January 30, 2011

Difficult Listening, bathtubs and kitchen chairs -- as Flow

So sit bolt upright
In that Hard Backed Chair ...
and get ready for some
Difficult Music

- laurie anderson, difficult listening hour, home of the brave

Of course that's a double irony isn't it? First the playing on the notion of easy listening with its antithesis, and then framing "difficult" in terms of a delightful and engaging (rather than impenetrable) performance.

I thought of this twisting of what is relaxing and entertaining with our notions of what can be hard or perhaps challenging to figure out. This, of necessity, lead to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's notion of FLow and Carole Goble's meditation on the relation of bathtubs, coffee and reading research literature.

In Prof. Goble's framing, she proposed (and i am dammed if i can recall where, but one of her madly compelling talks) that there is a paper reading polarity: the work that can be well appreciated with a glass (or was it bottle) of wine while soaking in a tub and the one that requires coffee at the kitchen table.

Since then, i have been wondering if perhaps there is even a greater continuum between or perhaps beyond these to opposite (or apposite) points.

I should like to propose that from time to time we encounter the double espresso, hardback chair at kitchen table, avec papier. This one is where one actually needs to make little figures to work out what the heck is going on.

What does this have to do with Csikszentmihalyi's Flow? Well, one might propose that there is the paper where one is at such a remove from it, it might as well be blank for all we can get out of it - or perhaps one back from it, we try and it leaves us standing facing into a corner drooling. I own i generally back out before i hit that point, feeling that the weakness is in me and i am not worthy. Yet.

THe other end of the spectrum might also be to be so bored by the insipidness that one risks swallowing one's own tongue in having to read to the end. One might ask - why would one ever keep reading? Ah! the review process brings all sorts of things through the door, does it not, that one cannot refuse.

I personally do not want to put either of the beyond states of either boredom or fear on this continuum. Here's why: my take on Carole's dialectic is that both ends are pleasurable. At the Tub end, one is delighted with being able to run along happily and feel engaged with an interesting process; at the coffee end, it's like having a great workout - challenged by not winded. I'd say even the double espresso with the harder chair and paper notepad is a version of same: one is still hanging on; one is working harder, but, like sprint intervals, more than once or twice a week might induce nervous system collapse.

The boredom or fear papers are not delightful.

In Csikszentmihalyi's Flow, he maps out where this state of flow happens: we are sufficiently challenged that we remain engaged in a task, and sufficiently challenged that we must pay attention to the task. He argues that if we are so over challenged that we cannot get purchase on the task, then we cannot achieve flow; likewise if something is so banal that it does not present any challenge, we are similarly left unengaged. This is not the happy paper experience. This is not flow or delight or a good workout or practice.

And heck flow doesn't always have to be comfortable - it's not all bathtubs and wine. Some flow is what in the Talent Code, Daniel Coyle talks about as Deliberate Practice: where one is in the uncomfortable place of working through one's mistakes with the intent to figure out what's wrong and fix it. Ask anyone who's twisted up over a math problem or a challenging passage in playing a rif, or bouldering a particularly frustrating path over a rock. And coming off repeatedly. Wiring in the rif is difficult. uncomfortable. satisfying. GOOD TIMES (after).

And so all i propose in thinking about extending or more discretely populating Carole's polarity is that just as there are degrees or kinds of flows, there may be degrees of wine to coffee, tub to table.

so far i think i've only encountered one refinement - the double espresso avec papier.

I'd be interested to learn if you've found others. For instance, what might be the sofa and X beverage type paper? is there one?

Posted by mc at 11:03 PM | Comments (0)

April 21, 2009

What is Web Science? No really, What is the CORE of Web Science? the Web Self

Ok What IS Web Science?

This question was posed at the recent web science conference by some wild and crazy researchers from that wild and crazy town, Paris. The resulting video features Tim Berners-Lee speaking French, among others. french words french words french words french words linked-data french wordsf rench words...200904220929.jpg

Last year for the Web science workshop at the WWW conference, a few of us also sent in a video asking the question "what is web science" (that alas we had to agree never to show again -something about TBL in the WSRI space station, i think). It featured a series of long pauses and laughter from researchers working in the very area in response to the question. Including with Tim. Now there's this new video. And no pauses, but with long and divergent replies. Except from Wendy Hall with her concise " it's the intersection of these disciplines but more than that. it's everything really" We'll come back to this.

But the Paris Video goes beyond this fundamental What is It question and asks: "what is the core of Web Science" with answers from its four experts supplied in due form.

That's the question that got me thinking. what's the core of web science?

my first thought that 'it's an egg' - i don't know where that came from, but setting that aside, the core of web science now it seems is a leap of faith, a trusting of instinct, and a large excavation project.

It reminds me of the way stephen king describes writing a story - as archaeology - that one is brushing and trowling away the bones in situ - to say "gosh what is that?"

To rif past where King stops, to talk a little more about archaeology, the practice is, as we excavate, we apply theories to what we see. Even if there's only a piece of it. Even when we have the whole thing we don't always know what it is or how it works. we're still making up stories to understand it. we seek models we can test against the discovery.

There's the old story in 200904220937.jpg archaeology that when you don't know what something is, call it a religious artefact. My favorite application of this theory has been to what will happen centuries from now when aliens dig up the 6 ring pop can holders? religious artefact of some dualistic trinity: it's a ubiquitous symbol, it's made of stuff that lasts eternally so must have high value, it's also cheap and portable so used cross culutrally, etc etc etc.

In the case of even defining web science, it strikes me again as this kind of excavation at the present (or perhaps it's like how cosmologists detect a new star). We know something's there, and it's big. We know it's exerting an effect and we know that it operates in several disciplinary dimensions. Part of the challenge at the heart of web science is how do we combine these lenses into an Uber Lens to enable us to see this thing better?

And why would we want to do that anyway?

More than because it's there, it's something new to do, or any other cynical codswallop (there's a word you don't get to use every day), but more i think because, this is something WE made - we contribute to it and use it daily. Tim may be the Big Bang but we're all engaging in the expanding universe's cosmology. There, i have shifted metaphors from archaeology to Big Science. Yodelayheehoo as Laurie Anderson once said.

Big Science?

But it's in that yodel where those of us thinking about the Web and it's effect - and the web and models for webliness may be drawn. Tim has compared the number of web connections with the numbers of neurons in the brain "there the comparison kind of stops" he says, but it's still something of a gee whiz. does that mean something?

It's kind of interesting that we actually struggle to find a succinct definition of what it is we're trying to do. Did computer science have this hard a time when it was breaking away from Math to call itself a Thing? Did the Defense Department? Several Scientific Board meetings have been given over to asking this question "what is web science" - and coming at a reply rather obliquely in "the overlap of a bunch of disciplines" Somehow that just seems dissatisfying.

So we come at it by questions where we don't have answers: what's the predictive model for the web, for instance? but that doesn't really set anyone's hair on fire, does it?

More i think it's that there's a gal who got a bee in her bonnet to trust her gut that there's something there, and then fired up a bunch of other people [ insert link to future novel, large historical archive of letters, photos, etc here] to say "yes, we could do something with this."

Which comes back to the core, and the excavation, and the need to do this.

There was a book in the 80's with the unfortunately gender specific title of Grammatical Man. The argument was very interesting though: that all the things we build are in some ways (if i remember this right) examples of us trying to rebuild ourselves to understand ourselves. Rockets and machines and all such things were part of this case. But these are the products of specialists that are largely only consumed by us (the products, not the specialists). this is the one where we all kick at it - it's such a cool platform; we're working to make it even more malleable.

With the web, we are all webbed up. Increasing numbers of us are adding to it. There have been world wide networks before, and continue to be the same for telecommunications, learning, etc. But they are also service oriented, infrastructure oriented, rather than something whose strings we keep tugging at, keep from going transparent. And while there is great interest to include the social side of the Web in any discussion of Web Science (pdf), what does the fact that that is such a part of this thing mean? Here, with the great ability to post our thoughts for the world to see, and exchange micro bits of information with each other, mediated via this massive IT that is THE WEB we have something we haven't had before in terms of record (though that too is reshaping since pages change so frequently - stability and its value are being replaced with currency perhaps?).

Mirror Mirror

There is something so narcissistic about the web too. In Wim Wender's Until the End of the World,


participants became lost in being able to rewatch recordings of their own dreams. Now, we can rewatch our blog posts, or social network status, or "ego check" our "selves" on google. We are our own favorite commodity. There's nothing new there, but that we have this super new mirror, this social grooming, this status in multiple new dimensions.

What is this? No wonder there's a group of people asking this question. That the first organized cadre happens to be mainly engineers and social scientists is perhaps no surprise. How do we build it? Where are we going with it? What have we done? what are we doing?

Some other questions that may be related - i mean, you have to ask - is, especially with the brain parallel, will it (whatever the web is/has evolved/evolving into) become aware? evolve its own kind of intelligence (it certainly seems to know a lot about us) - with Web Science, will we become aware of it first? and then what?

Even that's a question in the web science agenda: once we get to grips with this discovery of the web's 'ness, what will that let us do that we couldn't do before? predict the next phenomenon before it emerges so we can all develop great IPO's? That's more codswallop, of course. But perhaps, perhaps being able to get a sense of immanent emergence is a good thing. Are there any examples in science fiction where that's the case?

What are we making here in our own image? Consider the early days of the web. People's photos of their cats, and a huge drive to produce credit card security for buying porn. There are anthropologists on the WSRI board? Is the Web our mirror? or just a mirror for some of us? If it reflects all our basic desires (and why wouldn't it), we see there are healers and healing across the web. Has there been the opposite too? It's roots in Arpanet.

And if this web thing is us - our wiring and desires all exposed and writ so vast we need a new science to understand it, will we find ourselves looking back up the microscope, and find we're not at all really who we thought we were? Do we ever transcend our expectations of ourselves?

So what is the core of Web Science? well it's us, isn't it? it is the archaeology and cosmology and engineering of a question that has bridged, it seems, who am i, to who are we? That in itself seems a profound evolution of our identity from i to we. or perhaps its not us that's evolved, but this thing outside us, that is so much about and for us, but may end up not being and being us all at once.

Oh yes, web science, go go go. Lay down, web scientists wanna be's or already are's, the requirements to say "this is what web science is; here's our 20 page manifesto" and hire up some medievalists to go with the anthropologists to help tell the story that web science is about discovery. IT's the tale of the green knight. It's not a quest, but it's the inescapable pull of self, isn't it: there's an entity Out There - that we seem to have created - that escapes our ken, and we want to ken it; we need to ken it. There's really no option: we're gonna ken it, or give it a dam good go. It's too fort - da compelling.   

Yes, it seems so clear and inevitable now: of course there's a web science. somehow we'll get what that learning may be. We may even get to that uber lens of disciplines to uncover this thing, if we realize, despite all the talk of big machines, huge scale and everything else, we are looking for while trying to develop another, a new, model of ourselves, and we are all pouring into that those grains of ourselves we wish others to know, love, desire of ourselves. Including successful research careers. But perhaps something gestaltier, too?

And one more thought - in our projects to enhance the web, if we ask ourselves if they reflect our better selves, our best selves, is this what we'd be doing first?

thanks for reading.



research "fellow"

Posted by mc at 5:27 PM | Comments (0)

November 24, 2008

Building Knowledge: What's Beyond Keyword Search?

The success of the Web as the main provender of information is indisputable. If a company or government is not on the web, it effectively does not exist. A key to the Web's phenomenal success, intriguingly, is in some respects less the information on it, than in our ability to find the information it references. Indeed, the main way we access the Web is via that wee box that from a few words seems to read our mind and return a list of links to resources we want. So successful has this approach to finding information become that on the one hand it is difficult to remember how we managed to find any information at all prior to web based keyword search, and on the other, it's difficult to envision needing or wanting any other tool for information discovery. If we can find it with Google, what more do we need?

Successful paradigms can sometimes constrain our ability to imagine other ways to ask questions that may open up new and more powerful possibilities. The Newtonian model of the universe-as-clockworks, for instance, is still a sound paradigm to explain a great deal of physical phenomena. Indeed, one may say it was only some niggling phenomena that were not well described by that model already that begged the question might their be a better model, a different paradigm? Relativity, a very different way to imagine the behaviours in the manifest world, opened up whole new ways of understanding our universe.

The success of the Google paradigm may be our Newtonian paradigm for the Web. It enables us to do so much information discovery that it is difficult to imagine what we cannot do with the paradigm of continually refining search terms to get to The Result. The approach Google has made ubiquitous, however, does assume that there is An Answer Out There; if we can just specify the query correctly, we can find It.

But how does the Google paradigm help a busy mom find a better job quickly, effectively, that is a match for her passion and skills. And if that mom could use some extra training to support that skill to get that better job, how would the Google paradigm bring in that highly relevant information that is outside the constraints of the keyword search?

In the Information Retrieval and Information Seeking literature, these kinds of more complex, rich information discovery and knolwedge building tasks have been modelled in terms of Search strategies and tactics (Think bates and belkin). In the relatively recent work classed as Exploratory search (see Special Issue, CACM April 2006)., the emphasis has been on harmonizing human computer Interaction design approaches with models of information seeking to develop new tools that will support these alternative kinds of search and knowledge building.

Examples of such approaches include:

  • knowledge building by association: being able to explore the scope of a domain to create new knowledge through building associations between one domain/concept with another (HT paper 07), rather than by seeing "an answer" in any one item.
  • wanting to explore a domain without sufficient knowledge of the domain. Someone who is not an expert may look for one piece of information without realizing that another component, not matched by a keyword search, is highly relevant.
  • annotations and notes. A well known way of supporting knowledge building is to be able to annotate information for a specific context. For instance, "The socket described worked well for this project but was miserable for this other - despite what the authors claim here" Similarly being able to create notes ABOUT something and add references easily from related sources is another powerful knowledge building technique
  • Collections. Pulling together information resources as they are discovered for future knowledge building, as part of information triage (Marshall and Shipman) is another approach for developing knowledge
  • History Review. Interrogating both previously looked for information as well working back through the paths taken to that information.
  • Collaborative knowledge building. A common feature of (non-digital) knowledge building activity is collaborative contribution to knowledge building, from brain storming to shared component development.

Each of these approaches to knowledge building involve exploration of information that yes, pull together a wide array of information resources, but that have less to do with specific iterative searches for a particular pre-existing answer, than support for the development of a New Answer through the interrogation and association of these sources. To support these different kinds of knowledge building goals, we need to develop the tools that will support these kinds of approaches to exploration. The goal of this article is to consider some of the nascent efforts that have been developed around these non-keyword search paradigms.

Exploratory Search Tools to Date

The pre-history of Exploratory Search can be seen in the raison d'etre of hypertext: to support human made associations through knowledge spaces. Nelson, who coined the term "hypertext" in 1965 was inspired by Vanevar Bush's close of WWII vision of the Memex. The goal of the Memex was to support better knowledge management of a post war Science Explosion by helping scientists build, maintain and share their own paths through the document space. Bush called these paths Trails. He postulated that these human made Trails of associations would be more meaningful for scientific discovery than having to track up and down through library taxonomies of texts. Nelson took Trails and imagined what was to become the key component of the Web: the Link, the ability to "transclude" or connect by reference into a new document both one's own thoughts with others' work to develop a perpetual exchange of ideas. A key attribute of the hypertext link was to support non-linear exploration of information for free form association building. Nelson, an Arts graduate, imagined "A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate" a few years before computer scientist Doug Engelbart first presented the NLS, including the debut of the Mouse for navigating a dynamic file linking system, shared screen collaboration, and hypertext. A critical component of the NLS demo was providing multiple visualizations for the ways files and their associated categorization/hierarchies could be represented or resorted.

15 years later, prior to the networked web, Trigg's Notecards system (1984), put NLS on steroids via somewhat richer visualizations of the types of linking functions already described in NLS. While most hypertext researchers point to Triggs formalization of link types as his key contribution, from an HCI perspective that he chose the note card as the metaphor for his system is for our purposes significant. The card paradigm would later be developed into spatial hypertext (Marshall and Shipmen; Bernstein) to support not just a temporal model of seeing one card at a time (a limit of 1984 display systems) but of being able to support the cognitive model of presenting information akin to the layout and re-organization of cards in a physical world in order to build new knowledge through the association of this information. Bernstein's Tinderbox is a commercial application that leverages this visualizaiton for information sense making and for building new knowledge as associations emerge. A data mining engine in the software also exposes potential associations on a topic to surface further information possibilities. It is only recently, in research projects like VIKI by Dontecheva and Drucker that have begun to bring spatial hypertext metaphors to the web, via Web 2.0 protocols. It's early days yet for these projects, but it will be interesting to see how this approach may be used to build, organize and share new knowledge, and what the translation will be between cards-as-notes and documents.

Another related exploratory search thread in the pre web research space that has been Hypertext is adaptive/adaptable hypermedia. Summarized by Brusilovsky, Adaptive Hypermedia sought to blend context awareness with hypertext to deliver the appropriate set of links and trails through a document space. The main scenarios for adaptive hypermedia have been context-aware tour systems and learning programs. The goal of adaptive hypermedia has been, through a user-model, to anticipate the best delivery of material to best support what a person needs to achieve a particular goal, whether that's to get a customized tour of a museum based on one's cultural preferences, or to get the best learning package based on one's current knowledge of a domain. If successful evaluation of these systems has been relatively thin on the ground, they expose the challenge, desire and potential to try to refine a search space based on a person's needs and interests, rather than keyword searches alone.

Some take-aways from these preweb representations of knowledge building across automated resources (both real and imagined) is that Search as keyword search has been largely absent from the main visions of these systems. Perhaps it was simply assumed as a rudimentary tool/strategy such as rooting through the various categorizations of a card catalogue, but it seems important to realize that strategies such as recovering the path through a document space from start to goal (Trails) were seen as critical. Likewise visualizations that privileged non-linear, non-temporally restricted representations of information such operations that can be carried out with notecards - stacking, sorting, selectively displaying, sharing, tagging - were also seen as key parts of information building and communication of that information. And then the Web happened.

This pre-history of current Web-based exploratory search approaches is likewise important because it motivates a kind of recherche du temps perdu - we have been here before, asking how to best enable knowledge discovery - not as fact retrieval but in terms of how to support and enhance that retrieval for building new knowledge. With the astounding success of the Googleverse, however, we occasionally demonstrate a kind of amnesia about what we once sought to achieve. Part of this amnesia may be driven by a similar kind of Newtonian Model success: we've gotten so much out of this approach so far, why not keep digging away at it, push *its* limits? Google demonstrated such envelop pushing by showing how search term patterns correlate to the movement of the flu in the USA.

Early Web Serendipity and Serendipity Redux

One of the celebrated features in the early days of the web - something we have heard less about in the past few years - is the ability to explore a domain. To "surf" the web was a common expression: it meant that we navigated from linked page to linked page - pre the power of search engines - to come upon information serendipitously. The power of the hypertext link was ascendant. this surfing as sense making was something that was not as readily possible in the physical world: books or documents do not have ready links to other documents. While references may be embedded in documents, and one could go from one physical reference, and physically track through a library to another, this took considerable time. The more or less immediate ability to decide to follow one link rather than another and have that linked document returned and displayed caused the notion of serendipitous discovery to be foregrounded as a key value of the web. It made serious and valuable the hours spend surfing that might otherwise be seen as a non-productive use of time. The lack of a powerful search engine made this navigational hit and miss, buggy approach to information finding on the the web a feature rather than a bug. in its early days Indeed, the acceleration of the serendipitous discovery from the rare to the frequent demonstrated another power of the web: acceleration of an analogue process once it goes digital begins to change that practice and our expectations from it. We'll come back to the role of acceleration.

So what has happened to web surfing? The scale of the web has grown so profoundly that surfing has been largely replaced by searching interspersed with select sources of mediation, such as blogs, rss feeds and social networks: we leverage each other's serendipity. We serendip within a smaller set of known resources and search with intent for particular answers. We google so much that it has become a verb that presidential candidates must know to be seen as au fait with the cultural memes about "the internets" and "the google;" those who would serve and who are not current with what is perceived as such basic literacy may be the recipient/victim of "google bombs." These bombs are only so effective because this kind of search has become the key way by which we find information.

The Web as such a networked model of documents misses some of the key features of document exploration we have had in the physical world. Artefacts like library shelves let someone get a sense of the scale of a domain by looking at the space taken up by a topic. Classification systems meant that related topics could be clustered in physical space and located. Some argue that it's impossible to put shelves/categorization systems on the web. Indeed, early ways of exploring the web were through categorization systems like Yahoo and the Internet Directory Project that seemed to fail at scale. The categories, it seemed, became to brittle for the fluid growth of the Web. One of the early Exploratory Search paradigms has been to revisit the notion of categories valuable ways to make sense of a domain and see if there mayn't be a role for such an approach within the web. These models have become known as Facetted Search.

Facetted Search: the Metadata is the Message

Whereas a keyword search brings together a list of ranked documents that match those search terms, the goal of a facetted search is to enable a person to explore a domain via its attributes. One of the most well known examples of such a browser is Apple's iTunes application which is an interface to access and playback tracks or sets of tracks from a collection of music files.


The browser to the collection presents three columns, representing three facets of the Music domain: genre, artist, album. Attributes matching these facets are populated into the columns.A selection in any column acts as a filter on the column to its right. Once a selection is made, and the right column(s) filtered, a list of individual tracks matching those selected is presented in the lower most browser pane. Keyword search is integrated into iTunes such that the list of data matching the search terms populates the facets in the columns as well as returns a list of individual track results. This layout means that even after the keyword search results are returned, the facets can be operated upon to further explore the collection. If results returned cover multiple genres it is easy to highlight those instances that are associated with a given artist, genre or album.

Exploration by facet enables one to make new connections about a domain or its attributes within a domain. One might, for instance discover that someone perceived to be a Jazz artist has also recorded Country music, which may lead one to explore Country music - something previously thought to be of no interest. This same ability to reconsider a domain via attributes also supports creating new knowledge about the domain: a person may not know that these attributes are a way of interpreting a domain. In online shopping sites it is increasingly common when looking for an item to be presented with facets as a way of refining a query by seeing visually, what ways that query can be narrowed . For instance, after doing a search for "sweater" a range of categories to choose from are presented: Category: men's, women's, snow boarding, kids. Feature: on sale, colour, brand or price.


Enriched Facets. Another attribute of note in this small commercial example that goes beyond even iTunes is quantity. The facets not only provide the categories of sweater possible, but how many of each there are. In a sense this is reminiscent of seeing the number of books on a shelf for a particular topic: we immediately get a greater sense of the domain from this simple cue.

A facetted browser that has made particular use of representing quantity is the RB++ browser.


Here, several types of information are visually communicated. First, histogram bars against each attribute in a facet show how many documents are associated with that facet. Hovering over a facet reduces the histograms accordingly to show clearly which attributes are included in the remaining set if that attribute is selected.


selecting mathematics (above)


then selecting Asia after mathematics (above).

Again, it is informative in an of itself to be able to see that in an education curriculum space regarding mathematics that about 25% of the associated information is about Asian curriculum performance, that the documents are mainly in the k-12 space and available as web pages. In this respect the RB++ browser persistently presents the total documents associated with the space, as well as the effect of selection on the space. These light weight information markers provide additional attributes on a space that are not available from keyword search alone.

Backwards Highlighting (UIST08) in the mSpace browser is a similar way of showing effects of selection across facets in what is otherwise known as a directional browser like iTunes. In iTunes, a selection in the middle or left column only filters to the right; it does not populate back to the columns to the left of that selection. Picking the artist "radiohead" in other words does not show with what Genres that band is associated. Backwards highlighting shows both the filter to the right as well as the possible paths that could be associated with that selection from the left. In the example of a newsfilm space below, where the facets are decade, year, theme, subject and story, a person has picked the 1940's in the leftmost column. The columns to the right are all filtered by that choice. They next choose a Theme in the third column. The effect of this selection is both to filter the remaining columns to the right, but also to highlight two items in the Year column to the left from which the selected third column item is related. The intensity of the highlights also shows a person which attributes were deliberately selected (the bright highlight) and which were calculated (the duller highlight). These simple information guides have been shown to assist both recall and descriptions of information in a domain.


Making Sense of the Facets themselves. Another sense making attribute that can be associated with an individual item in a facet is a Preview Cue. Preview cues were designed to help users unfamiliar with a domain and its attributes which may still be presented at a level of expertise outside the ken of the explorer. For instance, someone unfamiliar with classical music may not find much exploratory help in a list of types like Sonata or Symphony or periods like Classical or Baroque. They can make a judgement about the actual music represented by an attribute and whether or not they like that sound. The preview cue, in the classical music example, associates a set of music samples with that attribute. Once the samples are triggered the person can either step through those samples, or based on the first one played decide if they wish to explore that area of the domain further, or move on.


In the image above, hovering over the Speaker icon has triggered a preview cue for the Baroque Composer Reneau. 3 selections by the artist are also cued up in the preview cue. Note also that where Baroque in Period has been selected, a description of the selected facet is presented. Likewise, to help develop an understanding of the domain, when an item associate with a facet is selected, information about that facet is presented.

So far we have seen how small cues associated with static facets can enrich their value for users exploring a domain. mSpace has focused on supporting manipulations of the facets to be presented. mSpace refers to the presentation of facets as a "slice" through a domain space, and enables the facets in the slice to be reordered, as well as enabling other facets to be added or removed to a slice.


This ability to reorganize a slice according to a person's interests was motivated by the desire to enable a person to explore a domain by what is relevant or known to them: to enable them to have more facility to make sense of a domain in ways that are meaningful to them. In the newsfilm world for instance, one may be more interested to organize a space around the work of a particular reporter than around a particular topic.

Visualizations to Enhance Representations for Knowledge Building

While the above discussion has highlighted the simple ways in which information facets can be decorated to enable rich exploration of a domain, mash ups have also shown us the value of re-presenting those attributes across a variety of visualizations. Exhibit is an example of a tool that provides facetted exploration of data along with visualizing that data against maps and timelines


The value of these representations is in the questions they foreground that can be asked. The Presidents facets makes it easy to see at a glance that most Presidents were born on the eastern side of the US. That Cleveland was the last president to hold office completely inside the 19th Century (MacKinley bridges 19th and 20th C).

Projects like LifeLinesII have taken larger sets of data such as patient's health records and medical test results, mashed them up, in order to enable medical professionals to align rank and sort them according to the attributes available on the data. This visualized and parameterized mash up readily facilitates seeing whether and where there might be correlations across populations of timing of a drug, for instance, with respsonses to it when other conditions are present. While IBM's manyEyes shows the value of being able to share visualizations of data quickly for powerful analysis, by adding manipulatable facets onto the visualization, LifelinesII enables dynamic exploration of many "what if" scenarios to be explored and new discoveries through correlations to be made.


Moving from Data Manipulations to Tracking New Ideas

Facetted browsers and tunable visualizations as we have seen make it possible to ask questions either not easily expressed in a keyword search, but also facilitate rapid refinement of queries with real time direct manipulation. Spatial layout of the data's attributes for manipulation allows relationships within the data to remain available for rapid comparison. Likewise mapping data against different kinds of coordinates like quantity, temporal and spatial qualities enables additional information to be communicated without actively seeking for it, enabling the information implicitly to inform query manipulation.

Related to actual data manipulation for exploring data and generating new insights is the question of what to do with the information while moving through it - information we may want to return to later, but not now; thoughts we have mid stream that we'd like to capture without leaving our current focus. All these types of interactions are components of enhancing our information seeking and knowledge building practice.

Currently, we have seen the use of tags-as-annotation as one strategy to enhance the personal or social network value of found things: a tag helps gather that artefact into many potentially relevant contexts. Indeed, the popularity of online photo tagging has rather destroyed the credibility of the oft expressed sentiment that people won't add metadata to their data. Indeed the social sharing value that tags enables, such as a social network being given a set of artefacts from a space tagged specifically for a collaborative project has high value: someone on the team found this thing relevant to our work. Projects like Folksonomies are considering how more strcutured taxonomies may emerge from these flat spaces in order to add the value of categories for exploration to these annotations.

Beyond tags (single words) to strings, or data that's more recognizable as a note or comment on a document, SparTag.us enables not only notes to be associated with a Web page and shared, but these notes can automatically show up anywhere online the document may be cloned. The authors of the technique make the compelling case that much of the Web's available content, from news articles to blog posts, is frequently reprinted verbatim. But what do we do with something we find interesting in the middle of a search? The most common approach is to bookmark or otherwise record the URL for a given post. As work in Hunter Gatherer showed (2002) however, sometimes we don't want the whole document. We want a piece of a document. In Hunter Gatherer, components of Web pages could be captured by highlighted text and hitting a control key. The text was titled and the URL automatically associated with it, and was captured in a linear list called a "collection. " As mentioned previously, drawing on earlier hypertext ideas and modern graphics processing, work by Donetcheva and Drucker on VIKI takes the collection notion and enables each component captured to be laid out as an individual card (2006). LiveLabs recent version of this project adds machine learning processes so that extracted addresses from a collection can be automatically mapped; books can be explored via extracted author or genre information, and cars by price, engine size, model and so on.

Right now, each of these categories of information extraction - books, cars, addresses, people - have been handwrapped widgets matched with the machine learning, and deployed at personal scale. It will be interesting to see how the benefits of formally facetted data can be brought to wilder data collections where machine learning techniques can extract these values for richer re-presentations.

Whither the Note Book , History and what i don't know i need to know?

At a recent NSF workshop on Information Seeking, two of the components that the discussants kept resurfacing as critical tools for exploratory search were History and Note Keeping. An expressed desire was for tools that would help surface things we should know about if and when we're looking at a given topic.

For history currently, we have the History list of our browsers, it's true. But show me someone who has tried to refind something based on History alone and i'll show you a frustrated person. In mSpace, when someone shares an article with another person, they also share the state of the facets to get to that artefact so a larger context of discovery is available. Going outside the context of a single application, the Jourknow project (UIST07) proposes being able to use local computer context to associate and recover information across personal facets like location (from wireless mapping and calendar information), date, and applications to support questions like "what pages was i looking at when i was in the cafe last sunday?" This kind of approach to information seeking does not discriminate between possible search contexts like public, social, private, or application-specific data. The philosophy beyond journknow is that any process might inform any other process of interrogation and discovery: how can we make them available to each other for exploration? Will this ability to blend personal, social and public data itself surface new knowledge/discoveries?

Such questions lead us to come back to questions around how do we capture and reflect upon the knowledge building we are doing? Right now, the main paradigm for exploration is to "go to the web" - via a browser - to trawl for information. Is this the optimal interaction? It seems there are at least two challenges for knowledge building via information seeking while we are working on our own thoughts, or bluntly, when we are taking notes. We may wish to take notes about something while we're reading it - hence being able to select and annotate web documents, as imagined by Nelson decades ago, is as yet uncommon, and still very much in the research wood shed. But likewise we write notes on our own thoughts. Blogging is a popular demonstration of how well writing notes, thoughts or articles is supported - where we can effortlessly add in links to other information. Indeed, with trackbacks, we can also inform those to whom we've linked that a conversation involving their work is underway. Comments on blogs set up meta conversations around the initial seed of a discussion. Fabulous. But blogging is still largely text based. Sure we can link in photos and YouTube videos, but there is many other kinds of data that we might want to reflect upon and share with others.

For instance, consider a scientist who wants to gather up scientific data generated from an experiment, add some notes, tie in some data about the apparatus, along with several quotations about the informing theory, all to give as a blog to a colleague to ask "why aren't my results what the theory predicted? On a more casual note, someone has used VIKI thoughtfully to gather considerable data about various digital cameras. In the mix is the camera they've selected to purchase. How would that annotation be captured to be shared? or the features that were important easily selected for persistent views? And as the data rapidly goes out of date, how might the person share the attributes of their choice to act as a template for a friend's future choice? Backstory (Venolia 08) is a search tool that has been developed to look at some of these issues within a software developer support group works. Gathering up web based sources with local resources and notes on contexts of use, Backstory makes it possible to share local knowledge within a team across data object types. Backstory is a start to taking collections and making the rationale for those collections easier to share, but we are still very light on such wrapping for reuse tools. Right now, wrapping knowledge about gathered artefacts for reuse is what Dan Olson would call a highly "viscous" process: the cost of carrying out the process of gathering organizing annotating and managing the data may be higher than the perceived benefit, and a knowledge building opportunity is postponed or lo

If these kinds of data gathering and sharing tasks for enhanced knowledge building were better supported, we can readily imagine that the process of discovery and innovation would accelerate. As we have seen with Google, when a process accelerates, such as finding a phone number or a paper or the answer to a "what is it" question, the activities supported by those processes change. If we can do something quickly, trivially now that used to take days or hours, we can move on more rapidly from information seeking to knowledge building.

Related to this kind of human enhanced annotated and gathered set of data for another's engagement is what the machine may be able to bring to the table. A repeated demand at the NSF workshop was, "tell me what i don't know i need to know." Such a challenge goes beyond related recommendations of people who read this also bought that. Recently we looked at search behaviours of 2000 users looking for information on diets. We saw that people who also found diet forums came to a decision about what diet they wanted to pursue in about half the time of others who did not. We also saw that the forum users' queries were quite distinct from those who had not found the forums. We know from related research that social support for dieting is a signficant benefit. This preliiminary study seems to indicate that seeing someone search for diet information, and hooking them up with forums where diet support is the topic of the space would be one of the good things to know that a neophyte would not know they need to know. The design challenges here are significant: how can we surface this kind of valuable associated knowledge that would not show up in a keyword search? how do we reflect back why information of this type was being surfaced? Are there ethical issues around how information is selected to be associated? eg, people who are interested in explosives might also want to know about off shore suppliers of hydrogen peroxide?

These kinds of challenges are exciting to contemplate. They suggest that there are many more ways in which we already want to be able to find, manipulate, ponder, share and reflect upon information - all with the facility of keyword search, but none of which keyword search addresses. All which are part of the larger space of "information seeking" beyond simple "search"

So while Google can certainly find data with an increasingly freaky extrasensory like ability, there are so many other aspects to our information seeking and knowledge building practices that, if they too were on Google like steroids, we could return to that initial scenario of a busy mom being able to come to the computer and say "i want a better job" and see a result set perhaps that shows

Your Interests matched with Current Skills Needed Additional Skills Where to Get Training Where to Apply for Positions Now, here's a package to send - would you like to amend any details? would you like me to dial the number for you?

Posted by mc at 3:53 PM | Comments (0)

October 13, 2008

Zeitgeist the Movie, Elections and Impunity

So i asked awhile ago if elections for president in the US could be predicted on the basis of whose campaign had the most money. I also said i didn't know whose did right now, but that a list of corporate donations was available. Critically, both presidential candidates went to the Senate to vote on a bill that had failed in the house. Both went to support the bill. Both gave speeches to endorse it.

Unlike the UK rescue package just going into effect this morning (Oct 13, 08), it seems there are no shares/stakes in the banks changing hands. There, the operator of the Fed and former head of Goldman Sachs (rival of the failed Lehman Brothers) uses his discretion to buy up bad debt from banks. In the UK, we are told, we actually *own* significant stakes in the banks that are assisted. American tax payers will be absorbing debt in exchange for what? More debt?

There's an interesting film called Zeitgeist. It actually comes in two parts, and the second part, the Addendum, focusses almost exclusively on the monetary system of the Federal Reserve (and IMF and World Bank). In that, by reading through and translating the documents that enable the Fed (a private bank), it makes clear how the current system attaches debt to every dollar created. So each dollar costs the government a dollar + something. And then interest is charged on this money. There's more about loans, inflation and so on, but at the heart of it is with the central bank, dollars are alway money+debt.

This is the system we are all in a sweat to bail out? something that immediately means that through income tax (which some in the states argue is illegal - was never appropriately passed into law) where a quarter of one's earnings goes not to hospitals and other government services, but to service the debt of the Fed - a debt that by its nature can never be repaid, since the creation of a dollar by itself incurs debt.

Whoever thought this was a good idea?

What else is compelling is that it is actually well known that various significant market and bank panics of the past were engineered by bankers in an effort to consolidate their own wealth. this is monopoly capitalism at play. It's not about diversity, is it? And what of the current "crisis"? If it were not manufactured as well, would it not, we are lead to ask, be an exception?

The above is part 1 on the Fed. The rest is on youtube, dvd and at the film's site.
Posted by mc at 9:36 AM | Comments (0)

October 8, 2008

Does the Presidential Candidate with the Most Money Win? Follow the Money?

Is it true that in US elections the presidential candidate who has raised the most campaign money won? A traditional marker of outcome for party primaries has been something called the "money primary." We saw that this past year.

During the primaries last spring when things were hot between Obama and Clinton, and i was asked by american colleagues whom i though might win i asked "who has the most money?" I recall that some of my other US colleagues from my post doc said that was far too cynical and oversimplified (i think they were the ones, a decade ago, who had drawn this connection to my attention). And while both candidates could boast about large cash balances at various points, by the end of the race, we know who was flush and who was loaning a campaign personal funds.

So that's primaries, but what about the election? What about the Presidency? Obama is ahead in many of the polls, and all things look likely, while some commentators have said well it would be over if he were white, but race is an issue. If that's the case, does that mean that funds or no longer a predictor? Where is the campaign funding barometer at?

During the primaries, we got regular updates about how much cash each candidate had brought in. These figures were particularly jaw dropping in the democratic primary with tens of millions coming in per MONTH. There hasn't been as much discussion of funds during this part of the election - i've only found one list of corporate donations and haven't fact checked it, but it will be interesting to see if it turns out to be indicative.

Posted by mc at 9:36 AM

September 29, 2008

George Bush is Confident; Why Aren't You? - a review of questions the media isn't apparently asking about the bailout

I'm not an economist or a politician or a banker. But i have often believed the mantra "consider the source"

George Bush refers to the 700bn bailout package agreed to by "both parties" with the repeated phrases that "i'm confident" that this measure will re-establish confidence in the markets.

Let's see, this is George Bush who was confident about weapons of mass destruction; who was confident in a short war in Iraq; that Saddam was involved in Al Quaida. He's confident in a plan architected by two unelected officials who oversaw over inflated housing prices and suppressed inflation rates. No wonder the markets abroad haven't particularly rallied.

But as a non-economist and non-american (that's a canadian, not a us accent), i find myself asking the question: why is bailing out wall street banks an appropriate course of action? You know what's amazing? both the left wing way out there and the right wing way out there agree with Bush on one thing: if you do nothing "this sucker is gonna go down" - and they both say "let it" for amazingly similar reasons

While i do not agree with all his politics, like many others, i find myself drawn to the frankness and clarity of Senator Ron Paul, so it's to his web site that i went looking for some perspective other than the Status Quo Rep/Dem collusion that a "bailout" debated for only a week is the absolutely only and essential solution.

Here's the summary of what Paul said to Congress today:

In conclusion, there are three good reasons why Congress should reject this legislation:

a. It is immoral—Dumping bad debt on the innocent taxpayers is an act of theft and is wrong.

b. It is unconstitutional—There is no constitutional authority to use government power to serve special interests.

c. It is bad economic policy—By refusing to address the monetary system while continuing to place the burdens of the bailout on the dollar, we can be certain that in time, we will be faced with another, more severe crisis when the market figures out that there is no magic government bailout or regulation that can make a fraudulent monetary system work.

Monetary reform will eventually come, but, unfortunately, Congress’ actions this week make it more likely the reform will come under dire circumstances, such as the midst of a worldwide collapse of the dollar. The question then will be how much of our liberties will be sacrificed in the process. Just remember what we lost in the aftermath of 9-11.

The best result we can hope for is that the economic necessity of getting our fiscal house in order will, at last, force us to give up our world empire. Without the empire we can then concentrate on rebuilding the Republic.

Prior to Paul's speech, there was no such explicit direction of what to do in lieu of a bailout. There were however links to the Mises Institute Bailout Reader. These are approaches to the economy that reflect the Austrian School perspective to economics. One recent article, The Idiocy of Wall Street asks the simple and compelling question: why listen to Bernanke and Paulson? These are the folks, its argued, who got the world into this mess; why trust them to find a way out of it that will be of general benefit? Good question. And since the bailout has been announced, the piece that gets tossed out by Pelossi over and over again is "no more golden parachutes" for bank executives. Excuse me? How does curtailing the salaries of a privileged few help the thousands of people whose mortgages are being forclosed?

In the Bailout reader, you'll find a raft of reasons for disbanding the federal reserve. I was surprised to learn some months ago that there's nothing federal about the Reserve. It's just a big ol' bank run by bankers, and apparently as evidenced by the bail out, for bankers.

Now on the left hand side of the information aisle the questions and consensus seem to be remarkably similar: that anyone voting for the bailout in the US is simply in cahouts with the banks. Right now senators and congressMEN are posturing to say heh this is bad; it's not helping anyone to bail out fat cats. Democrat Dennis Kucinich said

The $700 billion bailout for Wall Street, is driven by fear not fact. This is too much money in too a short a time going to too few people while too many questions remain unanswered. Why aren't we having hearings on the plan we have just received? Why aren't we questioning the underlying premise of the need for a bailout with taxpayers' money? Why have we not considered any alternatives other than to give $700 billion to Wall Street? Why aren't we asking Wall Street to clean up its own mess? Why aren't we passing new laws to stop the speculation, which triggered this? Why aren't we putting up new regulatory structures to protect investors? How do we even value the $700 billion in toxic assets?

But let's see what happens when it comes down to the vote. Who of the big talkers are going to suck it up and just vote? Meanwhile, those not seeking reelection on the left have a similar analysis of the system at play as do the Austrian Schoolites, seeing the Fed. Reserve as part of a a "banker's coup"

Roubini is right on all counts. So far, more than a 190 prominent economists have urged Congress not to pass the $700 bailout bill. There is growing consensus that the so-called "rescue package" does not

address the central economic issues and has the potential to make a bad situation even worse.

The Bankers' Coup Financial industry rep. Paulson is the ringleader in a bankers' coup the results of which will decide America's economic and political future for years to come. The coup leaders have drained tens of billions of dollars of liquidity from the already-strained banking system to trigger a freeze in interbank lending and hasten a stock market crash. This, they believe, will force Congress to pass Paulson's $770 billion bailout package without further congressional resistance.

It's blackmail.

As yet, no one knows whether the coup-backers will succeed and further consolidate their political power via a massive economic shock to the system, but their plan continues to move jauntily forward while the economy follows its slide to disaster.

Later on in this article, we see suggestions for points echoed in Paul's remarks, but puts some meat on them:
Market Ticker lays out framework for a workable solution to the crisis, but they must be acted on swiftly to rebuild confidence that major systemic changes are underway:
1--Force all off-balance sheet "assets" back onto the balance sheet, and force the valuation models and identification of individual assets out of Level 3 and into 10Qs and 10Ks. Do it now. : (In other words, no more Enron-type accounting mumbo-jumbo and no more allowing the banks assign their own "values" to dodgy assets)
2--Force all OTC derivatives onto a regulated exchange similar to that used by listed options in the equity markets. This permanently defuses the derivatives time bomb. Give market participants 90 days; any that are not listed in 90 days are declared void; let the participants sue each other if they can't prove capital adequacy. (If trading derivatives contracts can damage the "regulated" system, than that trading must take place under strict government regulations)
3--Force leverage by all institutions to no more than 12:1. The SEC intentionally dropped broker/dealer leverage limits in 2004; prior to that date 12:1 was the limit. Every firm that has failed had double or more the leverage of that former 12:1 limit. Enact this with a six month time limit and require 1/6th of the excess taken down monthly. (Ed: The collapse in the "structured finance" model is mainly due to too much leverage. For example, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had $80 of debt for every $1 dollar of capital reserves when they were taken into government conservatorship.)
If there's going to be a bailout, let's get it right. Paulson's $700 billion bill does nothing to fix the deep structural problems in the financial markets; it merely pushes the day of reckoning a little further into the future while shifting the burden of payment for toxic assets onto the taxpayer.
The above is supposedly left-wing analysis. The word "coup" is also used over on the Huffington Post while still talking about the need for fundamental economic, systemic reform which this crisis requires. Coup? this effect is *intentional*? It's difficult to believe, but these bank collapsing dominos is an unpredictable coincidence? Meanwhile, over at the Mise Bailout Reader, we're reminded that one of the first things the fascists did was nationalize the banks.
So again, the finger points, from both the left and the right hand digits, at the Fed. A consensus position describes this agreement as "the government interfering in the private sector to take from the poor to give to the rich:"

From the right, the bailout is seen as a case of government interference in a private sector issue. From the left it is seen as another instance of the government robbing from the poor to give to the rich. Both points of view are valid, and the combination tells a tale: the bailout is in fact a case of government interfering in the private sector to rob from the poor to give to the rich.

And that's why, to the extent that it was supported at all, the support for the bailout has been generated through the manipulation of fear, and fear, and more fear, and the dissemination of lies, and lies, and more lies.

Others have been asking that if it's possible to come up with 700bn, why is this the only problem that's getting addressed?

In theory, 30 billion a year, would put an end to world hunger. “As you treat the least of Me,” and if one of us is hungry, we all are. Hunger is the most painful and most avoidable plague on this planet. Let’s be generous and put five years worth aside, so we don’t have to think about it for a minute. In five years, the other expenditures would be having an impact anyway.

Bush vetoed 7 billion dollars to provide healthcare to children in this country, yet finds it acceptable to spend 700 billion bailing out foreign and domestic banks. I would allocate 100 billion to develop and implement a global health system ( in conjunction with any and all foreign governments ) that would ensure ( real ) healthcare to all people of this planet. Regardless of where, when, and why… As you treat the least of Me.

Bush vetoed 4.5 billion for education, while making more speeches about fiscal responsibility. I would allocate 100 billion towards ensuring an education ( in reality ) for every man woman and child on this planet. The cumulative knowledge and opportunity in the world would almost instantly increase exponentially, and the possibilities would become limitless.

i confess i feel not much better informed about economics - there's a lot to way up, and no system is an ideal: no market is ever pure - who runs the market; who has the muscle to make one stall's carrot worth more than your stall's - but one thing does seem to be clear. This deal up for vote with the slimmest of discussions is being decided upon and rushed into by those who seem either complicit with the status quo as direct beneficiaries of it or at best too afraid to deal with it at any kind of fundamental level. And that means we will yes be paying and paying for it. As Ron Paul suggests,

By refusing to address the monetary system while continuing to place the burdens of the bailout on the dollar, we can be certain that in time, we will be faced with another, more severe crisis when the market figures out that there is no magic government bailout or regulation that can make a fraudulent monetary system work.

The way the markets have NOT rallied based on the discussion around this "inevitable" bill, it seems both the extreme left and right agree that that next wave of crisis may come sooner rather than later, and be felt across more components of culture and rights than financial.

[update - 19:28 GMT] Goodness, the bill has failed in the house. BBC and Channel 4 hourly news refer to the markets as in "free fall" yet while the DOW dropped down 600 points, it went back up by 200 moments ago. This is the group of emotional knee jerk responses to whom we wish to hold ourselves hostage? And the House wants to REact rather than PROact before responding. Indeed, amusingly, CNN Live has a channel titled "BAILOUT VOTE REACTION" and it's an empty room, where highheels on wood floors can be heard in the background, and only an empty podium is in view. Elsewhere, blame is already being assigned to "partisan" politics and Speaker Pelosi's speech (no link yet). So what? amazing! But heh, alas, it ain't over. would that this were a sign of fundamental consideration rather than a single set back.


Posted by mc at 6:20 PM

August 2, 2008

The F-Scale

I once heard the F-Scale described as a way to see who would kick the person below them while sucking up to the person above them.

Recently i found this intriguing tool from the group that brought us critical theory marked up and available on line.

The goal of the scale was to predict a predilection to acquiescent to authoritarian behaviour. Research from 20-40 years ago suggested thing it really predicts is racism. but it's made a come back as a more valid predictor of authoritarian tendencies - at least in a revised form, the balanced F-scale.

The balanced F-scale attempts to work out the flaws in terms of types of measures in the original F-scale. While a variety of approaches to consider conservatism etc have resulted (listed here), the Balanced F-scale seems popular in the personality/psych literature. This refactored scale changes a hand full of questions from the original.

There's been debate about whether any version shows acquiescence vs cultural traditionalism. In any case, traits associated with its findings aren't nice and apparently are correlated even in decisions in jury trials. Some authors as recently as 2006 argue the validity of the scale has been supported.

In any case, why not give it a go - or better yet, ask your colleagues to give it a go - and see if you're nodding to yourself at their responses - or which ones you think you may just want to fudge.

Posted by mc at 3:11 PM

July 23, 2008

Review of the Warrior Diet's "science" claims Three Cylinder Satisfaction Experience

This entry is really just a pointer to a review of the warrior diet's science claims i did at Begin to Dig, a place where i talk about training. Some folks have asked me why i bothered with this critique, so i thought i'd touch on that here as a "before the blog post" post about a blog.

Because many folks whose training i respect say they practice the warrior diet, i wanted to check it out. It's thumbs down on processed foods and more up on whole foods. It is not unique in this approach. Many folks refer to the emphasis on getting rid of junk food, reducing processed foods of all kinds, and upping whole foods from veggies to legumes "eating clean." Clarence Bass has an entire series of books dedicated to this approach to eating.

So what is unique in this diet since eating clean is taken care of? and why did that end up being so annoying i had to write a big fat review?

The packaging is pretty special.

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The diet in brief is to eat a wee bit during the day, and then have a big meal at night. It prescribes what kinds of things are ok to eat during the day, and the order of things to eat at night. It frames its rationale for this approach in two key things: the mystery of history on the one hand, and so called science on the other.

The mystery of history is to invoke the myth of the warrior, and to say this is how men on the move ate, how our fighting ancestors ate on the prowl, whether we're talking Roman Legions or Paleolithic hunters. Grr.
That the author's support for such claims is pretty thin on the ground historically and archaeologically is as nothing compared to what is presented as the science of how our bodies process food.

And so, i've looked at most of the key claims in the diet, shoved them up against physiology texts, and checked in with various researchers, nutritionists and trainers. The result of this discussion is at Begin to Dig, called "Review of the "Science" claims of the Warrior Diet"

I'll say again here as i do there that my intent is not to stop people from being on the Warrior Diet - many folks claim to have had life-transforming success with this approach, and that they resonate with the Warrior ethos - at least as it's painted in that book. And that's grand.

What i guess ultimately disturbs me is that folks are not being taken to this New Place with all the facts. The analogy i've used recently is that of someone with a screwed up motorbike - running on one cylinder. They encounter a mechanic who speaks to them of the Way of the Rider and the true path to keeping their bike running Pure.

Turns out that ya, the bike runs way better after the mechanic finishes with it, but it's only running on three cylinders. Buried in all the verbiage about cam shafts and high viscosity fuel is that it's just wrong info. The reasons the mechanic is giving for why the bike is running better is just wrong, and it's missing a whole lot of information that would help people maybe find out how to replace the gasket on that fourth cylinder to get even more power out of the engine, and run even better.

The response, i've been surprised to find, has been you know, mc, fuck off. This thing used to run like shit. and now it runs great. and i'm so happy because i barely have to think about taking care of it now, it's running so much better. So keep your theories about how the bike could run better to yourself, and oh ya, don't try to tell me that the Mechanic is wrong. No way. I have the results that say otherwise. My results say i'm getting three times the fuel response as before, it's not dying nearly as often, and i'm well pleased with that. And i tell all my biker buddies to go to the Mechanic too.

So, initially when i saw this response, i didn't get it. See, for me, i thought, well, i would want to know if someone is selling me the goods or is selling me a story, a con, a fake, snake oil - and if i found that they were doing the latter, i'd likely question any other claim such an author made. Not so here.

Fact is, the author's adherents trust him a heck of a lot more than they do me waving the flag of science - especially around nutrition. Books like Taube's Good Calorie Bad Calorie or Pallan's In defense of Food give a good historical kicking to the politicization of science in nutrition, and a casual read would make it easy for folks to say those scientists don't know everything; scientists get lots wrong - especially in nutrition. Fats used to be bad; now they're good. So much for science.

Consider the source. It's not "science" - it's usually the media or some federal agency selectively representing a single study or a sterilized position to the People. Science becomes the straw dog of these authors. In this case it's two journalists reviewing the history of various facets of what Pallan references as "nutritionism" - it's very interesting, and great reads, but also some unnecessary straw dogging of science to make points. And a lot of readers whose only view of Science is through such books are well satisfied to use it to dis science anywhere else. If it can't explain how a bee flies (myth), then i ain't gonna trust it to tell me how to eat.

Interestingly, folks who get p.o'd at my review for suggesting that the science claims in the WD don't stand up, and who criticize "science" in general, don't seem to get that it's their author that started it by asserting his position as founded on "science." Others just brush that part of the discussion of all together. Who cares about the accuracy or not of the theory; it's the results that count.

But what results? whose? Are they three cylinder results and three cylinder better than one satisfaction?

It's amazing to me that we can be so defensive and protective of our norms, to our current comfort zone, that we are reluctant to see, perhaps things could be better -we mayn't be able to imagine what that would be like, but what if it could be? What does that mean?

Many people say that satisfaction is a great thing to achieve - i'm satisfied, they may say, with my progress, with myself, with my health, with my practices.

Why? How? What is the basis of that complacency? What is the cost?

What i've seen here, besides a whole lot about the digestive system and the human energy system from doing this science review, is that new ideas can be experienced as threatening, dangerous; if they don't fit current paradigms, it becomes easy to dismiss them. This really isn't new. What question it raises for me that is new is why. Why the reluctance to consider another position? especially if satisfied with where one is? Wouldn't that make it that much easier to look at other ideas?

Dunno. i just dunno about that one, but i would conclude by saying that the discourse of the warrior diet is highly reminiscent of tales of don juan. And that's all the signifier i need on that one.

and so,
oh you tee, to paraphrase good buddy will williams.

Posted by mc at 7:25 PM

July 3, 2008

No, that's *my* Winnipeg

"I don't think i've ever met anyone from Manitoba"

This is the response by a professor at a a school of information when i was asked recently where i was from (after identifying the accent as "not british"). "That's not surprising" i replied "as a rule we don't get out much"

I've just learned that famous winnipeger and film maker Guy Maddin has a film out called My Winnipeg that is being celebrated as seriously weird and wonderful, full of his usual cabinet of dr. caligary meets woody allen.

Somehow, i think it would be ironic or just wrong to see this film in a theater outside of the beating heart of the center of canada - the place where, because of its urban culture but magnificent isolation, MacDonald's love to test its new ideas (anyone remember "macribs"? thought not).

So i must go home, now, and seek out a room projecting this film, a room filmed with others who grew up on weather identical to siberia (Maddin created a film called Archangel, afterall, situated in just as weird, no doubt, version of this Russian port town). I must go to a place where that room of people will swell with pride and recognition at a filmmaker finally putting the name of our starting point on the cultural landscape. People will ask "is that what winnipeg is really like?" and i'll say "oh yes" without seeing the film and with seeing the film. Oh yes.

No more to live in the shadow of Grand Forks as posted on the Nuclear Weapons map of War Games - most of the people in the US would not have known or visited Grand Forks - but winnipegers do. It's not only a missile silo: it's home of great cross border shopping. Before Free Trade.

No more to live in the shadow of Fargo - where that opening shot of that pontiac across the blizzarding highway, or the scraping of windows in the lonely parking lot is so well known it's in the bones. Oh no, now, we step out into the Main Attraction. A very weird main attraction, i bet. But there it is. There is no Paris/France, Paris/Texas. No multiple Springfields. No many Yorks. There can be only one Winnipeg. So there Fargo!

You go, guy maddin! Let's hear them say "winnipeg" at the oscars, eh?

Posted by mc at 10:05 PM

June 27, 2008

Laurie Anderson on the Star Spangled Banner

Thank heavens for youtube.

The work of the artist is to make us see the familiar afresh - to defamiliarize and thus cause us to look anew at the thing conceptualized.

In the late 80's or early 90's (they blur), Laurie Anderson did a series of "public service announcements" from Women and Money to Jerry Rigging. One of these was about the Star Spangled Banner - the US of A's National Anthem. I had certainly never thought of the song this way - as she puts it - just a series of questions: heh, is that a fire? couldn't really say, it's early in the morning...

And that's it really: a nation's anthem is about someone noticing a place going to hell during a fire and a flag waving away. So important - no matter what. The brand label survives. X marks the spot. Let X, knock knock, equal X.

anyway, here it is:

Posted by mc at 12:12 PM

June 25, 2008

Utilikilts Review: Un-bifrucated Quality & Service

KiltI've said it before: the things that make a product great are not just the excellence of the product but also the information and engagement around the product while considering a purchase and then the support of the product after a sale is complete - especially if/when something goes pear shaped. Utilikilts, an American company that makes "American Made Utility Kilts for Everyday Wear" definitely stands in the company of Great Company because of its entire kilt culture experience.

The following post is a review of Utilikilts: it tells the story of why from the in-store experience (and ya gotta get the in-store experience especially for the utilikilt-as-changing room effect), support and post sales problem resolution is rock solid.

So if you're a guy and haven't considered a kilt before, why the heck not? Are you a sissy? If you're a gal, these put the fun into funky - far more fun/funk than jeans, worn low as hipsters.

Utilikilts makes the kilt experience a cultural phenomenon that is explorable, affordable and perhaps best of all usable. The following illustrates how and why that is so.

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"Welcome Home"
200806211630 was the way i was greeted as i walked into the Utilikilt flagship store in Seattle. This from a200806211632 staff member whom i'd not met before. I had on a Utilikilt Workman's kilt (the model displayed in the Victoria and Albert museum (pdf) in London), a brown leather jacket and my hair down. Each point was commented upon as a totally righteous way for a gal to "crossdress" with a utilikilt ("cross-dressing" is what utilikilt calls gals who wear their gear). Not used to this kind of enthusiastic greeting from sales staff, i was both flumoxed and delighted - did this person know that i was coming into the store because there'd been a size issue with another kilt i'd ordered? No, it turns out, he did not. This is just the Way of the Kilted Men of Utilikilt greet members (of either gender) of the Clan.

So that was nice. And leads me to wax on a bit about the
In Store Experience of Utilikilt

It may be important to make clear that Utilikilts are designed for Guys, for those Manly Men secure enough in their masculinity to enjoy the freedom of going unbifrucated. Consequently they spend considerable time in their promotional literature to assert the Grr-ness of kilt wearing. To this end they have a suite of Mock-u-mercials made by Utilikiltarians protesting the manliness (and robust functionality) of their Kilt. This award winner, for instance, blends a sub plot of getting an upper chest tattoo with a main plot of carrying out metal work and welding while donning a skull-painted welder's mask (really nice paint job), and of course, wearing a utilikilt.


While in the FAQ they are quick to point out that "women look hot" in their kilts, this intense masculine vibe may suggest an atmosphere unwelcoming to those willing to "cross-dress." I was willing to risk at least crossing the threshold of the store for two reasons: i work out with guys who are nail bending bad ass Big Men, and they are some of the nicest kindest folks i know. So my guess was behind the Grr were sweet people. Likewise, i am passionate in my love of kilts. And pockets. My main kilt lust has thus far been sufficed by Howie Nicholsby's excellent custom made-to-measure 21st Century Kilts from Edinburgh - that have great pockets (shown left in blue pinstripe denim with Howie's custom Juggling Rooster Seat Belt belt).

Much to my delight, when i arrived at the store there were two really geeky guys trying on kilts (not quite the heavy metal rock poster children of many in the utilikilt photo gallery site). Right on. Kilts for All Men (and gals who love unbifrucated pocketed garments)

The customer base exemplified at that moment was not threatening. Indeed, the kind of clean grunge feel of the store itself was funky and inviting.


Blended with the atmosphere comes the in-store sales experience. I was immediately impressed by the fact that there was one sales person in the store, Andrew, and he managed several customers (including me) at once - and effectively so - balancing the awareness of when one of us had a question and needed attention, and when one us needed to mull . Impressive.

Waiting Room. My sense from the next experience in the shop is that this multitasking brilliance may be Andrew's forté. I would therefore encourage anyone planning to visit the shop to make sure you have time to browse, since having the full attention of people on the floor can be a bit of a wait. On this account it would be nice if there were a few more surfaces for sitting, rather than making do with various edges or tool boxes.
Once attention is had, however, it is full on YOU, and care of your sizing and specific kilt interests (utilikilt makes a number of models).

This attention is critical - perhaps especially when fitting women since, as the web site FAQ says, fitting a utilikilt for gals is different than fitting guys. As my hand went to grabbing a kilt close to my waist size, Andrew's hand was there to go further up the rack to larger sizes "these fit on the hips for women" and he was so right. They are hipsters.

And how does one try on a utilikilt?
"So, where is the changing room"
"The Utilikilt is its own changing room," states Andrew, opening out a kilt to walk into, have wrapped around one, and therefrom to drop one's drawers beneath. Goodness. What fun. When was the last time trying something on in a store was so risky (not riskee) - or that a guy helped you robe in such an intimate, if seemingly semi-public way.

After a couple of iterations, an OK fit in one kilt went to a SUPER oh ya that *works* fit version of the kilt. This is why buying online may be a *wee bit* problematic for gals - and why the web site also recommends "go to where the kilts are" for women trying them out.

Which brings us to the next story: the Incorrect Order : even when you THINK from having been in the store that you know your size, the material of the kilt *may well* have a significant impact on the actual size you (a gal) might get for your hipster, cross-dressing utilikilt.

This was an error: in my enthusiasm for these groovy garments, i ordered another model in the same size. The tricky bits were (a) i didn't realize that all sales were final and (b) i was rushed at the time (c) and was trying to avoid the cost/time of a cab ride from Bellevue into Seattle. My previous sale made me think that oh i must know my sizing.

Perhaps the wonderful Johnny with whom i placed this order might have interrogated me to find out either how i had arrived at my sizing or what kind of kilt i had purchased, since the materials may cause a slightly different fit. But perhaps this is an issue that had not actually come up before for fitting a gal (maybe few women buy multiple instances of these things?)

But then, something else that would have been useful to hear on the phone as well was "just a reminder: all sales are final." When i had been in the shop, the kilt i got was a special sale item and Andrew stated clearly "you realize this is a sale item: all sales final; no refunds or exchanges" - No problem: i had the kilt on and was wearing it out of the store. So realize this: all sales are final; only in store credits.

As said, when i ordered this kilt i was dealing with Shipping Jedi (their nomenclature) Johnny at the 800 number for the store. Why did i have more than one chat with Johnny other than to order the item? Because i wanted to arrange to have the kilt picked up by courier in Seattle and delivered to me in Bellevue - apparently this had never happened before. But they were up for it. I treasure the intrigued directions on how to get the courier to the right part of the correct alley to make the pick up. Johnny emailed me to confirm that it had been picked up, and the kilt arrived without incident. Shout out to FleetFoot Couriers in Seattle for their excellent service.

Arriving at the hotel, unpacking the kilt, this is when the concern started: was the kilt just too big, and thus too long from hanging too low on the hips? After a tough evening hemming and hawing about does it fit, does it not? oh gee i think it's too big...what am i gonna do, will i have to return it, i read the fine print on the sales slip: no refunds. And so i had to call Johnny again to say why does this kilt fit so differently? is there a solution? what might it be? If there isn't another right fitting, right colour kilt in stock, am i stuck with this gorgeous but not particularly usable kilt?

Here's where customer service goes to the Right Next Level. Johnny immediately recognized that the usual In Store Credit offered to someone from another country who might never be back in the state to claim it might not be the best customer experience. So "while we are confident that we can get you fitted into the right fit, i've talked with Ben, my manager, who's said yes, in these unique and extraordinary circumstances we'll drop the kilt if we can't get a fit for you." That's cool. So, transport arrangements made, the clock ticking (i had a flight to catch), i head down to the store being assured that the replacement color at the replacement size would be waiting for me.

Jasonbrett-Utili-Sm Amazingly, when i got to the store late that afternoon, it seemed that the replacement kilt of the right size and color had gone walk about. Brett, the staffer who had greeted me with "welcome home" spent considerable cycles on attempting to locate that kilt that Johnny had previously asked Andrew who'd had to go home sick early to pull and set aside. I tired on a longer one with the right waist that they could "chop" - but then i had a plane to catch and their sowers had all gone home for the day. But they'd been willing to find a solution that way if it had been available. Andrew was even called at home, and pulled out of his sick bed to be queried on where he had put the pulled kilt. It just wasn't there.

In a proactive fit of excellence, Brett went down the road to the warehouse himself to go look for the wrap in question. Rather than come back empty handed, Brett came back with a kilt of the right waist and length - though not the color i had picked, but what the heck? Tried it on. Loved how it felt.

Fitting again: Here's an interesting thing: this right size/length but different color model i left with felt *better* in fit than the long version that was supposedly the same waist, just longer. Once again, this reinforces the point on their site: go to where the kilts are. I don't know why the difference - maybe it's cuz on a longer kilt, the pockets are lower down; maybe it's because each of these is hand machine sewn, so there's slight differences. Maybe it's because different dies create different textures. But in each case of each kilt i tried on, each felt unique unto itself.

Fitting Note 2: Women's Tanks. If you're interested in one of the few made-for-women items in the shop, like the hot ribbed tank, gals may find they wish to go up one size. These American Apparel made tanks fit *tight* - even when going one up from your typical, anticipated snug fit shirt. Likewise, go in with a bra/top cover you're happy to wear in public: this is one area where a utilikilt may not be its own changing room.

And, with the kilts exchanged, that was pretty much it. One might stomp and spit a bit: how, after all these conversations and assurances, could the bloody kilt have gone walk about? It was no small deal to come down from Bellevue to Seattle, etc etc. You know, i don't know. Stuff happens. In the worst case, my worst fear was addressed anyway: that if no kilt available, then i could just return this one for a full refund, which was totally off the song sheet of the shop in anycase, so really, no harm no foul, and these guys were working it. Honour and all that satisfied. In future they may keep their pulls better labelled and stashed, but as said, in this case, it worked out: there was a well agreed Plan B in place and for that i thank Utilikilt.

Wrapping Up. Brett also resolved the sale well, and just as we were packing up, even Johnny called over to see if all had been settled out ok, while Jason went on a mission back to the warehouse to get me a not-for-sale Utilikilt mug as a gesture to say thanks for the patience; sorry for the mix up.

The staff at Utilikilt have plainly drunk the Kool Aid, which lends to a super experience. These guys seem to live the product. Andrew had had utilikilts for 7 years; Brett had plainly gone through a suite of them, recounting various experiences with different models at different points in time. It's a strong testament to a retail store that it can hold staff for a long enough period that they know the stock so well and how to fit people and keep up excellent customer service, from phone orders to in store experience. It is a kind of culture thing, and that's cool, too.

So kudos to Andrew, Johnny, Brett for sales handling, Jason for backing up Brett in the store, Sam for connecting the calls and Ben for supporting Johnny on Plan B. Despite the bumps, a super customer experience.

Epilogue: Walking down the Street
The Utilikilt culture is in evidence around the store. As i was walking towards it, about a block away, another kilted person was coming out of it - same kilt model even. There seemed to be an initial disconnect on the gender: am i seeing what i'm seeing - a gal in a kilt? Is that ok? Then, the quiet nod of the head to each other in passing, acknowledging. It reminded me of how in Canada, where motorcycles are far less common than they are in europe, folks on motorbikes tend to nod at each other: we know we're a wee bit off the norm in this pursuit, the nod admits, and we support each other in that. The Utilikiltarian nod felt similar.

Also, the number of times while in the Seattle/Tacoma region someone said to me "Is that a Utilikilt?" or "I love your utilikilt" has grown more than i can count. Brand awareness of this local product seems pretty good. I learned that at Microsoft and Boeing, Utilikilts have the status of "authorized wear." Even at the airport going through security, one of the personnel asked the Is that a... question. I'm ready for it now, as it's kept happening well outside the Home State. Indeed, it's become clear to me why Utilikilt pads a pocket of a new kilt with their business cards: they're to handle the number of times a person gets asked about the garment. So now i just say "Yes it is. Here's a card for the site and how to order"

Some folks aren't ready to make the leap to unbifrucatedness. Some folks chat a bit. Others break out in a big smile, and say thanks, staring at that card like it's magic. It's interesting to see the array of guys who comment, and talk about wanting to take the plunge.

I'm running out of cards.

Posted by mc at 7:20 PM

June 8, 2008

Delight: what if we were to design for it deliberately?

The following is a meditation on design, and what might happen if enticing delight were a deliberate goal rather than a rare accident of our software and systems designs.

I recently had the pleasure of setting a man's watch for him.

The man was delighted by this act, expressing a joy that might have seemed out of proportion with the result. He told his friends throughout that day that his watch was now fixed and running with the correct time. Each time he retold the story, it was accompanied with this same animated delight.

The watch was only off by four minutes, so not hugely wrong. Apparently, however, it had been wrong for three years. And for three years this man had shared the story of his chronographic offset with colleagues and friends alike. Many, the story went, had tried to fix this watch and reclaim the lost four minutes. The record of hopes raised only once again to be dashed had grown long. But amazingly, this man had not abandoned hope: he kept *wearing* this watch despite the fact that each time he glanced it he had to be mentally adjusted by four. It was not as if he could not afford a replacement. It was almost as if it had become more important to continue to believe in the possibility that one day someone would fix this watch than to find its replacement. Until that day he would continue to offer the watch to anyone who would have a go, just so that *if* that person did succeed, he would be there to savour the delight in having it work again.

Now, since it has been reset, each time he looks at this watch he can re-animate that delight for himself by remembering how long he had carried it with this offset and how happiness could now be felt in such a simple thing as accurate time-keeping. He can also tell his friends his problem has been solved, and they too will share the joy of their good friend's relief. After all, some of them had been there to experience this regular tiny desolation in their colleague's life.

So the delight has not simply been in a watch running with the correct time - that is common - but that *this* watch now runs on time. The surprise and delight tied within the satisfaction that the man's hope or belief in the possibility of restoration of that which was lost was not misplaced all contribute to the delight in the re-set time piece. Such is perhaps the nature of delight: an internal state that is ready to be surprised by the unexpected becoming possible.

The trouble is, that with digital systems it seems that the unexpected is usually to do what should be normal.

Why is being able to set a watch to run on time (what one would hope to be normal) experienced here as extraordinary? What would happen, therefore, if we designed with delight as deliberate goal rather than if we experienced it as a side effect?

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Consider the parable of the watch: the repetition of the mistimed watch left open the possibility of delight and surprise should what was accepted as "normal" - the wrong time - become the very simple "right."

Computing is filled with examples of coping with the wrong time all too often being the normal.

Imagine the delight in changing that normal-ness of the wrong thing to the right thing. For instance, how frustrating it normally is when trying to get shipping information from an online store, where one has to add the thing to one's cart, register on the site, even provide payment information etc etc all just to find out shipping costs and times - something that will determine whether or not we wish to purchase from that site. Imagine how *delighted* a potential customer would be if the shipping quote was simply available at any point the person wished to know it? Changing the normal expectation of the online store hassle to the right action of giving the customer what they want when they want it may lead to delight and loyalty. They, like the man with the watch, may tell all their friends about their terrific experience with this store, this digital system.

In work we've been doing between MIT and Southampton in projects like Jourknow, we've been looking at imagining a world where one doesn't have to fill in a form to create a note about a phone call or a meeting or the name of a friend or any other kind of information. They simply jot it down, however they like to jot "meeting @ 3 c mc" or "3pm remember to get to meeting with mc" - the note is there; it's also now in the calendar. No forms with clicking and tabbing through 16 fields just to record one event.

It may be that as this potentially delightful way of doing things becomes the new norm, the delight may diminish. For those who would know no other way of interacting with a computer (once we get there) such natural interaction may not invoke delight - it will only be retrospective for those of us who have suffered with previous wrong time "normal."

So, are there attributes where delight may not be dependent on challenging normal so that a design might delight constantly? When was the last time a computer delighted you? Did it keep delighting you? or did what was once delightful become mundane? or did it continue to fold between the mundane and the delightful? I imagine that there will be times when the man looks at his watch and sees the time; at others remembers how it used to be and how it is, and re-kindles that delight for himself - hence a folding between the mundane of a proper normal and the delightful.

For me, my most profound and enduring moment of computer delight was witnessing the Flying Toasters screen saver. Toasters. With wings. Wings that flapped. And made thwap thwap thwap thwap thwap wing flapping sounds against the Ride of the Valkyrie as sountrack. Utterly absurdly gratuitous graphics and absolutely delightful. I remember about five of us huddled around a prof's computer just starring and laughing and poking each other watching the infinite progression of flying toasters across a computer screen.


The normal of the computer was work-based applications; the occasional game. This screen saver used the computer in a completely non-utilitarian, or non-computer or non-normal way. It turned a several thousand dollar piece of hardware into something whimsical. So even when flying toasters were no longer new - we had our own copies of the software - they did not lose their capacity to delight. At any point in the day, if things got a little too intense, well, there was always always flying toasters. There was always this reminder of the difference between the mundane and the unordinary as possible.

Flying toaster moments are all too rare with digital systems.

Why is that?

What would it be like to design deliberately to achieve delight? At least some of the components of delight are afforded by contrast between the expected and the actual; between the normal and the other. Delight takes the expected out of context. The watch that never tells the correct time, tells the correct time. The computer that's meant to be serious does whimsy. Delight is also pleasurable.

With these traits of difference from the expected, the norm, can we use them as motivators for design? Can we construct reverie? It seems that while the perhaps purer delight of flying toasters may be the harder kind of delight to design deliberately, that of addressing the more all-too-common wrong-normals are legion enough to provide an ecstatic revery of delight if only a few of them were tackled with intent. Let us not forget the classic example of the frustration of machines: setting of the VCR to record a program. Was not the delight of the first TIVO not only that commercials could be skipped but that what once was an horrendous process of setting the time on a vcr and then setting the parameters for recording a show became absolutely trivial: here's a program guide; click the show you want right in that guide. Voila - recorded. One may argue that well, we had to arrive at a place where we could get online program guides to be able to click them and send the correct info to a system to translate that into recording information. Right. So what. There are squillions of opportunities for better design where we do indeed have all the technology we could want to make effective systems possible, and just don't do it. It's easier to fill in a form than eliminate it.

Indeed, it's rather sad that there are SO MANY opportunities for this kind of delight in our regular daily interactions in our world. Why, after all, was the man's watch such a gordian knot to those who attempted to fix it? It's just a WATCH. Like filling in forms are what make things simple for computers, crappy watch setting design is what makes setting the time simple for the digital device, not the person using the device.

This is not to say that everything has to be simple. As designer and ACM CHI Fellow Bill Buxton has said, the piano has a very simple interface but it is not "easy" to master. The cost/benefit relationship of learning to master the device can be great, however. But a watch is a watch. The result is simply that it tells the time; it is not a direct intermediary to the muses. It should be simpler to set a digital watch than learning to play a Prokofiev symphony, no?

The moral of the story seems to be that the source of our delight around are devices is all to often when the wrong normal for a fleeting moment behaves as we would hope and expect such a device to behave. And while in part when such behaviour results we have a story of hope fulfilled, as in the man and his watch, that same story is also one of failure: failure of design, of imagination to produce technology that supports us rather than requires us to support it.

Perhaps if we designed with delight as a goal, we would be more likely to achieve something as simple as a digital watch that a human could set without having to be a phd in computer science.

Posted by mc at 5:41 AM

August 26, 2007

The 50 Thousand Pound Local Phone Call: How UK banking has Changed in 18 months

That local Call that was Free and Normal Service 18 months ago now costs Fifty Thousand Pounds
A few years ago when we arrived from Canada, we went to the bank branch close to where we would live, met with the branch manager and set up various accounts and credit cards. The manager, Simon, kindly gave us his card and said be sure to call anytime. He also told us about places in town for good eats, and places to avoid "Oh yes, that's where i got mugged." Personal service! It was great.

There were very few times we actually had cause to call Simon, but it was lovely to be able to speak with him. We were sad when he moved and wrote the head office a nice letter about how grand he'd been.

That was then. Over the past year or so our branch is no longer a "branch" - it's been re-designated a "service branch" which means it has no manager (if one thinks this downsizing is due to the bank losing money, it's not: they made £11.7BILLION profit last year). If we want to talk with a manager now we cannot call that branch up the road directly; we have to call a call center in India, answer a barrage of security questions ("But i just want a call back; why do you need my date of birth?") and hope that someone local gets back to us.

The main high street banks have now come up with a new Premier Service: they will once again give you a direct local line to your branch manager *if* you have either £50k in savings or make £75k a year AND have a mortgage of 250K or more (see any of the big 4 for their version of same). What was once free, and a default part of banking in England has now become the privilege of the well-heeled few. £50k. For a name and a local phone number.

12 billion in profit and the bank wants 50K for a local phone number. Is that the definition of obscene or have i missed something?

And if you haven't the money reserves to get you into this Premier league of service, count on continuing to be considered suspect each time you pick up the phone and want to ask a question. Your call center will be asking the questions here, bub. And you better be fast with the right answers, or suffer the consequences: getting your call dropped; having your internet access suspended, and/or having a note on your file that you refused to answer security questions.

Don't let anyone tell you there ain't no class system here. As far as UK's big banks are concerned, they've just re-enginered it with a vengeance.

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Posted by mc at 4:09 PM

August 6, 2007

Etymotic and What makes a company greater than its product alone: after sales service doesn't hurt.

I am a fan of Etymotic's ipod ear cannel headphones, the Etymotic ER6i's. I've reviewed them as great, affordable entry level higher end headphones that can really change your ipod listening experience. They are also great noise eliminators with no need for a battery to get that noise cancellation to work.

Recently, i've also learned that Etymotic provides exceptional, beyond the call of duty, customer support. If you're weighing up options of a company to get your next phones from, besides thinking about quality of product, this tale of after sales support may encourage you to look at this specialist group for their excellent work and quality of support.

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Here's the story. I bought a pair of ER6i's about 18months ago that went flakey on me about 9 months ago. By flakey i mean that one side was cutting in and out, and finally, pretty much just out. I thought well, that's me: i've just treated them too unkindly and maybe that's why they've turned south. When i can i'll get a new pair. In the interim, the price on these phones has come down almost 50%! making them an even better deal than when i first reviewed them. So i got another set 4 months ago. Truth to tell, i used them rarely as my listening habits in the past four months have changed somewhat. They spent most of their time safely in their case (an excellent redesign of the previous pouch - so an even better value than the earlier phones yet again). I was therefore hugely surprised to find that one day, on plugging them in, the left channel was dead.

I thought oh dang, now i have to deal with customer support and warranties - where's the bill where's the bill. I looked at the warranty page on the web site (they actually make it easy to access right from the main page of the web site) and learned that there was a 12 month warranty on these puppies.

That's when i felt like a fool: when my first set died, they were under warranty; now they weren't. But at least the current set were. I wrote customer support whom it turns out i'd written about a year before to ask about filters for the original phones and they'd been great then. This time i was writing though to ask about two things:

First, i was asking how do i proceed to do a warranty claim on the new headphones.
Second, i asked if there was any chance they'd look at the old headphones, even though they were now 6 months out of warranty and it's my fault for not thinking of that sooner.

The response and subsequent interaction was amazing. The customer support person - it turns out the same person i'd dealt with previously, said yes send them both along! That's the first great thing. The second is that i said i'd be in the states for a bit and perhaps if they were able to turn around checking them out, they'd be able to send them to me in the US, rather than back to the UK where it would take me awhile to catch up with them. Yes again - please give us both addresses and we'll do what we can.

And they did. Within a week they were out of my hands, in their shop, and then back to me.

The third great thing, that just blew me away is that in the return box, there was only one pair of headphones. The second had not made it. When i asked about this via email, they were extremely apologetic and said they'd send out that replacement pair via UPS red and that i'd have them the NEXT morning. Now, my email asking about the missing pair went to them late that afternoon. UPS red is not cheap, but they opted to use this service so i'd have both pairs before i left the country. I wrote back to say it's ok; please just send them to the UK by whatever means: i have the one pair now i can use; the other can follow. But no, there they were the next morning. There was even an extra couple sets of ear tips - i'd asked why the tips were now grey rather than white on the replacement pair. Apparently they're all going to this better grade grey tip, but since i expressed a preference for white, the extras were included with this next set.

Now, every step of that experience, from looking after an out of warranty repair, to facilitating a particular shipping request, to recovering from the smallest of errors with the greatest of grace, every step here was a demonstration of a company going above and beyond the written letter of their warranty, beyond customer satisfaction, and getting to customer delight.

It's experiences like this, along with great product to start with, that build customer loyalty for sure.

Here's a shout out to Maureen Defoort of Etymotic Customer Service and to a company that supports this kind of care.

Yet another reason to recommend these excellent headphones.

Posted by mc at 9:45 PM

February 17, 2007

What does the semantic web look like? What's the model to describe it easily?

I've been pondering what the paradigm for the Semantic Web is:

if the Web is like a page + links, what's the analogue for the semantic web?

Where i've come to recently after thinking "star trek next generation's computer in conversation with Geordi LaForge" is a researcher's notebook + memex: a place that blends work in progress with internal and external associations/contexts that become explorable for building new knowledge. The key to the analogy of the notebook is the notion of work in progress, where notes include scattered fragments of information where context/structure is often implicit, and can reach out to external sources, knowledge, references.

I've discussed this analogue in more detail (with pictures) in a blog piece called
"What is the Analogue for the Semantic Web? If the Web is like a Page+Links, the SW is like a..."

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Posted by mc at 11:45 AM

Pedestrians and Austin (Texas)

Texas has a rep for being a wild place of the righteous cowboy way.

Austin has a reputation for being (a) weird (with a desire to keep it that way) and more recently (b) wired - and wired with intent, as exemplified by the SXSW music, film and tech conference mix

The whole state is also the place for cars - of all sizes (mainly big). Wide open highways and big wide roadways. I can't speak for the rest of the state, but in Austin at least, despite the CAR as the core means of individual transportation, drivers seem to be super pedestrian sensitive. Cars easily give peds the right of way at intersections. Interestingly, walkers also tend to wait for the lights at intersections, too. Jay walking seems the exception not the rule. And it seems to work. There seems to be an easy ebb and flow between cars and pedestrians that is rare. Now, maybe that's all just perception and not what a local Austonian (?) would tell you, but from the touristo/visitor perspective, Austin is a joy to walk.

One other thing? they have some interesting concepts with public transportation: core areas are seviced by something called the Dillo - a free bus service that takes care of the core area - about 5 miles square. It's free. But get this: public buses are 50c for adults. 50c for public transport!! AND Anyone with a university ID card can ride these buses FREE. Staff and students. The bus site has an effective route planner as well.

Austin is the third fastest growing city in the USA right now. It seems somehow incongruous that it would also have such a seemingly progressive stance on transportation. What a joy! visit austin: all the places you'd want to hit are available via bus or by walking - transportation is cheap and walkers are not treated as fair game for target practice.

(oh wow! and there's even wireless past every busstop! i'm posting this from a BUS coming down Congress AND THE CONNECTIONS coming out of shops and restaurants ARE FREE TOO!!!)

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Posted by mc at 11:17 AM

November 3, 2006

Webmaster/Webmistress: oh come on!

I was just at a press conference where a lead figure in computer science was discussing Web masters - and Web mistresses too, he adds quickly in a bid to be inclusive.

Who came up with the term web MASTER? or the even more problematic, S&M flavoured web MISTRESS. As if anyone could master the web or even their corner of it (beat it into submission?)?

The master, the mistress. Lords and Ladies of the manner. The bosses. The classes. So much for the democratization of the infosphere. At least we talk about bloggers rather than blogsters and blogstresses (think aviator and aviatrix).

10 or so years ago when the web was just hotting up within university departments, i proposed the term "webster" as an alternative to web master. Webster, i proposed, is informed by terms like waiter, or server, or manager. Gender neutral; no claims to special class or authority.

I'd thought at the time that i was making up a word. On further lexical research, it turns out that the term exists, and has its roots in weaving culture. Even more apropos, no? So why not use it? Why is it still important for many to identify a gender with a role?

Just a question.

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Posted by mc at 2:33 AM | Comments (0)

August 3, 2006

The mystery of single temperature faucets

200608031049Occasionally, i see things and think now that's a cultural difference that would cause a north american a double take. Seeing cars parked facing either direction on a street. That's a weird one (yes in north america cars are parked facing one way only - no just sliding over to the other side of the street and pulling up onto a curb and parking. You turn your vehicle around and parallel park the sucker into the spot).

Then there's power outlets with individual switches on them. Or windows with little wind powered fans. Or the making of tea in a cup rather than a pot, or the fact that instant coffee is on many restaurants' menus.

But one thing that constantly surprises me is the pervasiveness even in "new builds" of individual hot and cold water taps. It's not that "mixer" taps (hot and cold going into one pipe) are unknown, but that anyone would want a single tap per temperature in either a bathroom or kitchen sink, or even a bathtub is beyond me. And it's not like they're cheaper: the price of two individual the taps is either the same or more as their integrated cousins.
It's a mystery.

Posted by mc at 6:06 PM | Comments (0)

July 1, 2006

Tony and Cleo in the Big Brother House: RSC's Antony and Cleopatra at the Swan

As someone who studied Shakespeare as an undergrad and a grad, i'd been given to think of Antony and Cleopatra as one of the tragedies. Tragedy, i'd learned, at least from the audience perspective, has to do with our experience of a sense of loss: that by the tragic hero's death, no matter how problematic that hero, like Macbeth or Hamlet, their going leaves the world emptier than with them in it. The other accepted truism is that the tragic figure must also be something above and beyond ourselves. Hence, usually royal, but that royalty has some greater biggness to it than title.

This week i saw the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Antony and Cleopatra, and have been puzzling ever since, where's the tragedy? where's the loss? Does the loss overbalance what's left? is this play a tragedy? What made me think it was before?

Or maybe the fault is with the production: Is this a really crappy production of the play which misses delivering on the tragic; where all we get is a look at some particularly problem characters with more money than sense, or is this a really accurate presentation of the text, where we don't get tragedy, because who's sad to see either Antony or Cleopatra go if who they are are the self-interested, petty, monied shites they seem to be? At least with Octavian the last one standing, he at least seems to care about keeping the state running and ending civil war. What's happening here??

In the production, there's little opportunity to see grandeur of what is lost by Antony and Cleopatra's eventual death, even though we are left with Octavian - at least he seems to be more economical with the troops he spends in battle, where Antony's and Cleopatra's decisions cost lives carelessly.

In the early scenes of Act 1, where Cleopatra repeatedly entreats Antony to hear the messengers from Rome, there is an opportunity to see Cleopatra as at least somewhat politically astute, cajoling Antony towards dealing with a potential crisis in Rome. Not a spec of that awareness in the RSC production - the words are played literally: Cleopatra is saying that Antony's wife just wants to get him away from her - nothing else. There's no hint here that she is striving to use that as an excuse to get Antony to deal with his reponsibilities: the lines are played like this is exactly what she means: she's jealous of Fulvia's potential to provoke Antony into leaving her. That the personal actions of these people have highly political consequences seems either oblivious to Antony and Cleopatra or they just don't care. This portrayl of cleopatra has, however, been celebrated by some reviewers.

Antony is also played as simply reactive, and consequently dangerous, starting from his if Cleopatra says see the messengers then he won't see them - until he's alone. Not particularly appealing is his blaming of her for everything that doesn't go right for him, whether it's his enjoyment of egypt itself - bonds he suddenly feels he must break - or his fleeing after Cleopatra in the battle of Actium . She should have known he'd leave if she did. That's part of the problem: they act as if they're the only people involved. The social cost of their highly personal reactions to each other have a higher cost than anything Octavian does in the play. And perhaps it's that this production doesn't provide a way to see this self-involvement as anything particularly noble that makes it difficult to experience the deaths of either as particularly tragic.

Indeed, in the production, Stewart's Antony is in deep need of therapy: in the second half, post Actium, he starts yelling without much provocation. He goes from quiet recitation to full throated yelling. It's not a subtle performance, and that was a surprise and disappointment. There's also not much listening to others on stage. For instance, in the battle of Actium preparation when everyone is telling him not to fight by the sea, the line in the text is "Antony: The Sea, the sea" - and that's about how Stewart delivers it - a throw away. He's not listening, getting angry and responding with "if you tell me this, then i'll do that" - there's just no listening. He's in his own little world. No wonder so many soldiers abandon ship as it were: he's out of touch with reality and who wants to die for a delusion? Perhaps then, that's a reasonable interpretation of Antony: he doesn't care about how his orders are received. He can just do what he wants.

But likewise later when he has Ceasar's messenger whipped who has kissed Cleopatra's hand, Stewart's Antony just goes into a rant, looking like Mr Magoo in a kilt having a fit, arms flailing. We see no sense of jealousy; he's just a demented old man who thinks his plaything's being taken away, rather than someone feeling the sense of his loss. In a following scene, he'll insist that one of his own soldiers whose done well take and kiss cleopatra's hand. There's not one look on the stage that shows anyone -including Antony - is aware of the contrast.

Now maybe all that is a legitimate way to play the text, but it just puts us at an increasing distance from the character - and sure tragedy does that too: watch Macbeth or Hamlet at their worst - Hamlet causing the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for instance, but they recover their nobility by the end of the play; we are brought back to them, usually out of growing awareness of how much worse those around them are. In this production, we are never close to the characters, except perhaps in the first act, but that's more politeness around characters we don't exactly know, than any real feeling of closeness. On hearing of Enobarbus's defection, Antony sends Enobarbus's goods after him rather than keeping them to supplement his own war chest. Enobarbus and his new Roman cohorts recognize Antony as "a Jove" in this generosity. But the act is given short shrift in the production, such that again, any sense of Antony's nobility is cut off by his short-sighted, self-delusion and pettiness.

Beyong the loss of greatness, in this production, they go for farce too frequently, including in the early scenes: Cleopatra's treatment of the messenger when his bad news (Antony's married) has Cleopatra potentially attacking him is played as comedy, not as seeing Cleopatra as feeling this news as a betrayl or loss. Why? this keeps Cleopatra as a joke; not as someone whose passions are so deep. Here she is portrayed as shallow, overall. An actress remembering her glory days of acts, not of a character experiencing depth of feeling. But that too may be a legitimate way to play the text - maybe the lines don't really give her anything other than superficial passions - it's just harder to care about her with such a portrait - it's also harder to believe that all these significant men from Ceasar to Dolabella by the end of the play would fall for her.

Some actions played as comedy seem more problematic than the above scene. In the scene where Antony botches his own suicide, and there he is dying, collapsed on the floor, immobile, because he believes Cleopatra has already killed herself, a messenger from cleopatra comes in, gets down at floor level to say right to antony, and says

"the queen has sent word to you" -
- when?

Even before Antony asks "when?", the audience cracks up. The interaction is played as comedy. Stewart's Antony also starts to laugh. In an open discussion with the cast after the play, stewart says that this laugh was the assistant director's idea - but that overall they wanted the play to be as human as possible. Others in the cast said that one of the ways they were looking at it was as a kind of celebrity expose, where we see behind the closed doors of the Royals, and this is what we get.

And as for Octavian's performance - it is one note: someone who's really really sincere. and pauses. alot. between words. of a line. to show. just how sincere. he is.

The actor says he wanted to play Octavian as less of a cold calculating fish and more of an emotional character who hero worships his enemy Antony. Not sure where he gets the hero worship, though Octavian certainly seems to parrot many of his actions, but the actor claims that several times Octavian is accused of weeping in the play so he must be a more emotional guy than most have given him credit.

He too plays Octavian literally from the text: for instance, he plays the scene of getting Antony to mary Octavia as if Agripa's "studies" proposal for marriage came as a surprise to Octavian. And if it did, Agripa doesn't even "ahem" and cautiously try to interpose the idea. He just sails into it. But Octavian, as soon as he hears that Antony considers himself free to marry, doesn't evan blanch at the idea. And yet later on, he's played the scene where Octavian bids farewell to Octavia and Antony as if he can't stand to let her go. The two scenes' responses to Octavia seem therefore inconsistant: the one throws away Octavia in marriage to an enemy; the next seems filled with almost incestuous reluctance to let go of her. Surely if that's how he felt, that first scene where the marriage is proposed should show at least some reluctance on his part to make this political bargain, if that's how it's to be played?

The only actor on stage who seems to hear the words he's saying, speak them like they are thoughts or interactions with other characters is Ken Bones' Enobarbus. His description to Agripa et al of Cleopatra's barge is the only moment of embodied poetry in the play. He conveys the sense that despite his Roman cynicism, he is moved by Cleopatra. She is a force for illusion and emotion. Pity the rest of the play lets that portrayal just ring hollow.

But is that what's in the play? Only moments of memory like these, cast against a smallness of Tony, Cleo and Ocky in the Big Brother House, having to perform ridiculous tasks to see who gets voted out first? Or perhaps it's more Survivor, where Sextus Pompei is voted off the island first; last to go are Antony, then Cleopatra and Octavian is the winner. How is that tragedy? Indeed, watching this version of the play felt more akin to watching an episode of the Sopranos: fascinated, occasionally hopeful, but simultaneously repulsed by knowledge of the leads' self-interested insensitivity/rationale of their tangential cruelties.

Joyce Carole Oates starts an interesting piece talking about the Tragedy of Imagination - that unlike in other tragedies where the tragedy comes of the hero having to confront his (ya his) illusions and confront reality, that's something that doesn't happen here. Cleopatra and Antony stick with their version of the world throughout the play. Though not said explicitly, for Oates, the tragedy seems to be the potential loss of poetry that goes out of the world when it loses its two best poets, Antony and Cleopatra. With them goes illusion of "sun drenched Egypt."

I dunno. That used to be sufficient for me to say, yes well, that's the big loss and we're left with Octavian who's so constantly contrived (tho he cries, and rages at Antony's message to him where "he calls me boy!" - oh how the audience laughs at this explosion onto the stage at the start of the scene). But again, the tragedy may be that the world is seen as so polarized: why are the practical poetry-less, and the poets useless at best or harmful at worst? Not a tragedy - an anti-Romance perhaps?

It's interesting that the RSC has put performances of Romeo and Juliet in the main theater against Antony and Cleopatra in the Swan: was the irony deliberate?

As for the production at the RSC, while the cast may have striven for something "more human" it seems they lost communicating something grand. Humanity does not have to be equivalent with vapidity, but that seems to be the case here. The venialness, the superficiality of cleopatra and the lack of awareness/hysteria of Antony make it seem like nothing so grand as poetry is lost when these characters suicide themsleves, rather, that this illusion-driven allowance for self-indulgence and social harm would be better for everyone if it slept with the fishes. And that's as close to tragic catharsis this production achieves.

Post Script

Re-reading the play didn't help get a better sense of the tragic. Indeed, the production could be a fairly straight reading of the text, though it still seems that Cleopatra could have been both more sensual and more politic, and Antony less extreme in his mood swings. But so? While i didn't experience a great tragic loss or catharsis, it was still awesome to see shakespeare live - with great costumes, sets, to hear the words spoken aloud, and at the Swan, which is designed similar to Elizabethan theaters. Jeez, Patrick Stewart paced past me four times as he (and others) used the theater patron's exits and entrances as well as the stage's own doors. Fantastic! A real opportunity to get up close with the play in the real as well as the round.

This play is part of the RSC's complete works year putting on shakespeare's complete plays. If you're anywhere around the UK this year, try to find a way to catch one of the plays.

Posted by mc at 10:21 PM | Comments (0)

April 4, 2006

So, how long you here for?

It never fails: get into a cab anywhere in the UK, and within minutes, i'll be asked "so, how long are you here for?" There are variations, "Are you traveling or on business?" - then the delicate probing to discover whether the accent originates from the US or Canada. This is followed by either "i have family in Canada" or "what part of Canada are you from?" - never mind that either (a) the person has never been there and so has no knowledge of what being from any region means or (b) their knowledge of the country is that they have relatives invariably either in Vancouver or Toronto. "They wanted me to come out there too, but...."

The surprise is the automatic assumption that if one has a north american accent, then that person is either a tourist or just in the UK on business. Even within a work context, i regularly get asked first if i am working over here and then "how long have you been here?" For a Canadian who's grown up around a sea of voices, such questions have never occurred to me to ask. But in the UK it seems it's the opposite. The assumption is first and foremost that you're visiting at most, and that if you're working here, it's just a quickie.

Is it so shocking to the UK psyche that someone from the New World/colonies would move to the old country?

In Canada, you're surrounded by accents, not the least of which is English of some sort. I've spoken with many many canadians about this: not once have any of us, on hearing a non-local accent EVER asked "so, how long are you visiting for?"

It's not that there's an assumption that the person either lives here (in Canada, say) or not. It's simply that to question someone about their locality would not occur as a question.

I was in yet another taxi awhile ago, and asked by the driver (a) where i was from and (b) how i liked it in the UK. When i asked her if she liked it in the UK, the reply was she hated it and wanted to leave. This is not the first time i've heard such admissions about wanting to get out.

I can't lay hands on it now, but there was a survey a couple years ago about Brits feelings about their home and native land - and nigh on 50% of them wanted to leave. Increasing numbers who can afford to are retiring to Spain and such warmer Euro climes - to the point where the local communities are getting quite miffed at the adamantly english invasion and lack of sensitivity to local cultures/languages.

Having only been here a few years now, i could only speculate about this angst to get out, whether these folks have ever been out or not, but it goes some ways to explaining the seeming mental hurdle that UK nationals seem unable to overcome when faced with a North American accent - a perspective that can't believe anyone who could chose to be elsewhere would be here.

Posted by mc at 9:51 AM | Comments (0)

March 21, 2006

The UK's Royal Mail - what an amazing thing

The US still has mail on saturdays. Canada dropped saturday mail decades ago. In Canada it can take a week for a piece of post mailed from an address in Toronto to reach another address in Toronto. It recently took five weeks for an air mail envelop (light - contained a scarf a cousin had knitted for christmas) to arrive from california to the UK. "Typical" was the only reply.

In the UK, you can order a parcel from Scotland on Monday, and it will be with you in England by tea time on Tuesday.

To a Canadian, such postal service is just this side of miraculous; it's this kind of service that makes internet shopping something equally magical: order something from electronic scales to sneakers at a UK internet shop and it's there the next day - two days at the most - and at a savings from buying "on the high street." And there it is: brought right to your door. For those who are not keen on the hurly burly of heading into stores (the get in and get out types) this kind of shopping service is heaven sent.

And really, in the UK, there is an online store for everything. A colleague was telling me about a place that just sold hassocks. Another, that i wrote about earlier, just does light bulbs.

I thought perhaps this kind of internet service was a global phenom. It isn't.

i wanted to get a pal in the US a gift, so was looking to order something from a US online shop to be delivered to him - in the US: it would take 3-5 days to process the order and then another week for delivery of the goods. A ten day to two week process. The business processing the order was one part of the hold up; speed of the post is another.

Now maybe it's just that the UK has hit the sweet spot between geography and population density, such that it can move mail with such alacrity. After all despite Canada's land mass is three times the size of the US (the UK would likely fit inside the province of Alberta) it has a low population (about 33mil) compared to either the US (295mil) or the UK (60mil). Too few people to form a chain to pass the mail from one end of the country to the other?? And in the US? Just too many places for mail to get to, to be delivered efficiently? Dunno.

There's a lot of problems with services in the UK, as there seem to be in any country. Ask someone about trying to get an NHS dentist in the UK; where the concept of a semi-private room in a hospital is a complete non-starter (wards - just multibed wards here. does canada have wards in hospitals outside of Intensive Care Units?).

But when it comes to the mail, and what an efficient mail service enables for local trade, it seems quite untouched. I don't know what the rest of Europe is like, but compared to North America, the Royal Mail is a wonder.

Posted by mc at 10:12 AM

March 13, 2006

The bait and switch of UK/EU hotels' "King Size Beds"

In the US, there is a legal definition for a bedroom (must be for house selling purposes): it's a room with both a window and a closet.
In the UK, bedrooms - any rooms, even in new houses, do not have built in closets as part of the layout of the room. Tho many home-depot like shops will sell do-it-yourself build in cupboard solutions, these kinds of things are not part of the architectural imagination. C.S. Lewis Wardrobes, sans lion and witch, are still the norm.

What is equally distinct between North America and the UK, it seems, beyond ideas of what constitutes a bedroom, is the notion of the bed itself. Bed sizes are different. There is, for instance, no notion of a Queen size in the UK, whereas Kings are shorter in the UK than their NA equivalents. Box springs are rare: the mattress goes direct onto a platform (North Americans are most familiar with this approach when shopping for beds at IKEA).

These differences in size and support are as nothing to the myth perpetrated by hoteliers that two twin beds squished together can be advertized as a "king" bed in a room.

While not restricted to the UK, the UK must be the biggest perpetrator of this hotel slight of hand. A room advertised with a king size bed invariably means "two twins pushed together"

Word to the business traveler: if you're given the choice between a room with a double bed and a king, take the double. If traveling accompanied, even your partner will be grateful: that split in the middle where the twins come together to approximate a king, as you can guess, becomes experienced throughout the night as an increasingly vast chasm.

How did this bait and switch start? or does every native EU resident just understand that King at a hotel means squished twins, and it's just the naive north americans who take a King to mean a single unified mattress surface of king proportions?

The confusion is not mine alone: check out trip advisor for say any Radisson Edwardian in London, and look at the complaints about the faux king experience. Bottom line, it's just not comfortable. I was pleasantly shocked last summer when i had a gig in London requiring an overnight, where the hotel screwed up a room, and ended in bumping the accommodation up to their suite. It had an actual king in it. wow. the real thing: a vastness where you have to go on an expedition to get from one side to the other.

An advertised Kind that was a King. how odd.

In north america hotel travel, you may not get breakfast included with the room rate (uncivilized to be sure), but a bed is a bed and a king is a king and never the twins shall meet.

Posted by mc at 10:56 AM

March 2, 2006

You know you're on the Continent when...

Sometimes business travel is like a long walk down a long, boring public hallway. It's better than the alternative - not to travel, not to connect with the people at one end of the hallway or another - but still the sojurn takes place in a pretty dull hallway.

I've just done a trip from london to frankfurt, return, where the gig was at the hotel connected to the airport. That epitomizes the hallway trip: get boarding card from machine, walk down hall, prepare for new "please remove your computer from your bag" step at security (north america has been doing this maneuver for years. alas, it's made its way across the water. why? how have machines changed in the past three weeks that computers now need to come out of bags rather than be left in, but that's another sidebar), then walk on, then sit down, possibly plug in, jack in, use computer for email for a bit; pack up, queue up, board, load luggage into overhead bin, sit. sit sit sit. eat. p. sit sit. "Please wait for the plane to come to a complete stop and the captain to turn off the seat belt sign." Get up, unbin bag, walk walk walk. In this case, the walk lead right to the overpass for the hotel. Consequently, there has been no sense of location shift (or fresh air). Yes, the languages one hears around one are slightly shifted at the different ends of the hall, but then one hears multiple voices in any airport.

No, the only real sign that you're not in kansas, of for that matter canada or even the UK itself anymore is not the language; it's the second hand smoke.

After hours of recycled air, the first inhalation off the plane is - second hand smoke. This is an experience of which most north americans have lost the memory. Not so in europe. Whereas in the UK, smoking is largely contained at airports in semi-enclosed plexiglass cells, in other EU country airports, the "no smoking" area signs are frequently, tacitly ignored. Beyond the airport, in the hotel, the aroma of tobacco products - mainly cigarettes - is pervasive. Rather than a few places being designated "smoking" areas, few places are designated as non-smoking.

Are the stats on the numbers of smokers different in the EU than in the UK or in North America? Or is smoking just less suppressed in the EU? According to the EU's Europe Against Cancer programme report of 2003:

Of the six World Health Organisation (WHO) regions, Europe has the highest per capita consumption of manufactured cigarettes and faces an immediate and major challenge in meeting the WHO target for a minimum of 80% of the population to be non-smoking.

The same report also indicates that 30% of all cancer is related to smoking. Despite its own programme, the EU, in a 2004 statement, said that it will not implement a plan for an EU community-wide ban.

The interesting thing is, i see from stats on the web, as i wait for boarding down at the other end of the hallway, studies are also showing that in places where there are smoking bans, health levels improve quickly. Even local air quality improves.

So what's going on? Why is the EU the highest cigarette consumer when the evidence so clearly shows the benefits - financially to the cost of health provision as well as physically in terms of health and mortality rates - of (a) not smoking and (b) smoking bans to encourage folks to quit?

What does smoking mean, then? why are bans in some countries and not others? beyond the addiction, what's the cultural signifiers?

Hope they'll show "thank you for smoking" as an onboard movie soon.

Posted by mc at 3:23 PM | Comments (0)

January 17, 2006

ID Cards - Will This Be the UK Government's Next - if Biggest - IT Failure?

The UK Government wants to push through ID Cards to use biometric data to connect the card, its data ("basic personal information") and its owner. Uh huh. While one can theoretically imagine how such a scheme would work (and the govn't is dealing in theory since its own site says it doesn't know yet what the cards will actually be like), you would be hard pressed to find any technologist (not funded by a biometrics company) who would say that such a scheme is practical at scale. Indeed, the summary of the consultation exercise on ID cards, which found largely against the practicality or efficacy of such a scheme is - no longer to be found on the Govn't web site. You can still find news articles quoting various computer science experts who spoke to the committee on the multiple problems with ID cards.

And you'd think that such concerns might be part of why the house of lords chucked out the ID Card Bill yesterday. Apparently, though, they were worried about costs - the fact that they weren't well enough defined by the government. Who knows, maybe that's a really good first act rejection: because if the government comes back with a better cost breakdown, perhaps the House will get to the gnarly question of "how can we trust those figures."

Why would they ask such a question? Because the Government has a lousy track record when it comes to specifying and delivering - no matter what the budget - national IT systems. And if they can't get a national database right on the smaller scale of specialist IT systems like the Magistrates court, Ambulance Services [additional research paper pdf], doctor's surgery systems, the police's IMPACT program or Tax Credits, how on earth can they be trusted to get an even more complex system like an ID registry with databases, specialized hardware for collection of biometric data, specialized hardware and software for matching biometric data, specialized training, and specialized secure documents delivered?

So the question is pretty simple the next time the house of lords gets the ID Card Bill back: even if delivering an excellent ID Card system were possible, and even if there were no questions about the technology, about the biometrics, the database security, the security layers between the system itself and humans accessing it, the hackability of the cards, and never mind the social, moral, or economic issues, or for that matter the political ones about whether or not such a system could even stop a terrorist [look here for a list of all these issues and the organizations that query them], disregarding all that and cutting to the chase, would the UK Government simply have the wherewithall to deliver it?

Posted by mc at 9:47 PM

January 4, 2006

brilliant vs excellent - canadian and british parallelisms and cultural dissonances

In Canada, where i hail from, the term "brilliant" is gnerally reserved for truly outstandingly genius-like demonstrations of talent, intelligence, wit - whatever. It's not a term you hear often. If someone says "that was brilliant" or "she is brilliant" it's pretty much the highest degree complement with respect to intelligence or excellence one can achieve.

Not so in Britain (not prepared to generalize to the UK yet...).

In Britain, everything and anything can be "brilliant." Brilliant seems to be used in a way very similarly to the way "excellent" is used in most parts of North America. The one difference between the interchangeability of brilliant/excellent is the rather ironic way that brilliant can be used in the uk to indicate its opposite: you'll hear "oh that's just brilliant, isn't it" when something's really "a complete cock up" (to use another great brit'ism).

You'd rarely find a Canadian saying "oh that's just excellent" when it's a disaster. "That's just great...just great" is more common when going for reversal.

So if you're in the UK and someone says something you've done is "brilliant" - it's still a compliment, but it's just not as hot as you think were that epithet to be used back home. Alas.

Another expression that seems to have no Canadian equivalent is "bless 'em" or "lord bless 'em" or more simply "bless"

It's been harder to get a handle on when and how this particular expression gets used, but it seems to have something to do with covering one's ass after offering a critique of a person. Someone might say something to the effect of "he's not the sharpest tool in the shed" and follow this immediately with "bless him." The desired effect of the apostrophe "bless him" seems to be to mitigate the perceived harshness of the critique - so much to say "doesn't mean i don't like him or that he's not in other ways a nice person, no doubt."

The above interpretation is just deduction on my part based on the contexts of hearing the expression, and also the cultural context of observing the british reluctance (relative to canadians) of saying anything critical of anyone or anything.

This could well lead into an observation on canadian/british behaviour rather than word usage, but it's interesting to see how the two might be related.

It's just these small kinds of differences between english word usage that is part of the culture shock a person coming from Canada experiences when hitting the UK: the word differences become clues to deeper cultural differences that are more challenging to decode, because it's not a case of equivalences like "biscuit" in britain means "cookie" in Canada; it's a case of differences where there aren't parallels between the two places. So it sounds the same, but it isn't the same.

Even being in Britain for a few years now, i don't know how to interpret all the differences, but am better at recognizing them, and the recognition at least allows more comfort; less disorientation. I'll have to think of some examples anon.

Who'd a thunk it, eh? that two such supposedly historically close nations would have these, what would you call them, gaps in connection? I'm not sure what it's like for Brits going the other way, from here to Canada, if there's the same sort of sense of slight twilight zone off set. I have the impression of Canadians being so exposed, our heart, thoughts, everything on our sleeves, without being boisterous about it, that there'd be no difficulty getting a read on Canadian customs, practices and rationales for same. huh.

Mind you, try asking a Westerner why a Quebec'er may be a "separatist" and you'll soon see that we're not always so clear about our own culture(s), either...bless us.

Posted by mc at 1:37 PM

October 24, 2005

Kate Bush's King of the Mountain Eats the Music

It's just one track, the first single from Kate Bush's new album. It's called King of the Mountain. The first pass is "well it sure sounds like Kate Bush" and that has its own reassurance. But it's not a big sound piece: it's subtle, musically, lyrically.

The video is equally seemingly simple: the video story seems to be of one of Elvis's Vegas white suits searching for Elvis ( i won't spoil the ending) while the song's lyrics ask Elvis about rumours of various Elvis sightings, imagining him as King of the Mountain. There is no major video trickery, just an intriguing use of black and white, shift to color and inexpensive sets and props: Bush dancing with clothing; laundry lines of pegged clothes, reaching out to the suit flying above them. Bush wearing a trench coat and a cheap guitar strapped to her back.

The thing about the piece itself is that it is so subtle. It takes several listens - either with the traditional "play it loud" Bush stereo cranked - or with headphones - to get the quality of both the instrumentation and the variations in the piece itself. Effectively two choruses, and half a dozen variants on the main chorus theme, "the wind it blows / through the house"
- the sense of emptiness or longingness as the wind, investigates what is or is no longer there is an ingenious ingenious counterpoint to the Elvis trope of the second chorus You're King of the Mountatin/You're a happy man. Whose loss vs whose happiness?

The instrumentation again is rich while being held back. A quiet percussive loop - is it foot steps? rain? - plays through the track. When the bass and drums come in, they sound like they're played by real human musicians; the layered vocals carry through the feel of the wind blowing (in harmony), yearning.

If this is just the first track of an album that's been more than a decade in the making, this last week before Aerial's release is going to be the longest one in 12 years.

Posted by mc at 2:08 PM | Comments (1)

October 2, 2005

Heckling as Terrorism

What does it say about a nation, a govn't, a party, a leader, that an 82 year old man who raised his voice in critique at a party convention was (a) man handled by volunteer "security" (whether these volunteers wore brown shirts is as yet unclear) and then was (b) held by the state under the terrorism act? The terrorism act? for heckling? a politician?

"At first Sussex police denied that Mr Wolfgang had been detained or searched but a spokesman later admitted that he had been issued with a section 44 stop and search form under the Terrorism Act."

Whatever it says, what is more facinating is who's at least talking about it. The telegraph has covered it. But the Guardian, supposedly the paper of the left, seems to have nothing to say.

It's incidents like the terrible threat posed by Mr Wolfgang that demonstrate the Prime Minister's call to change the law of the land from protection of the individual to protection of the state first. Indeed.

Posted by mc at 1:16 AM | Comments (0)

May 22, 2005

Star Wars Revenge of the Sith: How Gullible is Darth Vadar, Really?

In this episode we learn that Darth Vadar is nothing but a Tool - in every sense of the word, and not the brightest tool in the shed, either.

Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: the new Star Wars film sucks.

It's a horrible thing to have to admit that there seemed to be more vitality in episode 1 of the new series, even with Jar Jar Binks, than this explainer of all things that need to be explained. But most especially what disappoints is to learn that Darth Vadar is no evil genius, he's just, as Bugs Bunny might say, a gulli-bull. How stupid is Anakin? Can fix any technology going but is a total sucker for any emotionally unsubtle line any sith lord throws at him?

There's one born (or put together in pieces) every minute, it seems. But that is surely not what we expected the story of the evolution of Darth Vadar to be? A petulant teen ager? What do those Jedis teach their students if not to cope with "their stuff"?

Shouldn't Darth be a tragic figure? A Hamlet, for instance, so that we think he's grand, he's great, and when he falls, we understand but feel the ache of his loss? Shouldn't Anikin Skywalker's going over to the Dark Side demonstrate some turmoil, some struggle? Instead it's "no i really shouldn't" and the next he does; the next it's oh gosh (heavy thud sitting down) what have i done? oh, well then, i guess i'll just pledge myself to your teaching.

Does anyone care if Anakin is lost to the Dark Side? It's more like, well, at least he won't be hanging around moping anymore. There's only one place where he seems to say something mildly mean as opposed to snotty, where he makes what's a rather nasty crack at padme to the effect that the only reason she's so beautiful to him is that he's so in love with her. And he laughs in this sorta nasty way. There's hope for a moment that we're actually going to see him get an edge that mixing with darkness might give.

And then it's gone. There's no tragic loss here. When Obi Wan yells in seeming regret "You were the chosen one" it's like you're kidding right?

Do we EVER see what that means - to be the chosen one? where the promise of balancing the force is lost? And what about these great powers that he's supposed to have tapped? He does nothing that any Jedi with a light saber couldn't do - supposing he wasn't first shot in the back by a bench of storm troppers, or pitted against unarmed administrators.

Where is the force in Anakin/Darth? In the first film, all we see is little ani is good with techno and flying things. He can lay his hands on robots, but his interpersonal skills are a bit problematic. Surely technological and avianotic proficiency are not the major ingredients to balance the force: an immaculate conception (the force was his daddy, eh?) for a guy who's good with his hands? oh, and speaking of hands, it was shocking the first time, but having just about everyone's hands get cut off in this film is just a bit much. Despite this, Anakin insists in his first duel of the film that his powers have "more than doubled" since the last film. What does that mean? We're not shown anything new here.

As far as we can tell, the gloomy, egocentric geek of the previous film is just more full of himself this one. What's to love? You'd like to see the Nanny brought in to do some work on Obi Wan to help him get Anakin back into line. But that's not the story we signed up for: where's the tragedy in a self-centred prat becoming even more self-centered and more powerful and nasty when he has the old-boy's network behind him? Where's the credibility of the pathos that will come later when he says to Luke "It's too late for me, Son"?

But the evolution of Darth Vadar isn't the only problem with this film.

Can Hayden Christiansen act? He tried in "shattered glass" but that was another sort of whimp and whine and insecure fest. That aside, it would be hard for great acting to save this script, it is so weak. The acting so wooden. It's awful. Padme has gone from action girl in the first and second movies to womb gal, immobile, even when giving birth to the future hope(s).

It's almost depressing how dull the fight sequences are - it's like watching a video game. Indeed, the trailers for the Revenge of the Sith game look more emotionally engaging than these blue screened renderings. One looks back to the REAL forests of Endor (VI) or the Ice Planet of (V) and the models of the walkers and there's a sense of physicality (those guys were COLD on the set) that creates some kind of bond with action. There were models of real little robots running around the floor. The climactic "use the force, Luke" flight scene of the first first (first fourth?) film has all the physicality, risk, hope and adventure of the WWII film "the dam busters" - on which its shots seem based. THis film has lost that physicality, there's no risk, no doubt, no nothing. no fun.

The coldness in this film is not that of shots from an ice planet; it's the sterility of the project. Even on a volcanic planet for the ultimate fight between baby darth and obi wan, it's cold as in sterile, as in emotionally unengaging. Even the hooky script of the original star wars (IV) was palpable compared to this garbage because there was perhaps something real happening. A good western perhaps. Two leads fighting for the girl; the interplay among the characters. heck, they even had motives. the freewheeling Han; the naive Luke, the politically aware Leah. Here when obi wan shouts in dismay to Darth "you were a brother to me" we think "huh?" Where was their brotherliness? the badinage between them has always seemed so forced.

So many people have commented on how this new series of star wars has been so bad:the only thing good about the last one was watching Yoda go nuts on "count duku" (dookoo? doo doo? really!), so problematic: racial stereotypes, poor character choices, loss of the fun. and master races: when did the force change from "flowing through everything" to either you're born with lots of force or you aren't? Such arian absolutism makes "May the force be with you" an existential irony, not a prayer of the possible. Maybe that's why these last three films are so problematic compared to the first three: the first three are hopeful; these last three seem so baldly facist.

So many were hoping that this last last film would be somehow like Star Wars's Abbey Road - the great comeback of all that was right about the original films. Alas, no.

This last star wars may tie everything up nicely from why Jedi's don't die they just fade away to why Leah and Luke don't know they're related, even to why Luke stands the way he does to look at the suns-set in IV, but jeeze, is Darth's story at all credible? Are the meicloreans or meti bleachs or whatever they are so lame as to infest someone so thick, immature and gullible? And why is there no spark between Ani and Obi? no banter no nada.

Ah well. The best thing that may possibly be said about this is that it's over. There will be no more George Lucas exegesis about life the universe in everything as an oversimplified no longer fun, structurally black and white (with brown boots) epic.

Posted by mc at 9:00 PM | Comments (0)

May 19, 2005

What happens When the Energy's Gone?

What happens when technologies go transparent? when they become so common that we no longer think about them? What's happening with mobile phones in some countries is a case in point: the techno has gotten to a place when it's only noticed when someone doesn't have it: "What do you mean you don't have a cell phone?" This is an example of a technology in the process of going transparent.

One technology that is pretty much transparent in most of the "first" world is oil - and its derivatives. Oil based products, whether energy, plastic or synthetic materials, have gone effectively transparent. We rarely see these technologies any more: we take synthetics for granted; although the price of gas has goes up, we don't think that the gas will run out.

But what happens when it does? or as it does - run out, that is. Because it will - and according to at least one expert, it will run out a lot sooner than most of us would care to believe.

Salon recently published an interview with James Howard Kunstler author of "The Long Emergency" to discuss his predictions/scenarios of what life will be like when the "oil fiesta" is over - in 15 years.

Try to imagine all the things we do - including looking at this Web page - that presume abundant energy. The plastic in the computer you're using; the milk jug in your fridge; the clothes in your closet; the shoes on your feet; the cheap flight you took on holiday; the food in your grocery, trucked in from god knows where, but not your back yard, the dvd you rented.

Now imagine it gone.

Kunstler suggests that people at least in the States are too overwhelmed when presented with a scenario postulating the immanent demise of a way of life that they are in a state of denial. They won't consider it. And consequently the opportunity of a "smooth transition" from the Way It Is Now to the Way It (Soon) Will Be has been effectively lost.

Thus the question may worth be considering, what would we need to rebuild, reknow, relearn, regenerate, to get along in a world that may be more like the Victorians (or at least Neal Stephanson's digital version of that era [see the Diamond Age]) than the Space Family Robinson. Danger danger, Will Robinson: you're running out of oil.

What would we hate to lose most? how would we keep it?
What would it mean to become again far more locally/community oriented?
What would it be like not to be able to travel at the drop of a hat? or if Pirates once again became a formidable thread to global exchange of goods?
What would it mean if the suburbs collapsed?

These are hard things to imagine. Or not - there are periods of history that reflect these ways of being; there are parts of the globe today that live in this disconnected (but highly impacted) way. But we like to think of them as a part of the past, not our future.

How do we psychically and practically prepare for such a transition?

Posted by mc at 1:46 PM

May 4, 2005

St. Monica: more than just that reprobate Augustine's mom

Once upon a time in the Catholic Church, May 4 was the Feast Day of St. Monica. Feast days in the Catholic Church serve a variety of purposes, but celebrating the lives of the saints is one of the biggies: saints are exemplars.

Alas, we get the story of Monica only from her son, Augustine [bio and bio with refs], the post-pagan, totally one with the Church, post-manachean Augustine. Augustine is known as one of the great Doctors of the Church, engaged in arguing theology and church doctrine in the early years of the established church (the 300's). Prior to this phase, Augustine (according to himself, again) was a brilliant, randy lad, who sampled spiritual philosophy with the same vigour he sampled life's pleasures.

The story we hear about Monica from him is one of a devoted mother in a rough marriage who prayed and drank and prayed some more for the conversion of her son to the one true church, and by this, hopefully to a more stable life. In other words, this is the prototypical story of a mother obsessed with her son's life and focuses all her energies on saving his soul, and whose prayers eventually won him round. No wonder she is the patron saint of

"married women, abuse victims, alcoholics, alcoholism, difficult marriages, disappointing children, homemakers, housewives, married women, mothers, victims of adultery, victims of unfaithfulness, victims of verbal abuse, widows, and wives ."[ref] Talk about polymorphism.

Indeed, the church some time ago, in its infinite wisdom and love of models of women as servants moved Monica's feast day from May 4 to August 27 - to be right before her precious son's - thus reducing any consideration of Monica's value as a saint independent from her role as the Great Augustine's Mom.

And it's enough to make a person spit.

The picture of Monica as the mother triumphant is a horrifying model: it encourages catholic mothers to pray for their kids to come to Jesus, and to be justified in their prayers. In my neighborhood growing up you could just see moms leaning on this saint's example as a justification of their views of their kids' behaviour, and reinforcing with sanctified example, the "mother knows best" response.

That was bad enough, but it used to really bother me that Monica as a figure didn't seem to stand on her own. Her best strength was her persistence in bugging God (and her bishop) about her son. But what about putting up with that husband? or dealing with alcoholism? or just being a struggling prayerful gal, likely cut off from much of a social life? Who was there to help her? She had to create her own 12 step program.

I remember once going to mass with my family on the new Aug27 feast day and this young sexist (troubled) priest only spoke about Monica as the great man's mum; without him, she wouldn't be a saint, and what a great exemplar of a life dedicated to her son etc. Several times a restraining hand kept me from standing up and shouting "Bull!" - but i did share my views with him afterwards: that his was a rather partial view.

But who knows? again, we only have Augustine's portrait of her which mayn't have separated himself from his view of her - perhaps if she had written her own diary or been interviewed by Jon Snow, she would have suggested that there was more to her life than day and night contemplation of her son (but then again maybe not) - or maybe he just made it all up. We are talking 332 AD or so.

In any case, i prefer to celebrate my Name Sake's feast on May 4, a lovely day in mid spring when the light is getting long and the days brighter - and several months away from her codependent son.

My Latin teacher said Monica comes from the Latin "moneo" i advise from the verb monere- to advise. That's inspiring. There's some debate about this - other origins may be possible - phonetian perhaps - but maybe they mean the same thing as the Latin: adviser. And maybe instead of whinging to god so much, Monica became a rather centered person who got her own stuff together and advised her son to grow up and get a life - in the nicest possible of ways - as she got on with her garden, accounting and philosophical writings that her son later copied.

Posted by mc at 5:48 PM | Comments (0)

Youth vote vote vote, eh? - The UK Elections

It's the British Elections tomorrow, and thanks to the Iraq War becoming the issue of the election, the Labour Party under Tony Blair is not assured the cake walk into a third term that was anticipated.

So it seems there's a real opportunity to feel one's vote will have an impact. As in the states election, however, it seems that the youth vote is an under tapped resource for any party. In the states, despite major effort by a variety of venues from the parties themselves to MTV, student numbers weren't any higher than the previous election. What's with that? In the UK, there's been no such out reach. Perhaps they feel it's not worth it? It doesn't seem that 20 somthings in or out of university care to "get out the vote." Why not? What's different here? Various programs featuring interviews of 20 somethings in pubs have shown them saying "there's nothing interesting for me" and "i have to go somewhere to vote? i'm not doing that" or "it's the politicians fault: they're not offering me anything." This seems to be a bit of a surprise. For youth contemplating an education, there does seem to be an issue.

The Labour party introduced top up fees for university. The Liberal Democrats have said that they would scrap them. For selfish reasons alone, wouldn't it be worth voting for a group that would kill your major debt burden?

I've heard some mature adults here say students will just get used to fees being part of their lives. Ask some North American students how they feel about getting used to student loan debt and how crippling it can be for decades following graduation. It will be interesting to see if students who protested top up fees this past year will take the opportunity to create change here.

[Update: students ARE voting] more...

Perhaps the media has been rather misrepresenting the Youth vote - at least the Student youth vote. I've had the chance to speak with first years, third years, fourth year students and researcher assistants and they've each said, but one, that they're voting, or for that matter have postal voted already. Walking down the hall today, i heard my first political argument: it wasn't about voting or not, but about who these two "youth" had decided to support. Fantastic (the grown ups have seemed far more reluctant to "talk politics:" is that a British cultural thing, this reticence?). One of them was talking about how he's been proselytizing the need to vote to his peer group.

So what's with the media portraying the Youth of the UK as apathetic and uninterested in the election? Perhaps heading to the pubs isn't the best place to ask these probing questions?

Or is there a divide between students and employed 18-21year olds? Dunno. But today i heard if not overflowing joy at the opportunity to vote, at least a commitment among student youth to do so.

Posted by mc at 12:01 PM | Comments (0)

April 14, 2005

email - turning it O F F - at least for some of the day

A colleague of mine, Jeremy Cooperstock, has a rigorous email policy: once a day, and that's it. His emails always include a link to this policy so that folks know where they stand. That's polite (Canadian, eh?). But why have such an explicit policy?

There's an implicit, cultural expectation of immediacy with email: it can be sent and received at near light speed; a response should be just as rapid, so the logic seems to go. If one does not abide by these expectations, an explanation needs to be proffered. Hence an email policy. Based on Jeremy's example, i offer this note as a first draft of an evolving policy.

I'm pulling back from email. It's getting to be too much. Maybe you see this too: email, combined with a laptop and wireless, seems to have become the great distractor: i sit in talks and conferences and watch my colleagues and myself "multitask" - doing email while the speaker attempts to be more engaging than the current virtual exchange. There's nothing inherently wrong with these capacities, but i'm noticing that there does seem to be something problematic with my own practice of them: too much response mode to email rather than to the bigger picture.

So, over the next month at least, i'll be limiting my email reading to one or two set periods in the day, during the week, and likely zero on the weekend. As a result, replies to emails will likely be more like within a day or so, rather than an hour or so.

The reason for setting these limits is to reclaim my day from the reactiveness that is email. I find myself in open response mode - Pavlov's dogs come to mind: the email chimes and i respond. This can't be right.

Indeed, i know from experience that pulling away from email can be a positive, effective thing. My laptop keeled over last year, and had to go to warranty repair land. I remember the look of sympathy and horror that came over my colleagues' faces when i told them my laptop was in the shop - sympathy that this must be a terrible experience; horror at the thought of how awful that would be if it happened to them. I took the time as an opportunity to see what life without constant access to email would be like.

For what ended up being six weeks last year, i reclaimed my space from email and my world became a more relaxed, more effective place. Rather than have email on all the time while at work, i had it on twice a day only. I did other tasks the rest of the time. Things got done; things got finished; i went home at the end of the day and was home, not online. It felt great. Liberating.

And then i got my laptop back, and my resolve began to slide.

I've hung onto not doing email at night: that's family time, not work time. But now i find myself back to checking email first thing in the morning (and throughout the day) - with the idea that i will understand the shape of the day to come if i understand what emails i need to address. This is ridiculous, no? Email in my life is more often than not small things: confirming this thing; forwarding that file; setting up that date. These are not unimportant; indeed, they can be critical building blocks for projects. But here, too, i note that when they get to urgent mode of requiring several iterations back and forth in a day, or in an afternoon, or within the hour, that more often than not it's because i've let them slide, build up, so that they go from a reasonable thing that could have been dealt with calmly in advance to something that must be addressed "right now!" oh no! - i must be online to deal with this now now now - now how did that happen?

To gage days this way is too reminiscent of Prufrock's coffee spoons. It suggests that the big picture may be slipping out of focus, behind a flurry of to do's.

"So what is the big picture?" i ask myself. What are the big things, the mission level things, i want to accomplish? What are the big pieces that support that picture? and what are the things which need doing to support those pieces? Those things first.

In the 7 habits of Highly Effective People, in the section called Habit 3, First things First, Stephen R. Covey writes " 'The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.'

Where does email fit into that? When does email fit into that?

Over the next month, i'm hoping to rediscover this.

Posted by mc at 10:50 AM

April 9, 2005

Charles, Camilla, the Church of England, Divorce, Henry VIII

The Royal sort-of-Wedding (it was to be Friday, but they decided they'd rather conflict with the start of the racing season than with the Pope's funeral) has been confusing for those not steeped in Anglican tradition. Charles and Camilla can't have a church wedding because both are divorced - in particular, divorced, and Camilla's ex is still alive.

Henry VIII founded the church of England because he was not given a divorce from his first wife, right?. So one would be forgiven for thinking that the church of England was in large part created to support divorce.

Turns out that's not the case.

There is a public perception, especially in the United States, that Henry VIII created the Anglican church in anger over the Pope's refusal to grant his divorce, but the historical record indicates that Henry spent most of his reign challenging the authority of Rome, and that the divorce issue was just one of a series of acts that collectively split the English church from the Roman church in much the same way that the Orthodox church had split off five hundred years before. (The Anglican Domain: Church History)

It seems from more recent reports that the partner still has to die before the other can remary. So even though Charles's first wife is dead, he can't be married in the church because he divorced Diana.

In the case where one or both parties has been divorced and has a surviving former spouse the legal right to a wedding in a church does not apply.
The final decision as to whether to conduct such a wedding lies solely with the parish priest of the church involved. Some will not do so under any circumstances, while others are prepared to do so, often after referring to the Church in Wales' Guidelines on the matter. Many clergy who will conduct such weddings would not do so for parties who have been married more than once before, or in cases where one party was instrumental in the break-up of the previous marriage of the other party. If a priest agrees to a wedding of a person who has been divorced, he or she has the right to inspect the decree absolute before proceeding.
As ever, before making any assumptions on the matter the parish clergy should be consulted.
From Weddings in the Church

In retrospect this does make historical sense: if the church of england supported divorce, why would Henry have had to have most of his wives condemned to death first as traitors (one wasn't executed; the other outlived him)? The quote doesn't explain the theology of the position, but it does suggest that there's a certain flexibility in whether or not that wedding can be held in a church. That flexibility hasn't been noted with respect to Charles and Camila's wedding. And indeed, some have argued that anything BUT a church wedding is out of the question - or at least not legal - for the heir to the throne. And since the archbishop won't marry him in the church, is the wedding "legal"? The UK govn't says it is. Legal, according to the same govn't/attorney general who said the war in Iraq is legal, too.

Posted by mc at 2:13 AM

April 8, 2005

John Paul II -Critique

In two articles, Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Terry Eagleton: The Pope has blood on his hands, and the follow up obituary of John Paul II by Peter and Margaret Hebblethwaite, and Peter Stanford, we are presented with an effective portrait not only of John Paul II, but of the Church hierarchy which appointed him.

In Eagleton's piece, JPII's background is contextualized with why he would have been picked to be pope: why his background was appropriate and for whose agenda in the church. Eagleton is a literary theorist of the Derridian cast, for whom the question "nothing is innocent; in whose interest is it" is toujours deja a founding question. Eagleton looks at the Pope's appointment as part of the conservative mission of a considerable part of the Church: to redress the liberalism of Paul VI and John Paul I.

The Habblethwaite/Stanford obituary takes a somewhat more even hand to the Pope's extremes, praising his outspokenness for social justice and the poor, while listing in compelling fashion the number of theologians he condemned (one to the point of excommunication) whom he regarded as at best, uncatholic.

Putting both articles together creates a compelling contrast to the current only positive spin on the pope.

The peons to the pope seem strongly similar to the uncritical accolades received by Reagan at his funeral last summer. Eagleton's piece constructs an historically situated rationale for JPII's elevation, and conservative training, (demonstrated, for example, in his canonization of Opus Dei's founder).

Eagleton draws particular attention to the role of the church's anti-condom position in the spread of Aids in africa, where the church effect is strong (it runs many hospitals). Eagleton is not alone in this critique: an American campaign two years ago also pointed to American bishops' complicity in this health crisis. Eagleton goes on to point to places from ecumenism to women where this pope and his hand-picked college of cardinals have pulled away from Vatican II.

Further context is JPII's efforts to pull the plug on liberation theology. He also famously agreed with the condemnation of homosexuality and gay marriage as "evil", and his writings see women in the Marian tradition of genetic role to reproduce, rather than capacity to serve as priest. Since the elevation of JPII, papal direction has only pulled women further away from the altar - a directive that many parishes have been content to ignore.

Some groups are already calling for the deceased pope's canonization, or at least deisgnation as "Great."

But Eagleton's pieces raise the question: is centrist, conservative, regressive, pigheadedness something for which one is to be considered a saint? Or as the Habblethwaite/Stanford obituary puts it:

If his pontificate is to be deemed a failure, it was a very Polish failure, on a vast, magnificent, heroic scale, conducted with zest and panache, comparable to those mythical Polish cavalrymen charging the German tanks in 1939. One admires the dash of it, while wondering whether it was quite the best thing to do.
Posted by mc at 10:41 AM

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."


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.


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 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 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

February 28, 2005

the beginning of the long dash

How do you tell a Canadian from an American? Accents may be deceptive but just
ask them to complete the following sentence: the beginning of the long dash...

This is a phrase that has been part of the canadian lexicon, the canadian psyche, perhaps, since the thirties. It is repeated daily on the national radio service (CBC, radio 1) daily, at 12:59pm eastern. It is the most pervasive and persistent demonstration of the work of research, and the National Research Council. It potentially does more for national unity than the railway once did - in its quiet, semaphoric way.

Sharon Theesen, in the late 80's wrote a collection of poems entitled the beginning of the long dash. it should have won the governor general's medal that year (it was nominated) for the title alone. it strikes a chord.

There's something particular about an event that happens everywhere at the same time each day in such a vast country, its people spread so far apart, as a nation synchronizes watches to the following (any canadians out there, feel free to chant along...)

Now for the National Research Council Official Time Signal. The beginning of the long dash, following ten seconds of silence, indicates exactly one o'clock" (EST).

peep peep peep peep peep &nbsp&nbsp &nbsp&nbsp &nbsp&nbsp &nbsp&nbsp


Are there culturally identifying nation-based events like this where you are?

Posted by mc at 9:54 PM | Comments (0)

February 27, 2005

Go home and stay there

The UK Government is in the throes of wrestling with
"control orders"
as a way to manage terrorist suspects it can't just bring to trial because that might expose sensitive somethings or someones. So what can you do?

The govn't has been saying that it will use control orders to send these untriable, wicked, terrorist suspects to their living rooms. Of course it's not that these bad people will be subject to chintz prints and overstuffed furniture without the benefit of cell phone or internet that is at issue.

No longer at Belmarsh (what's been called the UK's Guantanamo), these "terrorist suspects" (so far, men only, foreign nationals only) will be sent to their UK homes.

The concerns expressed about control orders is that they can be invoked by the Home Secretary alone. As proposed, this means that up to 7 days after these orders have been put in place, a judge can review them and recind them (set the people free?).

Many MP's are calling for only a judge to be allowed to make such an order - no politician should have the privilege of recinding the rights of the magna carta (no house arrest without judicial process).

Other MP's and legal experts (as interviewed on Broadcasting House, BBC, Radio 4 Sunday Feb 27 05) point to the fact that such orders, which can now be applied to British citizens as well, might be used against political disidents, animal welfare activists, or anyone who could be, for the benefit of the govn't of the day, construed as a "terrorist suspect."

One MP, speaking from personal experience, said that this proposed legislation was reminiscent of house arrest in South Africa in 1968 to control people who spoke against the Government.

A responding MP said that the comparison could not be made fairly. Of course. It's always different when you're the one doing it, isn't it?

There's a
List of links covering the topic at the Guardian newspaper's site.

Posted by mc at 2:34 PM

Welcome to nopain2.org

no pain, no gain.

All great art is born from suffering

etc etc etc

A friend of mine, however, once put it somewhat differently. We were staying in a cold basement flat in a house next to an illegal body shop, living on UI or student loans, speaking of life, karma, and our respective futures

"Well you know," he proffered, "no pain...no pain"

Welcome to no pain 2, read as "no pain, squared" as in

(no pain)^2 = "no pain no pain"

Where you can explore with your tray tables down, your seat backs reclined, and your seat belt unfastened. Please feel free to use electronic and portable devices such as laptops or personal stereos. Cell phones may continue to be used. nopain2 is a smoke free environment. In the event of turbulence, the fasten the seat belt sign will be illuminated.

Posted by mc at 12:07 PM

February 20, 2005

Your seat is also a flotation device

Why not just say "go to the light...to the light"?

The safety films on aircrafts always explain last that you should not inflate your flotation device until you are outside the plane. It then shows the emergency exit as a white, glowing light, towards which the camera (in place of the imagined you, exiting) is moving as if what? what is that white light? where are we all supposed to be going? why is the theme music so cheerful? do they know something we don't? think happy thoughts think happy thoughts...

There is a famous NFB cartoon called "the Big Snit" (made by Winnipeger Richard Condie) which features an older couple and some of the things that drive them crazy about each other. Famous scenes include the husband complaining of a wife during a scrabble game "stop shaking your eyes (she does take her eyes off and shakes them - they occaisionally get stuck the way a toy's eyes do from time to time) -" you shake them over here you shake them over there"

She retorts that he is always sawing. His favorite TV show is sawing and when watching he gets out his saw and saws along - sawing the furniture as soon as the show announcer says "begin to saw"

This inspired a new possible ending for the safety video: in the event of an emergency rather than having oxygen masks drop from the ceiling, and life jackets retrieved, drills would come down on their power cords and passengers would be instructed to "begin to drill" to take the plane apart before it crashed.

Posted by mc at 1:45 PM

Must See (in TO): the ROM

The Royal Ontario Museum has had one of the best presented ranges of Asian collections anywhere. Korea, Japan, China.

The British Museum is a grand place, with a masterful range of artifacts, but when it comes to the Asian artifacts it can't hold a candle to the ROM for presentation. Where the ROM sux, unless this has changed in the past couple years, is the lack of explanations for its displays. Here places like the British Museum come first every time.

Still, it's the display, the sense of mood, that the ROM creates. There's one room that has a set of wood carved statues of Chinese deities that is remarkable. The near life-sized carvings are on a raised platform with a wooden railing running round it - as if you're looking into a forest. Around the walls of the room are massive tapestries depicting scenes of enlightenment, and more carved sacred figures. The tone of the room is hushed, dark, deep. It's a wonderfully soothing space, with rich wooden benches for resting.

There's another gallery that had the statuary of a funereal garden or temple (forgive me, i do not know the terms). A model explains how the complete layout works. Two favorite pieces are larger than life grey statues of two guardian-like figures. one a warrior and one if i recall aright a scholar.

It was always disturbing that the museum hosted functions in this space (the gallery has large windows and you could see it from the street). Weird karma, that. Have a toast by someone's guardian of the dead?

The ROM also has a great rock/mineral collection. Here the explanations are better, and the flow of the displays are more tractable than the overwhelming number of cases at say the Natural History Museum in London.

Unfortunately, right now it seems that
most of the first floor (where all these galleries are) is closed (the page on closures is updated regularly) for a whopping renovation: the new facade is to have the museum appearing to come forth
from a giant crystal. Only hope this doesn't wipe out the great stuff that's been there like the last renovation did!

Royal Ontario Museum
100 Queen's Park
Toronto, Ontario
M5S 2C6

Posted by mc at 1:02 PM