March 31, 2005

The Equilibrium of Tea meets
the Light Speed of English Kettles

In his novel Pattern Recognition, William Gibson describes his American heroine's experience of visiting the UK, staying at a friends apartment, as a trip into "mirror world:"

Mirror-world. The plugs on appliances are huge, triple-pronged, for a species of current that only powers electric chairs, in America. Cars are reversed, left to right, inside; telephone handsets have a different weight, a different balance; the covers of paperbacks look like Australian money.

For someone coming from (anglo-english Toronto) Canada, still acclimatizing to (southern) England, this is an apt description of the dissonance experienced - the slight offset of one English speaking region next to another: the expectation of similarity against the twilight zone oddness of same, but somehow, not the same. Caesura. or hiatus. or dissonance. Enter, the Tea Kettle, restorer of equilibrium.

Equinox Small

Equinox Dt1 SmallOne of the most amazing, awful (in the awe-full sense of the word) differences, of that "current that only powers electric chairs in America" is its manifestation in the EU Made Tea Kettle. No where, it seems, is that difference more sublimely embodied than in the model pictured here: the three THOUSAND watt Rowenta Equinox Uber Kettle which proves Einstein's theory of relativity by boiling water so fast, it's happened in the past [1] [2] before you even get up to fill it up. It is a beautiful thing. Stout but streamlined. Elegant in brushed steel. 1.5 liter capacity, easy to read water level, and scary scary fast at bringing water to a boil. It is, to use the British expression, "brilliant." It enables the making of that soul-restoring to a culure-shocked cannuck beverage, Real Tea.

Some time ago, not long after i'd arrived, i was amazed to find myself engaged in a discussion with two English colleagues who knew their kettles. They even knew what the usual amperage of kettles is without looking it up in google (half the Rowenta). When i exclaimed that the Rowenta was DOUBLE this state at 3000watts, they did a fast calculation on how long it would take a liter of water to boil and even they were impressed (i was impressed by their ready calculation of same, but then these were the guys who were behind the "spud server" [bbc][exn][register]). Initially disbelieving that such a marvel existed with such amperage until pointed to on the Web, they concurred, that this is quite a thing.

Tea time of the soul. One of the profound links between (a good chunk of anglo) Canada and the UK (or at least a good chunk of England) is an understanding of what constitutes real tea. The fact that there is an understanding about what "real" tea is also implicitly demonstrates the great impact of America on the Rest of Us. In my limited experience, if you get anglo-Canadians together with English sorts in some country where either is not a citizen, one can generally be counted on to establish immediate rapport in the glorious and shared generalization that "americans don't know how to make tea."

Brisktea

Tales of terrible tea in restaurants emerge that regularly share the same core elements:

  • first, when asking for tea, one must specify both temperature and kind: hot and black (English Breakfast, Darjeeling, Asam, anything black and unperfumed; not Earl Grey);
  • second, a pot of hot-ish water is placed beside a bag of Lipton's (only the swankiest of spots have Twinings), and milk must always be requested. It is a miracle if the bag has been placed in the pot and scalding water poured upon it.

Roundbag

The true commiserators remark that they travel with their own tea bags and secret them into the uncontaminated-by-tea hot water pots when the server isn't looking.

The truly desperate traveler in the US will reflect on how they will beg hotel managers to send up a tea kettle in order to make hot water for tea. "But you have a coffee maker in your room!" Exactly. The water tastes like coffee.The results of the tea kettle request in America have met with mixed results: carafes (last used for, yes, coffee) of hot water may be brought up; another "newer" coffee maker may be produced, and sometimes, a tea kettle of a certain age may be found. An English colleague has mentioned that the notion of the tea kettle itself does not appear to be well understood in the States. He tells the tale of looking for a kettle in a shopping center and only able to find the stove top variety. In the UK, the tea kettle is the default hotel beverage accouterment, no matter the hotel grade.

The default coffee, by the way, in a British hotel is a cylindrical packet of Nescafe. You can order Nescafe Instant Coffee in restaurants, too, and you'll also find it as a common (if not prefered) domestic means of making coffee. Perhaps this explains why the Senseo is making such a splash now that its broken past the Netherlands's borders. Instant. Singular. But tastes, heh, like, i dunno, coffee?

To be fair, Americans i've met who like "hot" tea certainly know how to make a proper cuppa, from heating up the pot first, to stirring, etc. And some of the stories i've heard from Irish colleagues of their relatives making tea by leaving a pot on the stove with tea bags left in for an indeterminate amount of time have left me sure that generalizations are of course generally apt to fail. Weirdest tea experience: Palo Alto, ordering a pot of tea, where the cafe seemed to make a fetish of selecting leaves, placing them in carefully selected squares of material, tying the baggie and then reverntially placing the baggie in the pot. I was too stunned by the production to really note whether or not they put water in the pot first or after the bag. My mind seems to think after all that, they'd delicately dipped the bag into the hot water rather than scalding it. sigh. When one is dying for a cup, taking such time to produce what was, alas, actually only an ok brew, really does seem too much.

But to the kettle, perhaps i generalize too much to suggest that the accelerated speed at which a UK kettle boils water could have such a stabilizing effect on the Newly Landed. But in the UK in particular, where, as Gibson's narrative so aptly captures, things do initially seem slightly off kilter (electrical switches that should turn things on turn them off, for instance), the fact that, while much around you feels a little weird, tea, that calming centering beverage, is not only possible but stirringly ready at mind bendingly fast speeds, means that all can still be well in the world, reflected, refracted or otherwise.

Posted by mc at 12:16 PM

March 29, 2005

The Brighter Glory of an Energy Saving Lightbulb

Tn Ambiance Bc 169 "If every UK household installed just one [energy-efficient] bulb we'd save over £80 million per year![ref]"

Recently, on yet another grey rainy day in England (how else does it get verdant, eh?), i was looking into the promised properties of full spectrum lights to see if they helped break the monotony even if you don't have seasonal affective disorder.

This lead to a site which sells such things. (Aside: one of the great things about the UK is the number of sites online that ship goods, from weigh scales (at scales-r-us (not kidding)) to, well, light bulbs. Just about anything that can be put in a box can be put in the post and will be there in a day. maybe two. amazing. Just in case you're wondering, this is not how it works in Canada. Even if you're putting something in the mail for delivery in the same city. no. no no no no). Which lead to the discovery of an "energy saver" version of full spectrum lights. Which in turn leads to all sorts of energy saver bulbs - at the time, on sale, even.

Turns out that changing light bulbs from regular wattage to energy saver can do more to fight the later winter/early spring blahs better than a whole box of full spectrum homeotherapy -- really...please, read on

If you don't have experience of Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs), they come in a variety of shapes,(and explanations for why they're so efficient and exceed their stated life expectancy [1] [2] [3]) from regular looking bulbs (shown above), to tubes looped over each other. They take a moment to warm up and come to full illumination. This is a bit disconcerting at first, but one acclimatizes quickly. And the light color is not bluey fluorescent but the same as regular bulbs. that's a happy surprise.

The energy reasons for using these bulbs are two fold: they cut electricity bills, and, especially, they save energy resources. Here's a great factoid: "If every UK household installed just one bulb we'd save over £80 million per year!"
(point 7, of http://www.est.org.uk/myhome/whatcan/energyplan/)

Did you know:

Replacing a 75 Watt incandescent fixture with a 20 Watt CFL fixture that is in use for 10 hours a day will pay for itself in just over a year in terms of saved power. That light will then continue to work for upwards of 10 years after, each year saving you more and more money. [http://www.energyalternatives.ca/conservation.asp]

or

Each Energy Efficiency Recommended bulb can reduce your lighting costs by up to £7 a year. That's just one light bulb - imagine how much you would save if you replaced them all! Because energy efficient bulbs use only a fraction of the energy needed to light a traditional bulb, they also help the environment by demanding less energy from the power stations which means fewer climate-changing gases being released. [http://www.est.co.uk/myhome/efficientproducts/lighting/]

There's another reason for using them, too: more light,

Sockets that have a max wattage of say 60 watts can now have bulbs that are a third of the wattage and give near twice the light. This is a great cheap way to improve the light in an area and save energy and electricity costs at the same time. This is awesome if you're somewhere where there's a fixed lamp (like a kitchen or bathroom) and it's a bit on the dull side. Going from 60w to 100w in an energy saver is an incredible difference.

It's just great having a brighter environment, and yet knowing that you've actually achieved it by using less energy. Having just replaced four regular sixties (240 watts) with two 12s and two 20s for the equivalent of two 75s and two 100s, that's an energy savings of 176 watts; the 64 watts give 350 watts effect of illumination.

The hard part if you're on limited income is making the hurdle to spend the denaros (or pounds) on the light to begin with. In my case, i was lucky and caught a sale. That said, there are power companies that apparently give discounts on CFLs. In the UK, their Energy Saving Trust site has links to these kinds of schemes. But heh, even one bulb makes a difference - a collective 80million£ difference.

I still can't get over this notion of getting more - more light - for less energy resource, less energy cost. It really does feel pretty good - especially on these grey days when a person wants/needs the lights on, full spectrum or otherwise.

Posted by mc at 2:21 PM

March 21, 2005

File Names and Evil Attachments: We must Shake off the File System Chains

Like most folks, i get a ton of email. I get a ton of attachments with email. And those attachments are evil. For the most parts they have only generic names like "my assignment" or "Job Application" or "invoice". The mail client will add a number to the name so that one file doesn't overwrite another, but that's for the file system's benefit, not mine, the human being trying to make sense of these files without having to come through associated emails.

So whose problem is this? people's for not using more descriptive name identifiers?

I blame the System.

But to be proactive, we suggest alternatives...

It's not right to ask people to who have some kind of file template to come up with nice rich file names - especially when some folks are still getting over the legacy of 8char file names plus three character extensions.

But those days of short file names are G O N E.

So we need file systems to step up to the plate and help name these suckers in meaningful ways. There's lots of simple stuff a file system could do: it could automatically prepend all files with a user id; it could develop a bunch of project codes/names that a person could use (like course numbers or business names) for specific files, and have defaults set up which a person only changes as they need - if the system can't determine the context from other cues in the data itself.

With more operating systems deploying technologies for rapid content indexing, such reading of documents for labeling cues isn't that unlikely.

Simple selections with well chosen defaults could take a load of effort of people for creating reasonable labels for files both for their own later retrieval and for sharing. These same file names could be decoded on the recipient end for multiple categorization of these resources, too. So i could say for instance "show me all the files associated with comp6012 from Alistair" without having to reef through file folders.

I know this kind of listing is just what Apple's Spotlight is aiming at in OSX Tiger due out April 15, but index retrievals alone are not enough. we still like to be able to look at where things are in relation to other things, so we need to make these labels apparent to us, not just derivable by the system.

In the myTea project, we're looking at this kind of approach of assistive file naming for bioinformaticians (see the short paper on this), whose biggest challenge it turns out is not coming up with new insights into genes, but is managing the hundreds of files they get on their desktop which are generated by the various Web processes they run.

We can do this. And more than just improve personal data, we can get that data into sharable forms which makes it feasible for people to share the parts of their work they wish to share with the world or subsets of the world, where this information is meaningful. Community. We can do this. It's time to be liberated from the file systems and provide interaction that frees us from naming files and lets us get on with what we want to do: have fun, create knowledge, share.

Posted by mc at 1:52 PM

March 20, 2005

So i go down to the lobby
...and Jane Siberry's left the building.

Jane Siberry, a canadian singer/songwriter of whom kd lang once remarked that she ought to be as famous as she was/is, is taking yet another new turn within the music business.47118749476464 0Vidcollect

In an interesting move 9 years ago this May, Siberry parted with both record company Warner and then manager Bob Bloomer (now a TV Chef in the States. Stranger things can happen), and starter up her own web-based record company, Sheeba.ca.

And now, turing 50 herself, she's closing its doors.

And i' celebrated the cycle with a sale of rare and special things.

Mien Bitte: Several years ago, at the mid point in the Sheeba cycle, i was meeting with Jane each Saturday for months and months to work on the web site with her. This was before it hit its php phase and just when it was verging into frames.

Included in the refit was a desire to start digitizing audio tracks for the web site (this is how sound edit pro works...this is how to make an mp3...remember not to muse aloud about issues with goLive tags) to promote her upcoming release of traditional and not so traditional songs (became known as "HUSH"), and potentially to get video excerpts up from the various music vids Jane now had for sale.

I was given videos to digitize and could keep them for my efforts (the whole web tutor/cleanup thing was voluntary: help support independent canadian artists one html tag at a time).

These vids, from Janes hands to mine, are the ones of which i'm now, in Jane's parleance, "letting go." To be had for a song. Almost literally.

If you're a Jane fan, or know someone who is, you can give them something even they mayn't have.

Of the videos, there's the 11 minute film "the Bird in the Gravel," from the Walking. Rare is not the word.

the siberry-directed videos in support of "When i was a boy," on the compilation Boy Collect One. There's the Video Collection 84-89 including Mimi on the Beach, the 9min video that started it all (did i mention these are all out of print?). There's also the documentary I Muse Aloud from the Speckless Sky tour. It's great to see the live performances. Her musicians were exceptional. Anne Bourne, Rebecca Jenkins, Ken Myer, to name a few. This is an award winning live music documentary.

Then there's a special Advance Release Copy of Jane's collection of older tunes, HUSH. It was right around this time that i was getting emails about how best to rip and send a new dub of Calling All Angels because the producers of Kevin Spacey's new film, Pay it Forward, were interested in using it for the film. This would be an all-siberry version, not the duet with lang.

Anyway, the advance cds were to help raise money via the sheeba site to help cover costs of recording the album.

Each of these items sat in Jane's basement office in TO, and went from her hands to mine. And now i'd like to put them into the hands of others who would enjoy watching the vids of some of the best written, best delivered (Canadian) songs ever.

kd lang's recent Songs of the 49th parallel does two of Jane's pieces. That's high praise to be in the company of songwriters like Cohen and Cockburn. But you know, if that's the only way you've heard a Siberry tune, you owe it to yourself to hear the originals.

As you can see, it's pretty cheap to do just that (update: all gone now, 4 to the UK, one to Germany. Surprisingly, nothing to Canada. Ah well, burn little candle out into the world...)

ebay screenshot of jane sale

Posted by mc at 12:17 PM

March 19, 2005

mSpace: Becoming an Example

Mspace logo
mSpace more than anything is an idea about access and exploration: improving access to information; helping people make connexions from one idea to another.

mSpace has been expressed as an interaction model (ah03 paper; ht04 paper): the idea of an interaction model is to look at what attributes you want to support for an interaction, and see how they can be formalized. From the formalism, it becomes possible to see how it can be applied to situations in general that may wish to use the model.

More recently, mSpace has been deployed as an evolving software framework based on Semantic Web technologies ( demo, software download, framework docs(pdf, 1.6m)), which embodies many attributes from the interaction model. The mission with the framework is to enable folks interested in this open standards approach to making connexions among data to do so - to at least try one way of exploring data that can be hooked up in such an associative way.

And just yesterday, mSpace became an example.

In this case, an example "for someone trying to make use of data on the web, the web is one huge heterogenous data integration problem."

The great thing is that the person who turned to the project is Mike Linksvayer, CTO of the Creative Commons project, looking at getting more information to more people in less entangled ways.

Of course the other happy thing is that none of our team knows Mike personally, so it's nice to see that mSpace is moving out beyond the shores of its home in ECS at the U of Southampton.

And one more great thing is that mSpace was used as an example in the context of a talk given on a panel called "“The Semantic Web: Promising Future or Utter Failure”" at SXSW; it was placed on the side of Promising Future - perhaps in no small part because, as Linksvayer put it, "it won’t be obvious to an end user that they’re [using] a semantic web technologies application, and that’s as it should be." Here here!

Future Note: While we've put up an mspace browser for classical music, the model can be applied to any domain. If IMDB used Mike's Creative Commons licensing, we'd be able to put out an mSpace of movies (it's built, but we can't show it to you, since that would cost us 10k). But other mSpaces are sprouting up (one in the Sculpteur project is to use the model rather than the framework as a java applet-based ontology browser in a museums context). We'll link to these mspaces as they become available.

Among other things, we're also working on supporting the intersection of multiple mSpace domains (via a meta-mSpace), so that people can move as easily to tangents among domains, as they do now within domains.

Geek Note: you don't have to have a formal ontology to build an mSpace. If you have one, that's nice, and you get the added benefits of inferencing and connection which an ontology makes possible, but if you want to start light, you only need to define what we've been calling a "domain model" for your info. It's what might be seen as an implicit schema. We're working on a tool set to make constructing a model file dead simple. In the meantime, instructions are in the software docs on sourceforge included in the download.

If you want to see a full bore semantic web ap on steroids which uses an ontology, and is a precursor in its implementation to mSpace (it doesn't have all the sorting/swapping/slicing features of an mSpace), take a look at CS AKTive Space (CAS), an ap for exploring who's doing what research in computer science in the UK (described in the paper "CS AKTive Space or how we stopped worrying and learned to love the Semantic Web").

CAS won the Semantic Web Challenge of 2003 in part because it: got data from a host of heterogeneous sources, used them in ways for which the data's initial deployment was not presented, demonstrated the power of an ontology for doing inference over data (like who collaborates with who which is not in any of the data explicitly; what other stuff not already known about have these people done), it could scale (this thing handles tens of millions of triples - the manner of storing data in rdf for SW deployment) - and it lets folks explore complex queries in simple direct manipulation kinds of ways.

We took the lessons learned from deploying CAS in order to make a first pass at (a) implementing the richer set of interactions we wanted to support, like picking what things you want to explore, and being able to reorganize these on the fly, and (b) making it easier to sling an mSpace across RDF data without requiring all the heavy lifting of an ontology, but letting designers use and benefit from it when they had one.

In the meanwhile, thank you for using mSpace as an example. We're developing new ways to keep it light: to make it easy for folks to use the advantages of the semantic web without them (you and me) having to know that they're/we're using it.

Posted by mc at 1:12 PM

Between vs. Among: Exceptions to the Two/Three Rule

One uses "among" when something occurs involving more than 2 people, and between for stuff involving two people. Right?

Hence, one would think that the sentence, "the objective of the workshop is to facilitate discussions between atendees," is grammatically incorrect: shouldn't the phrase be "discussions among antendees" since there will, one hopes, be more than two souls at the workshop?

But no! there are a few exceptions to this rule!

The Dr. Grammar Frequently Asked Questions page

summarizes the exceptions thus, siting other rhetorical sources:

If more than two are involved in a united situation, between is used: 'Between the four of us, we raised a thousand dollars.' If a comparison or an opposition is involved, between is used: 'There was great rivalry between the three colleges. It was difficult to choose between them.'" (Parle-Craig, Ruth, and Vincent Hooper. Barron's 1001 Pitfalls in English Grammar 70)

How bout that, eh?

Posted by mc at 12:13 PM | Comments (0)

March 18, 2005

Constantine: Keanu's got a Whole New Bag - almost - and it looks good

ConstantineWell, it's worth it. Worth seeing, worth enjoying. The dark side in cynical stride. Lucifer getting the finger, a satanically possessed Lynda Blair clone getting punched in mush when talking trash rather than sprinkled with holy water, all by a chain-smoking guy just trying to get to heaven. Keanu Reeves has found his metier.

Few lines, terse rejoinders, skinny black ties. It's a wonderful follow up to the Matrix. The 1999 Matrix that is. Here, Reeve's character is self-possessed without being prepossessed (or in the context of the film, possessed).

Maybe it's a reach, but Reeve's black clad hero/anti-hero is not unlike Clint Eastwood's from his spaghetti westerns to his Unforgiven gritty ex-assassin. And look what's happened to Eastwood, how many oscars later? Could the same be in the future for Reeves?

Storyconstantine

Why not? the quiet Canadian has had a most excellent career, moving from the comic Bill and Ted to the intensity of My Own Private Idaho, to the genre making Matrix. And now Constantine. The successes help make one forget the uncomfortable casting of Little Bhuda, Dracula (and that awful accent) or Much Ado. He somehow inhabits the unreal in film more effectively, more believably than the real. Why is that?

Which is what reminds me of Eastwood, in all his loner guises. More presence with fewer lines. Compelling to watch. Humourous touches (touchees) around the edges (Reeve's delivery of "I know Kung Fu", for instance, in the Matrix; Eastwood's high fiving a chimp in Every Which Way but Loose).

In any event, Constantine is worth seeing. If you want to know more about the film, Andrew O'Hehir has a great review of the film in Salon.

Posted by mc at 6:45 PM | Comments (0)

March 12, 2005

If we were inventing email today


What if starting with technologies currently available, we were to rethink how to support mail electronically? would we end up with email?

What if, instead of taking a purely functional, or task oriented view to email, that of getting a note from here to there, we were to think about the affective properties of mail, and of letters in particular? What if our design goals were to incorporate both the functional and the affective into this new digital mode of communication? what would this new digitized form of communication be like?

These are the questions the Masters students in COMP6012 are considering in order to think new thoughts about existing technologies that are based on 30+ year old, command line systems. Sure the GUI has brought new features to email: multiple concurrent open windows, embedded HTML, graphical icons to

apple's Tiger Email client

replace text typed smileys, new ways of connecting contact and date information from email into contact managers. great.

And, to be sure, email is not physical mail. It's become a whole other communication medium.

But these are just the differences that the group is looking to tease out. What has been lost in comparison to physical mail? what's been gained? do we want to reconsider whether what's been lost needs to stay gone? are other modes of communication taking up the parts missing from email that were once a part of physical mail, of letters or cards in particular?

The question makes me think about blogs again. As i wrote recently, my casual survey of blogging in our group suggested that blogging has two core purposes: journaling, and letting family and friends know what one's up to.

There's something letter-ish, to be sure, about those kinds of blogs: extended entries, the possibility of multiple people looking at the same arifact. But why not email the thing to everyone with a cc to all? Perception? In email, one looks at their own copy of a cc'd missive. In a blog, despite the technical reality of one downloading a local copy of a web page (similar to email), there's the affect of sharing the same artifact: everyone goes to the same URL. Is that a similar experience to passing around the same letter? that social experience then enforced by the medium (paper) replicated in the sharing of the URL?

I still think there's something voyeuristic/exhibitionist about exposing communication supposedly primarily intended for oneself or one's friends to the world (and why help identity thieves?) but there is something undeniably social here that does seem to be both missing in email and present in physical letters.

Other attributes do not seem to be echoed in any other digital manifestation right now, though perhaps new IM client features are moving towards them. If a letter pisses one off, it can be returned, torn to shreds. If it is treasured, it can be carried in a special place, saved in a favorite book, close to hand, secret. Where's the digital equivalent here? Where's the social equivalent of everyone seeing that you remembered to send the birthday card that is happily displayed on the wall, or kept on the fridge? How emulate any of these effects? Do we need new hardware to support such display or effect- like the digital picture frames now available for displaying changing favorite photos? How emulate texture, beauty of hand crafter paper, fountain pen scrawl? the suspense of the envelop, waiting for discovery.

There's another side to the consideration of the reinvention of digital letters: is their anything new the computer can bring to textual communication besides what it already has (filters, search, indexing - effectively archiving and file management)? To answer this question, do we need to think not about mail, but about what we cherish in asynchronous exchanges?

There's a scene in Minority report the main character obsessively watches a 3d video of his son on the beach. The video is shot from the father's perspective. We can hear his voice off camera as he asks his son questions. In the now of the film, the son is dead and the father, in his darkened appartment, steps into the position off himself then so he can seemingly look into his son's digitized eyes, and mouth the same questions along with the video. This is a human moment (a pain cry for therapy to be sure but poignant nonetheless), enhanced, enabled by the lifelikeness of the digitally captured, infinitely repeatably copy of the moment.

It is a precious digital artifact, kept (referenced) on a special lucite-clear disk. The disk is inserted into a player to initiate playback. A techno geek may scoff, oh come on, all that would be on a server: no need for the plastic disks. And yet, and yet. From an interaction point of view, that marker, that disk (perhaps only a URI pointing to an associated file on a server?) gets at some of the preciousness of the physical, tangible, of older familiar beloved, personal atifacts, like letters, and blends them with the potential evocativeness of the pure(ly) digital replication.

Projected video, however, is an easier mapping here to tearing off a moment of real life to replay. Letters are abstract, textual, imaginative. What is the role of the medium for something abstract, always translated from signs?

Which comes back to the question: what do you treasure of physical letters? what do you wish you could do with email that you can't?

Posted by mc at 5:34 PM

Beyond Cynicism: Control Orders Redux

Dan recently said that maybe it's a quality of "getting older" (22), but that he's noticing he's cynical about "everything" now.

Implicit in his statement is that, formerly, he was not cynical. First off, based on at least the context of Dan's remark (are some of our software ideas as hot as we hope/think they are) i think Dan probably meant "skeptical," in the classical sense, rather than cynical either in its modern meaning, or its classical sense. But perhaps he's actually feeling both increasingly classically skeptical (probably a good thing) and modernly cynical (alas).

More recent events, however, suggest the need for a word that suits the nuances of cynicism which, as per the OED, "shows a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions, and is wont to express this by sneers and sarcasm." but goes beyond the cynical. To be cynical in this sense suggests there is something to be cynical about - that there is doubt that the expressed meanings are the true ones. But what happens when the expressed meaning are not the true ones, and it's simply OBVIOUS that that's the case. What is one's response to this called? Take the govn'ts latest actions in parliament on control orders, as we move from cynical perhaps about any parties' presentation of reasons for or against, to what, for the actual outcome?

It's hard not to feel cynical, for instance, watching the Prime Minister assert the necessity of control orders (the suspension of habeas corpus, of magna carta) as the way to defeat terrorism. Is one skeptical of the PM's statements - that is, not knowing those claims to be true, but wanting to find out? or is one cynical - where we express a sort of jejune snort at the veracity of either the goodness or righteousness of the intent, or the rationale for it? Perhaps both skeptical and cynical?

But what is the state of mind evoked in watching the Govn't insist it will not back down on points from judicial review to sunset clauses, and then concede on each one? As Michael Howard (!) put it, the opposition got everything they wanted "but the name." The govn't insists that this is not the case. If they did not give their actions the signifier "sunset clause" then it is not a sunset clause. Only one sign, it seems, can signify that signified. What is the word for the feeling behind the stunned silence that greets such insistent denials? Is it just Incredible - not to be believed?

This is a different kind of speechlessness than one might have for say, the seventeen liberal democrats not showing up in the house a week ago, when if they had, they would have been defeated the govn't. How could seventeen MPs not show up? - There's yet to be an effective explanation to this. No doubt if the bill had been defeated, the govn't would have introduced another just like it, so perhaps the point is moot.

Many commentators have been saying that this past week has, if nothing else, been a victory for parliament.

In her novel Middlemarch, set at the time of the First Reform Act George Eliot has her honest, unpretentious, definitely uncynical, hard working man of business, Caleb Garth, have an encounter with Mr. Bulstrode. Bulstrode is a man who has presented a sort of righteousness that covers a questionable previous life with some significant wrong acts. Caleb does not condemn or judge the man, but also declines involvement with him. He says "it hurts my mind." (CHAPTER LXIX)

Perhaps Garth's poignant expression is apt for this beyond cynical context, if it could also be expressed credibly by characters not quite as untouched by cynicism as he. For the rest of us, the word for that condition awaits. Proposals?

Posted by mc at 4:25 PM

March 5, 2005

Starting with the End in Mind

Our grad advisor once told us we should live our lives backwards: think of what we did in terms of how it would look on our CV. This was supposed to motivate us as we prepared for getting a faculty job in a university. Perhaps we should have done more to consider the source.

In the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey characterizes one of the seven habits as "start with the end in mind" - and here the end is not one's CV, but what one wants others to think of them at the real END. What do you want people to say of you? what do you think they'd say of you now? do they match?

It's challenging to think at the end of the day if that day was lived in such a way as to contribute to the sense of self one would hope to hear reflected by others.

Part of the Seven Habits approach is learning ways (habits) to connect daily life with such a reflection. Three of those habits stick out for me: first things first, be proactive, win win

First things First
Covey divides things we do into four quarters - from the little things that suck time and don't particularly need doing, to things that aren't so important but need doing, to things that need doing - that are important - but not urgently, finally, to things that need doing and are urgent.

He says the goal of this habit is to learn increasingly about doing the things that are important, which contribute to that sense of self and mission one wants to achieve, that are not urgent: the result is spending less time on crap or in crisis. Covey has a whole lexicon about trust, emotional bank accounts, and interdependency that makes sense in the context of a personal mission. It's an approach that addresses procrastination without once saying the word (he doesn't): is what i'm doing right now contributing to my mission? my living with the end in mind? Am i farting around with stuff that isn't important and doesn't need to be done? am i spending most of my time in crisis mode? If i focus on first things first, will i spend more time in that quadrant where what i'm doing is important (contributes to that end i want) but isn't in crisis? Where what i'm doing has value and worth?

Be Proactive
Covey also talks about building a circle of influence by being proactive. By owning an issue rather than moaning about a problem. Find the solution, put forward the idea, take the initiative and deliver it. This comes back to trust: saying i'll do something and not doing it or moaning about something rather than finding solutions - unasked for - is not helpful. It does not build up trust, it does not influence. Covey is also big on leading rather than managing people: lead people; manage things. Being proactive is a challenge when feeling worn down. Why didn't i get that opportunity? why wasn't i included in that? can be first reactions. The challenge is to say how can i turn this around by proposing a solution?

Win Win
Related to being proactive, is the notion of "win win" - engaging with people so that both parties feel like the solution they've found together is a better one than the solution they'd proposed alone.

This approach relates to Covey's other arguments about listening: seek first to understand. Be able to reflect back the other person's position, better than they could themselves.

In win win, the desire is to come up with a solution where both parties (let's say there's two parties) feel like they have a stronger solution than they would have without that exchange. One of the attributes of engaging this way is also to say sometimes there's no solution, and to agree to walk away from the matter.

The win win approach is one that Covey says he gets the most grief about as being the least realistic in "real world" settings, but he gives working examples of how this approach can succeed.

It's a life changing thing to think about embodying the habits Covey articulates. The emphasis on building trust underlying communication with others, of building any project from a collaboratively developed mission, is inspiring as well as challenging.

to start with the end in mind, to put first things first, to seek first to understand, to build trust, to develop a shared mission, to be proactive, to go for win win - these are just the highlights - it's worth listening to (or reading ) Covey to get the richer context of this approach. As he puts it, these are not quick fixes. In other contexts he uses the concept of natural laws: it takes time to get to harvest; seeds need to be planted, tended, etc. Trust relationships take time to be built. They take time but promote real change.

I like them, find them effective because they aren't things like "be sure to right down all your to do's" "draw up a budget" Making a to-do list won't work, if you don't have a reason for doing what you do. Covey talks this way about excersise: you do it because it's important to stay healthy for yourself, for your loved ones, not because you feel like it or don't feel like it: we're not run by feelings. We do it because it's the right thing to do. Likewise, if you take a first things first approach, you don't need a calendar to keep you on track (just remind you of where you have to be next). If you don't have a first things first or end in mind paradigm, devices like calendars are just that: devices that don't (at least in my experience) stay stuck.

It's worth checking out Covey's definition of habit, too. And paradigm shift. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People - is available in print, as an ebook and as an audio book which covey himself presents. Great to listen to on your personal stereo device...highly recommended

Posted by mc at 9:25 PM

March 2, 2005

No reply is a reply

What do you do when someone doesn't get the hint? or doesn't take even a direct request to stop contacting you? What do you do when, despite these requests, they persist?

Imagine the scenario where you've already said "stop, no more, desist" but you keep occasionally getting mail as if no request had been made (no acknowledgment of the reason for the request being issued). There seems no point in responding: the person has already demonstrated that they aren't interested in respecting your wishes, and a response could be taken as encouragement.

Do you continue to ignore these occasional psychic irritants? what options does one have? Especially in the virtual world: how write "mail refused: return to sender" on undesirable email?

There used to be a time in the early 19th C - and a practice that persisted into the early 20th - where people would send in their cards (calling cards) to a home to request to be seen. The person they wished to see could well be at home, but the recipient of the card had the option to refuse the current request for a visit. The card could be sent back, on a silver platter perhaps, to the sender. The gesture was usually understood; the caller retired.

With physical mail, the return of unopened mail was also well interpreted as a request for no further contact. Consider the tune Elvis made famous - and she wrote upon it: return to sender. This seemed to have the desired effect. Communication was terminated - baring of course the physical arrival of the troubadour on the recipient's doorstep, demanding further clarification of "no means no."

But with email, the great virtual postcard system, there seems no such recourse, no such mediation between the sending and the reception of the message. How is a lack of reply to email interpreted? It's not clear. It could mean the mail was not received; it's been lost in a flurry of other communication; the person is just too busy to reply right now.

Sure one can filter out email - have certain addresses immediately sent to the trash - but that leaves no trace for the sender. No receipt is returned to say "your mail has once again been shredded; was not read."

Perhaps there could be levels of rejection: where mail can be returned - bounced back on an individual level. If this is not respected, mail can be returned in shredded digital bits - again unread. But how manage unread? the new mail is highlighted; its contents exposed before one has a chance to think about it.

Where are the virtual envelopes? the virtual wax seal with signet ring crushed into its surface: a return clearly indicating the contents were not even read.

Neal Stephenson has a novel, the Diamond Age, which is set in a more technologically sophisticated future, and where the leading class have adopted Victorian manners (or an idealization of them) as a kind of civilizing layer for cultural exchanges.

"Well somethings lost and somethings gained, it happens every day" to quote a Joni Mitchel song.

In the case of email, what may have been lost are a range of subtle but useful, perhaps kind, signifiers around communication. And that still leaves the dilemma or the requirement for a perceptual shift to resolve something that is somewhere between a psychic irritant and uncalled-for distress.

Posted by mc at 10:59 AM

March 1, 2005

Blogging Until the End of the World

There is a film by Wim Wenders, Until the End of the World. In it, a scientist works on a way to let people record their dreams onto video. The characters become enamoured of watching their own dreams. Some become more adicted than others. The dream watching enacts a kind of strange narcissism.

Are blogs a similar kind of narcissism, combined with public display?

I've been asking folks about why they blog and what they blog. The answers so far have been mainly in two camps:
1) to let friends and family know what the person is up to.
2) to have a place to write something down to keep ideas from slipping away.

But these reflections are available to the WHOLE web. ANYONE can look at them. What makes that seem safe?

Are blogs effectively a broadcast medium, then? They include the facility to comment, but it seems few people do. The small number of folks i've communicated with about blogs have said that while they track other blogs, they don't usually leave comments. They'll email the blogger. So the use of the blog as a forum for public exchange isn't there it seems.

Or does it depend on the kind of / context of blog?

Posted by mc at 3:04 PM

This is a test of the Emergency broadcast system

In the event of an emergency, you would have been notified of what? i don't remember.

Do you?

Some set of instructions would have been given.

These tests used to be regular occurrences on the TV - least ways in North America, accompanied by an irritating (perhaps the point) sin wave tone.

A little googling shows that this system was instigated by Kennedy in 63.

It's an icon of cold war. Another shared cultural marker of a particular time and community. It's been how long? a generation? since the wall fell? young adults in their late 20s, born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, have no direct knowledge of the culture of fear over global nuclear devastation.

What does a film like War Games look like to a post Wall Fall person, where wee border towns like Grand Forks North Dakota are pictured on a direct nuclear flight path for anihilation? For Canadians on the other side of the border, Grand Forks of that time (and slightly more south, Fargo (same as the movie)) were Mall Stops for weekend cross border shopping sprees, where the goal was to hit Target, Kmart and find deals and products only available south of the 49th and CHEAP. Now there's walmart in Canada, so not so much incentive. but that's another story. But there they were. In holiwood and russia: strategically significant malls. The fall out would hit home. We were in the flight path of global nuclear annihilation. This is a test. This is only a test. It's a bonding thing.

What are the icons of cultural communion in the post cold-war error. It took a generation to develop it - the War on Drugs perhaps a pilot test for the globalization of "evil." But now, an icon of globalized engagement, in the era of the internet, is the "war on terror," where there are no walls to fall, where borders are irrelevant, where communication is networked, elusive.

Ideology on fire. Secret. Peer to peer. Distributed. privileged.

is there more to be wrought from the analogy of P2P, globalization and that the cultural divider of our time would be "terror" of the fleeting, unpredictable, rather than the identifiable, vast, specific arsenals and silos of hardware?

Posted by mc at 2:53 PM