected or strange, though I can’t imagine trying to explain it to my parents. They have a hard enough time when I call their house and each of them picks up a different phone extension.

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2016 in Culture, Gaming

 

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It’s apple season

Apple_logo_black.svg

No, no, not that sort of Apple. We’re a PC/Android home, thankyouverymuch. I guess there’s a new version of OS X out today for you Apple folks, though; some useful details about it here.

Our mini-orchard has two apple trees, Honey Crisp and Empire, and a white peach tree. The peach tree was a bust this year: the fruit was small, buggy, and gross. We let the squirrels have it. But when the apple harvest came in, oh my! I’m buried under burlap bags of apples. I’ve baked apple bread, apple cake, and two kinds of apple muffins so far. We’ve given apples away to neighbors and coworkers, and we still have loads of them. Oh, and the Empire tree isn’t completely ripe yet. I’ll spend the next two days baking and chopping the apples in various ways to fill the chest freezer in the basement and we’ll eat our apple-a-day quota until we can’t stand anymore.

It used to be that recipes and preserving methods were handed down in families, usually from mother to daughter, and some of them guarded jealously. I’ve noticed an interesting inversion, though. The proliferation of cooking blogs, corporate websites, recipe collection sites, and extension office information online means that I have more apple recipes at my fingertips than I could use in a lifetime. My mother — who still has a big binder of recipes and Betty Crocker cookbooks for reference — asks me for methods to freeze apples as well as for recipes. To be fair, my mom learned to cook for a family in the 1960s and 1970s, when boxed and canned ingredients were admired. I still see recipes like her old ones drifting around on Facebook, generally from people of her age or who never left my rural hometown.

I thought of this earlier in the year when I read Why Are Millennials So Obsessed With Food? on The Atlantic. The young author interviewed talks about the effects of technology on foodie-ism in some interesting ways, though I disagree with some of her conclusions. No, Millennials are not the first to become foodies: from what generation does she think the Food Network, organic food movement, Julia Child, and Williams-Sonoma stores came? The Internet’s ubiquity comes at a time when Millennials happen to be young adults and I think the technology is driving the generation, not the reverse. She made an interesting point about using food as a cultural signifier, though. Picture two cooks: one is making a tuna noodle casserole with canned soup, canned peas, and crushed potato chips on top and the other is making chips from organic kale with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt. Do you imagine them as different social classes? Different weights? Different education levels? Different ages? A couple years ago when visiting family in Seattle, I talked about kale with my (gracious, lovely) sister-in-law, and she showed a flash of disappointment that trends like that had reached Michigan. “I guess it really is everywhere now,” she said, with a tiny pout. I suppose it was the equivalent of having a band you discovered early achieve mainstream success, and realizing that being a fan no longer had cred attached.

 

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2015 in Culture

 

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Does the Internet need professional curators?

The word “curator” has become diluted, applied to anyone who chooses anything. Nonetheless, we live in an era where people all over the world are producing art and information every day, with far wider distribution and greater output than ever imagined, thanks to the Internet, cellular and WiFi technology, and the proliferation of digital cameras. This bounty leads to several problems:

  • Selection: How can a variety of items related to a particular topic be found? How do we find quality among the quantity?
  • Trust: Is this quote correctly attributed? Was this image or video altered? Is the caption correct?
  • Context: Does the presentation impose a bias? How is this connected to other things?
  • Archiving: Will this material exist and be accessible in 5 years? 20? 100?

The extension of the title “curator” to include editors/writers on blogs and social media is usually based on only one or two of those issues, but all four are included in the job description of an institutional curator, who is generally tasked with the choice, interpretation, and preservation of relevant items. Coming from an anthropology background, I tend to associate curation with cultural artifacts, from Pacific Island tribal masks to original manuscript pages from Borges to paintings by Magritte, but curators can work in many places and deal with a vast variety of topics. Digital curation is a graduate school option — one of my friends recently finished a Masters degree in it — though it still seems to be closely tied to museums and institutions.

This is NOT curating.

This is NOT curating.

In the absence of a formal system of curators for the living, everyday Internet, how are we meeting some of the needs above? What problems are associated with that? Is there a place for professional curators?

My original title for this post was “Facebook is a shitty museum”, a statement which didn’t cover the breadth of material I wanted to discuss but alluded to the idea that we are all curators now. Let’s take my Facebook feed as an example. My Friends list might be more diverse than many, but it’s far smaller than average, with only 160 people. Perhaps 40 of them post on a regular basis. If I weed out the personal posts, I can start to see each person as a type of curator for particular topics. Michelle* shares things about women in technology. Carson shares comics, convention, and superhero things. Lanisha and Sha’nel both post about being black women in the entertainment industry. Scott posts about fibromyalgia, Lenore posts about autism. Ricky posts about cars. Ben posts about religion and conservative politics. Jimmy and Ron both post about guns and gun control, on opposite sides. Several people post about parenting. Lana posts about music. Brenda posts about workouts, Savannah and Paula post about yoga, Sven posts about competitive swimming, Mike posts about wrestling. Daniel posts about new technology. Tammy and Becka post quick and easy recipes.

Some of them are really interesting and give me insight into different worldviews, but are they curators? No, not by a long shot. Going back to the four items with which I began this post, my Facebook friends do provide selection of topics that interest them. Some of them try to verify things they share but others don’t, so they don’t all provide trust. They all add personal bias, so the context is skewed by the nature of sharing items on Facebook. None are involved with the archiving of those items. They’re enthusiasts, hobbyists, fans, collectors, and perhaps even subject matter experts, but not curators.

—–

Let’s look at those four items, starting with selection. If I want to find online items related to a certain topic, I will probably begin with a Google search. What I’m presented with is not the result of careful evaluation of quality, it’s a list of sites ranked by their use of search engine optimization techniques. However, those results will include sites that provide some degree of selection: niche websites, themed blogs, Pinterest boards, Twitter feeds, etc. Because many of these sources are trying to parse relevant items from the nonstop inflow of created content, it might be more accurate to think of them as filters, but some try to go deeper and pull from the vast Internet repository to select topical pieces. The results are incomplete, though. Many archives are not available on the open web and we’re all limited to some degree by language and imposed content restrictions.

When I discover a source that regularly shares items that interest me, I follow or bookmark it. Sometimes that is based on the topic, but often it is based on the preferences of the person or team that maintain the site. For example, I read GoodShit all the time (NSFW, lots of female nudity), not because of a particular topic that Fred covers, but because he regularly links to items I find interesting, challenging, and new. I don’t mind scrolling through topless and spread-legged naked models to get to those. In a way, I think of GoodShit as a museum I visit often, where I walk through some of the galleries to get to the displays where I really want to linger.

One weakness in this system is that it’s easy to build ourselves echo chambers, where we select sources based on quality but also — consciously or not — because they tell us what we want to hear. Someone else is selecting the content, but I’m selecting the selectors. I see a sign of this bias kick up on Facebook when a friend, usually from the far conservative side of the aisle, posts, “The media reported about X nonstop, but why aren’t they talking about Y?!?!”, yet I’ve seen an abundance of coverage of both topics. My friend may have isolated himself from news sources that provide equal coverage (or, he may be using indignant, victimized rage as an indirect way of expressing controversial opinions). He’s not the only one who might have an echo chamber, though. Because I tend to avoid mainstream news networks, I may be shielding myself from a true imbalance in coverage. This starts to bleed into the context issue and can make it difficult for us to understand the worldview of others who have been informed by different media.

—–

If we select selectors who don’t make trust a priority, things get even worse. We can’t believe everything we read, nor can we believe the content of photos or videos. How many times do you see something that’s clearly fake spread across the web like wildfire?  Especially with echo chambers of sources we consider credible, but that reflect our own political, social, and religious views, healthy skepticism tends to evaporate.

antiviral

Though there are some telltale signs that an item might not be true, sometimes it has truthiness and we need to look further. Many of us turn to Snopes.com for fact checking (though I’m getting database errors all over their site, so I guess everything is true today!). Scroll partway down the page of this reddit thread and you’ll find a list of other sites that are useful for debunking. The Antiviral sub-blog on Gawker regularly posts “Forward or Delete” pieces that investigate images widely shared that week, verifying or debunking them, and often sharing the source photos that were combined to create the fake. No, John Lennon was not riding a skateboard in the original version of the photo above.

There are many motivations for creating fake content. Sometimes it’s for humorous effect or to display technical ability, as in Worth 1000 contest entries. A desire for attention. Political persuasion. Advertising. Trolling. Slander. We get so used to seeing photoshopped images of celebrities that it can alter our perceptions of what looks natural; one of my acquaintances seems to think we won’t notice when her face — and only her face — is softly blurred, completely line-free, and luminous in all of her group photos. Poorly altered images appear even when they should have passed through levels of approval; take a few minutes to visit Photoshop Disasters for some laughs and groans.

Hunger for cheap and easy content makes a lot of websites untrustworthy, whether they are personal blogs or professional, journalistic sites. For many examples, read this piece by John Bohannon about all the places that ran with his unsubstantiated story about chocolate helping weight loss. He explains that well-done research — especially in diet science — is often contradictory and confusing. When junk gets distributed so widely, it adds to the noise. People feel overwhelmed, which I think plays a part in unscientific thinking among otherwise educated individuals. Clickbait headlines make scientific findings seem like absolutes, rather than things that must be challenged and explored, so refinements and corrections appear to be contradictions. Whether clinging to the notion that vaccines cause autism, climate change is entirely natural, or that juice cleanses are healthy, the echo chamber effect and proliferation of junk science articles allow people to reject other opinions and find support for their own.

—–

On to context. I first began musing on Internet curation a few years ago when I was taking an ethnographic film course. We were debating whether it was more valuable to have a filmmaker inside or outside the group being studied, and my professor cited a few instances of films made by insiders. I argued that there was more insider filmmaking being done than we acknowledge, in homemade videos shot with phones and old camcorders, sometimes uploaded to the web. What we lacked was curation. Nobody was collecting, sorting, clarifying, and saving those videos. The short video below shows part of a 2014 Vodoun festival in Benin. Note the different types of cameras being used and who is holding them. It isn’t just the white tourists and academics anymore.

If that video was your first introduction to a Zangbeto, though, do you have any understanding of what you saw?  There are many videos of Zangbeto on YouTube, but few of them have meaningful descriptions. The videos that are likely to survive for the future are those from institutional users — anthropologists, sociologists, historians, students of religion and dance — and not those taken by insiders, unless someone begins to collect them and add context, preserving them in a relevant way.

Context is what can change a selection into a meaningful experience. The Deutsches Museum in Munich, as a physical world example, has many areas with excellent collections but terrible context. (The website makes the place look lively and interactive. It’s not.) When we were there, we often had the impression that they felt the need to put ALL THE THINGS on display and hoped that stacking them in the same room would create a compelling story. They would have been better off to showcase some items and include others in the context around them. I think that the Gawker properties do a decent job of adding context to items they find, particularly io9, Gizmodo, and Jalopnik, though I get aggravated with how often they share posts across the Gawkerverse without changing the context to show how the item is on-topic for that blog.

Context is also another place to check bias. It is factual to say that on August 9, 2014 Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. In the Internet explosion around that event, the context makes all the difference. To one extreme, he was an innocent black teenager murdered by a racist. On the other extreme, he was a criminal thug killed in self-defense. I could point to sites, memes, and videos that are entirely biased, ignoring or discrediting any facts that don’t fit the preferred narrative. I linked to a New York Times overview of the event as the most even-handed I could find, but I don’t believe that they, or other journalists, are unbiased. I think the key isn’t to avoid sources that have biased context, but to be aware of it and consider other viewpoints as well.

—–

That leaves archiving on my list of four issues, and it’s completely neglected in the diluted definition of curation, where the final step is to publish or share. The Library of Congress is archiving Twitter, but so far, this Politico article describing it as “a huge #FAIL” seems appropriate. And, most of what they have to archive so far is just text and images, not multimedia in a variety of obsolete formats!  This short video from Al Jazeera America (which I can’t seem to embed) gives an overview of the Internet Archive, which stores snapshots of as much of the web as possible. You can browse previous versions of websites via the Wayback Machine. What’s actually captured is useful but limited. Sometimes images don’t appear and often comments on articles are lost. Going back only as far as 2011, there were some weeks when the Wall Street Journal site was only crawled two or three times, and that’s a significant website among the estimated 48 billion webpages today. The New Yorker published a good piece about the Internet Archive a few months ago, too.

When I’ve had to purge items from my own digital archives because of lack of technical compatibility, I can’t even begin to think about the challenge of archiving the Internet; not just preserving it, but indexing it so that it can be used for research. I’ve been in the basement of the Field Museum in Chicago, looking though the amazing anthropology collection that is sorted, labeled, carefully preserved, but too vast to be on display to the public. I understand that sort of archive, but when we try to save all digital content — from research articles to ragequit screeds to breaking news to photos of a dinner burrito — the scale is mind-numbing.

Anthropology Collection Storage, Field Museum, Chicago

Anthropology Collection Storage, Field Museum, Chicago

—–

Is there a place for professional Internet curators? I think so, but I’m having difficulty envisioning where and how they might work.

When I discussed this with my husband, he suggested that in the future, it would be easier to research American daily life in 1915 than in 2015, because — I’m rephrasing — so many of our current cultural artifacts are digital. I think that’s partially true. It also made me consider horrible PhD dissertations of the future: “Facets of the Selfie: The Evolution of Duckface”, “What Americans Ate: Revelations from the Instagram Archive”, or “‘U Mad Bro?’ and the Rise of Flexible Spelling”. Part of the (future) problem is that it may not be easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. How will researchers grasp subtleties from the data that survives? Things that went viral, even briefly, may seem disproportionately important as they appear in higher concentration. Eeek.

I think we can be mindful about our selectors, push them to be trustworthy, and think critically about the context. We can hobble together those parts of curation now. Archiving, as it has been for physical artifacts, seems to be the domain of institutions.

So I’m sorry, but I won’t call you a curator if you have a topical Tumblr, are picky about your Pinterest board, or share nothing but awesome street art photos on Facebook. Be proud to be an enthusiast, editor, or collector!  On the other hand, we need to look at the sources that provide some elements of curation and hold them to a higher standard. That’s a lot to ask of people who are volunteers, but it shouldn’t be too much for professionals. I’d like to suggest that they:

  1. Dig deeper. Don’t just funnel the latest news. Be thinkers, not filters.
  2. Be more inclusive. Push beyond English and corporate source material.
  3. Verify. If you’re not sure of authenticity but it’s really interesting, include that caveat. Otherwise, act as if you must personally support the validity of what you post.
  4. Be wary of absolutes. We’re at a point where it’s important to think of continuums and gradients in many facets of life, and we need people to step up intellectually and understand that. It’s weak writing to couch everything in words like possibly, maybe, as of now, and so on, but it’s detrimental to declare each new discovery as THE answer, too.
  5. Add useful context. Sharing a link without context is for amateurs. (Amateurs, go for it! This is how we find so many interesting things.)
  6. Strive to avoid bias. Or, make it blatant and let your audience decide to stay or go.
  7. Support archiving. Make sure your material has useful and relevant metadata, not only for SEO but also for human access. Archive your own things. Donate to archiving institutions.

 

—-

*Names have been changed, of course.

 

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2015 in Culture, Learning, Research

 

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Startup culture: everything old is new again

I might have additional posts inspired by the New York Times Magazine article “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem”, but here’s the first. The article is a lengthy piece and not very skimmable, but you might want to take the time to read it.

Isn’t it a hoot when young people think they’re the first who ever had a thought or experience, in the entire history of humanity? I don’t want to bash author Yiren Lu, because she seems like a thoughtful and intelligent person, but similar articles could have been found in WIRED or Fast Company in the 1990s when I was her age. Back in those days, younger people worked on the whiz-bang front end applications — we called it the World Wide Web — while the older engineers focused on infrastructure, networking, and hardware at more established companies. Twenty years ago the exciting place to be was in website development. Now it’s apps. Either way, that’s where the excitement and opportunity is likely to be for younger, less experienced techies.

Side note: Couldn’t the artist have included a female figure in any of the four illustrations accompanying the piece? It’s that sort of thing that subconsciously indicates women are not part of tech culture. It’s no surprise that many of the comments assumed the author was male despite her photo appearing at the end of the article.

My first job in the Internet industry began 20 years ago this month. It was a startup. I interviewed for an administrative position, heard the partners talking about the need for a production manager, taught myself HTML that night, and went on to take the better job instead. It was a bold and stupid move but so things were in the early days of the Web. After a year and a half, I jumped to a job at Huge Internet Corporation, which later acquired the startup anyway. I’ve done contract work for other startups through the years.

Startups can be exciting, especially if they’re lavishly funded. When they’re not? Well, I remember rushing my boss’s personal check to the bank to cover payroll for the week, more than once. I remember months of fighting to get payment I was owed. At one job, I was always first to the office in the morning, which made the day our power was cut off even more exciting. Being young and at a startup is like tightrope walking without a net. There is an adrenaline rush and sometimes the risk can bring great reward, but that wasn’t my experience. In the first couple years I held three jobs simultaneously to pay my rent: a day job at a tech company, retail sales on evenings and weekends, and freelancing in between.

For me, it was much more fun to be at a young company: Huge Internet Corporation in the early days. We still had startup culture, enthusiasm galore, and a sense that we were doing something new, revolutionary, and important. Because the company had existed for a while, however, there wasn’t as much risk and there was better infrastructure. I worked ridiculous hours and there was plenty of grumbling and stress, but my first few year there were the best work period of my life so far. And yes, we had Nerf guns then too, and we shot each other as we dodged between the cubicles. We pranked each other mercilessly. We had Quake tournaments after hours. Most of us were young and single; our social lives tended to mesh with our work lives. Alcohol played a role in that culture, sometimes in the office or at informal parties in the parking lot. We had decent salaries and stock options; a good day on Wall Street could create waves of 28 year old millionaires and a bad day could bring tears.

Ms. Lu might not realize this yet, but companies age too. The culture changes as layers of management and oversight come in and as a maturing workforce changes their priorities to include on-site daycare, parental leave, and better retirement savings plans. Public companies have more paperwork; some of the blame for my burn out at Huge Internet Company can be dumped at the feet of Sarbanes-Oxley. The mandatory documentation, diversity committee review of new hires, accessibility review of every project, and on and on… it adds up, even when the intent is to change things for the better. Throw in some bad reviews from the tech press — oh how we used to fear Walt Mossberg! — and product management starts to get gun shy. Progress slows. Innovation is stifled.

Internet companies are still figuring out viable maturity curves. Some settle into their strengths and stop trying to compete with nimble startups. Some reorganize to make room for established business and creativity, as Google seems to be doing with its recent creation of parent company Alphabet, Inc. Some use size to keep their position while building side products in an attempt to future-proof the business (Amazon, Facebook). Some die. In the case of Huge Internet Corporation, management made some bad decisions, our business model shifted too slowly, and our core technology was outdated by the time it was released. The company still exists but in very different form.

However, when I look though my LinkedIn contacts to see where my former HIC colleagues are working today, I see quite an assortment, not only the “old guard” trying to trudge through the last decades of their careers at stable, long-lived companies. Those I was closest to are between the ages of 40 and 55 now. Many of them have C-level or Vice President titles at startups or smaller companies, or they are VPs or Directors at larger ones. A few started their own companies or became consultants. Others bailed out of the industry altogether to pursue new passions, from nursing to documentary film making to landscape architecture. They scattered across the country and a surprising cluster of them ended up in London. Generalizing about the whole group, just as generalizing about the younger wave of tech workers, misses all the interesting paths that don’t fit the desired narrative.

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A short personal note. Some of you who have been reading this blog for a while know about my dear friend Jakob and I wanted to pass along an update. He and I haven’t been spending much time together since I broke my leg — neither of us has much to say, as we’re both housebound and unwell — but we still have a short online visit every day. Lately he’s been active and optimistic, cleaning his house and planning an October trip with his sister.

Unfortunately, he’s now back in the hospital. He had chemotherapy (he has stage IV stomach cancer) last Thursday and was groggy in the days that followed. By Sunday he wasn’t online. Yesterday his sister gave me the news that he was admitted to the hospital with a blood sugar level of 1300. Jakob is an insulin-dependent type 1 diabetic and when he is weak and confused from chemo, he forgets to do blood sugar checks. Since high or low blood sugar make him even more confused, that begins a spiral that he can’t control. I saw this a couple times when we took a vacation together in May. I’m translating from messages his sister sends me in German from her smartphone, but from what I can patch together, he’s reliant on machines right now. He didn’t recognize her and she says his eyes didn’t focus. Meanwhile, she says that his cancer is still spreading. The doctors are not offering her much hope at this point.

It drives me crazy that Jakob doesn’t understand the situation with his illness, and because of the language gap it is still unclear whether his doctors are actively withholding the information or if he’s refusing to hear it. He assures me that his cancer is gone and that the chemo will keep it that way. Of course that’s not true; I knew in May that another tumor had been found in his brain and that the therapy is destroying his liver and other organs. He’s made amazing recoveries before though, so I’m not rushing to say the end is near this time. We shall see.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2015 in Culture, Relationships

 

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I still have mixed feelings about ebooks

Illustration of "The Future Express", the frontispiece from a 1911 collection of Jules Verne stories I own.

Illustration of “The Future Express”, the frontispiece from a 1911 collection of Jules Verne stories I own.

My love affair with books began before I could read, continued as I devoured almost every book in my small town’s library, but then started to wane in my first university years. I hated being told what I must read, especially if it was dull. The Internet, work, and socializing took away from my reading time as the years went by, but I still always had a book or two or three in progress. I’ve married two bibliophiles along the way, too. My current husband and I were sure we were a great fit as we unpacked the books we wanted close at hand on our shelves, and several times had to decide whether to keep his edition or mine of the same work.

I think the last time I bought a paper book was when I wanted hospital reading material in 2010. I own a Kindle now, which has so many advantages. I can read in bed with the lights out. If I finish one book in the middle of a flight, I have dozens more at my fingertips. A new book is just a quick Internet transaction away. There’s a built-in dictionary for the times I read a non-fiction or historical book with lots of obscure words. Nobody around me can look at the cover of my book and judge me based on what I’m reading (for better or worse).

To be honest, I don’t read as much as I used to. There’s another effect of having a Kindle: it’s very easy to close the file if I’m not interested enough to continue, and I’m not taunted by the hundreds of pages that remain after my dog-ear. (Yes, I dog-ear pages of books I own, much to my husband’s horror. I sometimes write in them, too.) I read the books on the short list for the Man Booker Prize almost every year — it’s the one literary prize I covet — but I cannot get through The Luminaries to save my life. It’s like eating dry cake. Sometimes it’s delicious and I want to nibble a bit more, but it sticks in my throat. If I had the 864 page paperback looming on my nightstand, I might feel obligated to pick it up again, but now it’s easy to spin my Kindle carousel past it and choose something else.

Today I raided my physical shelves looking for older books that might have interesting illustrations and I was overcome with nostalgia.  It was like seeing a photo of a long-lost love and momentarily being swept away by longing for what could have been, and then remembering the reasons it didn’t work and never would have. My books overflowed so many shelves that I lost dozens and dozens of them in a basement flood. Every time I moved homes, the small dense boxes of books filled grown men with dread. My hand used to ache from holding open a thick book one-handed as I tried to multitask. I love you, my paper darlings, but we couldn’t keep going the way we were.

But yet…

I miss digging through old books looking for something to catch my eye. My mom and I used to go garage sale-ing every weekend in summer; she would paw through the paperback mysteries and popular fiction while I’d be shoulder-deep in any pile of musty old hardcover books I could find. If I knew the book’s title or author in some corner of my trivia-loving brain, I’d grab it. On my shelf I still see Bronte, Joyce, Hemingway, Bunyan, Kipling, Ovid, Conrad, Poe, Conan Doyle, and more from those excursions. I was an odd child.

Over the years, I also collected books that struck me as being historically significant, like these:

20150806_140139

The book on the left is a German/Russian picture dictionary published in East Germany in 1953, just before Stalin’s death. Each page is a masterpiece of propaganda. An image of a college physics classroom has the slogan, “Mit Hammer und Sichel – Mit Buch und Gewehr” (“With hammer and sickle, with book and rifle”) written on the wall. Some students in playground illustrations wear Young Pioneers uniforms (there’s a whole section about the socialist party, identifying insignia, what a party meeting looks like at national and local levels, etc). There are extremely detailed vocabulary sections for many trades, from butcher to machinist to hair dresser. My favorite, having spent May 1st of this year in Kreuzberg, is this illustration that accompanies the vocab section, “Demonstration”:

erster_mai

The Vietnamese phrase book is fascinating to me as well. When it was published, the American role in Vietnam was still, officially, limited to providing advisers. The first page clearly lists the distribution for 10,000 copies: 8,000 to the US Army in the Pacific; 1,950 to the continental US Army, and the remaining 50 to various ops, logistics, and personnel offices. While most of the phrases focus on intelligence and operational matters, some are a bit sketchy for advisers, such as “We have arms better than those of the enemy, and we will receive more as we need them” or “We are here to help them in the struggle on the side of (1) the free world (2) the U. S. (3) the Allies (4) freedom (5) God.”  Good to know that they were equipped to be flexible with the rationale for why the hell we were in Vietnam, eh?

I love this stuff. It’s just not the same to read a historic document online. Paper books are artifacts in and of themselves. I wonder which of the 10,000 copies of the Vietnamese phrase book I own. It doesn’t look like it was used, so perhaps it’s one of the 25 copies that went to the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, rather than being sent to Asia. I wonder how the East German book ended up in a place where I found it. Sometimes, thanks to the Internet, I can discover a little more about a book’s history. Around 1990 I found this in a used book store in Buffalo, NY:

darwin_book

The book was 100 years old that year and in awful condition. Though I only picked it up because of my interest in folktales from around the world, it amused me that the original owner had written his name and address inside and his name was almost the same as a famous scientist. Until today I never bothered Googling him, but once I did, I found that he was a photographer and editor for the US Geological Survey, that his wife was a national officer in the Daughters of the American Revolution, and that they lived in a historic home in Washington, DC that was built in 1846. Now I wonder why he had this book, how his eccentric interests overlapped with mine, and how the book got from DC to Buffalo in the 100 years before I owned it.

Those are all things we lose with ebooks. Maybe they’re merely sentiment or best left to researchers and historians. I don’t know. But, right now, I’m going to brush the dust off my husband’s copy of the Bloom County Complete Library, Volume One, sit down, and enjoy flipping through the pages. I’m glad that Berkeley Breathed is drawing Bloom County 2015, but this is a better way to experience the strips than seeing them in my Facebook feed.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2015 in Culture, Digital Devices

 

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