I don’t want to think about it ….

October 8, 2015

I have come to realize that the federal election here in Canada is just not something I want to pay attention to.  This is a bit of a revelation for a former “political junkie” who now doesn’t even want to look.  Here’s the thing:  I have no faith that people’s voting decisions will be based on anything even close to a clear perception of reality.  As I was rambling on about Facebook, I realized what has changed … the world now works like a social media site.

Pardon me: I’m making this up as I type:

  1.  The facts don’t carry any weight at all.  This is happening constantly, but recently Stephen Harper gave me a good example.  He said “marijuana is 1000 times more harmful than tobacco”.  I don’t even need to look anything up to assure you that is just complete rubbish.  Granted, inhaling anything into your lungs (including the polluted air that we breathe) can lead to problems of varying types, but the ingredients in cannabis simply are not harmful, and can be ingested in many ways that do not involve inhalation. In fact, now that people can actually do research on the plant (that was pretty much impossible for decades), there are more and more cases where it is shown to help people.  Tobacco, on the other hand, has virtually no redeeming qualities, and has been shown quite definitively to kill people by the millions.  Do any of the facts matter when the “leader” of our country speaks?  Not a bit.  Nobody challenges him, he has no need to respond to any questions.  People go about their lives, now with the phrase “marijuana is 1000 times more harmful than tobacco” in their heads, despite the fact that Harper just made that up, and it has no resemblance to reality.  This goes on pretty much every day on a huge variety of topics.  Reality is just like Facebook.
  2. When it comes to elections, people just listen to the people that they agree with and avoid dealing with ideas that may suggest that they need to change their thinking. Not unlike only communicating with your “friends” on Facebook, so that everything you ever hear is just people agreeing with you, people now choose the channels where they get their information to make sure that their ideas are never challenged.  Do you want to believe that gun ownership has nothing to do with gun deaths?  There’s a channel for that.  Do you want to believe that lower taxes will boost the economy?  There’s a channel for that. Do you want to think that everyone in one religion is exactly the same and a threat to your way of life?  There’s a channel for that, too. It is remarkably easy these days to only hear what you want to hear, and never be challenged on what may be stupid ideas.  Reality is just like Facebook.
  3. No politician will ever say anything unless it improves their polling, even if unpopular things are completely true. It has not always been this way.  Politicians used to frequently address difficult issues or tell us that we are going through times that may require us to adjust our lifestyles. No more. Over-extended your credit or have a house that you can only afford if interest rates remain at zero? Don’t worry.  Even if raising interest rates might be crucial to our survival, nobody is going to talk about that.  Nobody is going to say “time to tighten our belts”.  They will all say, “go buy a BMW, you deserve it”, because people like to hear that.
  4. There doesn’t seem to be any content to political discourse anymore.  Apparently, the most pressing issues of the day are whether people can wear their traditional clothing to work, or whether Justin Trudeau is “arrogant”. While those topics might be a part of the discussion, nobody is talking about missing Aboriginal women, the destruction of the environment in the tar sands, immense infrastructure problems in our cities, the fact that the world now looks at us like villains, or the fact that our military is now a combat force when we all seemed to like them as a peace-keeping force.  I’m sure people ARE talking about these things, but it’s not what I hear about “on the street”.  I hear “if the NDP get in, we’ll be working on collective farms”, and “that Justin Trudeau just worries about his hair.”  The election may swing on these ridiculous topics while the country has some real things to deal with.  Facebook, anyone?

Having an immense number of channels to choose from has not made us smarter.  It has caused us to retreat into little comfortable bubbles where we can hear what we want, never engage in meaningful debate, and just pretend that real issues don’t exist.  Instead of opening minds, it has narrowed thinking.  Instead of being “our memory”, all of the available channels have caused us as a species to have short attention-spans, and forget things immediately. I don’t feel as though reality (which may, I’m afraid, occasionally cause you to change your mind), has a role to play in today’s debate.  Pretty scary stuff.


Collective Behaviour

October 6, 2015

I have always been interested in how humans behave collectively.  I’m not entirely sure that everyone notices these things, but humans very frequently behave as a group … like wasps … or ants.  It can be a positive thing, but it is often just weird or nonsensical.  Perhaps I am aware of it because collective behaviour has always horrified me … I have some kind of weird phobia of people behaving as though there is a hive mind. and apparently there is one.

The recent examples have revolved around driving, which seems to often be the place where one sees this type of behaviour.  Now, I swear that my recollection is accurate, and things have changed recently in how people drive.  I am quite positive that as recently as five years ago, when I drove down a street with cars parked on one side, two cars would pass each other going opposite directions, one sticking close to parked cars, and the other staying close to curb. Required a bit of skill, but I swear this was totally normal.

At some point relatively recently, this no longer happened.  Now, people are unwilling to stick close to parked cars or curb and thus it is impossible for two cars coming from opposite directions to pass each other.  Now, one car must pull over to the side while the other passes, and then the first car can go.  The cars drive pretty much down the middle of the space between parked car and curb.  This isn’t a crisis or anything but it does slow things down tremendously, leads to a lot of negotiation, and is entirely unnecessary.  I watched this behaviour spread like a virus.  First, it was just some people, who were simply annoying to the rest of us, but it seemed to spread, and now everyone is doing it.  Oddly, if I behave as I did just a short while ago and drive straight down the road an inch from the curb, people look at me going by as though I’m completely insane. This change in what is considered “normal” is kind of startling to me.  I guess what is even weirder about it is that the change os completely unnecessary.  Two cars can still fit on the road side by side, and people do not need to pull over to let others go by, but they certainly seem to think that this action is entirely normal and necessary.

The second example is probably more familiar to everyone.  People have decided that the best way to manage traffic is for everyone to wave at each other as a form of negotiating the right-of-way.  This also has gone from being completely non-existent a relatively short time ago, to being completely normal, and in fact expected, at this point.  The really weird thing about this is that it is completely unnecessary, and often dangerous. People are negotiating something that has already been completely worked out in great detail, and a system developed to make traffic flow just fine without any waving at all. if two vehicles pull up to a four-way stop simultaneously, there are rules already in place to determine how things will progress from there.  The person to the right (assuming both are going straight) gets to go first … the end.  However, now, a great deal of the time, the two people pulling up quite frequently decide to look at each and start negotiating who will go first.  A bunch of waving ensues, and eventually someone actually goes.  Of course, if the person who doesn’t actually have the legal right-of-way and the other slams into them, all of that waving won’t matter a bit.  If the police come, and you say “he waved at me!”, the cops will completely ignore you.  There are traffic rules, and there is no point at which the rules get thrown out the window and everything comes down to negotiation.  That situation does not exist in the law.

I guess what confuses me most about this, is that people seem to enjoy the waving part.  There are many theories about how this could possible be considered satisfying.  One is simply that people like interacting with one another, so they enjoy the waving and other behaviours that allow them to interact.  The other thing though is that this may be more about control. I think that some people like to say “I am granting you the ability to continue … I am waving my hand and controlling this situation”.  On my more cynical days, I’m quite sure that this is what is happening.

Personally. I have just stopped making eye contact with drivers.  Thus, when they decide it’s time for the super-fun waving, I’m not engaging.  I do this when I’m walking now as well, since people also wave at pedestrians and “grant them the right-of-way” … I can’t stand  this business when I’m walking since I refuse to start improvising the traffic rules and don’t trust the crazed waver to not then pull out and find me in their way, as instructed. I suspect that my failure to engage in waving at other drivers is considered some type of horrible social faux pas.  I think that at least a certain portion of the population now consider waving at intersections to be polite social interaction … I’m not going to start playing along.


I’m done with Facebook, and I read a newspaper.

September 30, 2015

It’s been a long time.

However, I have quit Facebook once and for all, and when I think of things I want to write, I think that I’ll be here again.  Fact is, a blog is infinitely superior to the rotting carcass that is Facebook. I realized that being on Facebook was not only annoying, but that it actually makes me feel bad, and that one needs to get a little distance from it before realizing what a horrible things it is (and I choose the word “horrible” quite deliberately).

FB is, in short, a horrible platform for communication. I have had the worst experiences there, and I have no desire to repeat them.  Why is it horrible? I’ll tell you:

  1.  Facebook is just an internet bulletin board, nothing more, nothing less.  Yes, you can post pictures on it, but really, you’ve been able to do that on forums forever.  The thing that is different is the fiction that Facebook is somehow different.  Other people on the FB forum are called “your friends”, whereas people on other types of forums are just the other people on that forum.  How is that different? In reality, it’s not different at all, except that those people are described using a different word.  The effect of that different word, however, is where designing a “social network” with the brain of a sociopath comes into play.  People seem to become confused and start to think that FB friends are just like real friends and, of course, many of them aren’t friends at all, or I don’t even know them.  Try “unfriending” one of these strangers, however, and you will see how evil this platform is.  All of a sudden, a stranger on an internet forum is treating you as though you’re breaking up an intense, close relationship.  When I “de-activated my account”, I was presented with a series of pictures of people who were “going to miss me”.  Some of these people are family members, some of them have offices right next to me, some of them I see every day … these people will not “miss me” … they might miss the things that I type on Facebook, but I have a newsflash … me, the person, the actual living being is still right here.  This idea that somehow logging out of Facebook causes personal relationships to crumble is absurd … in fact, it might help those relationships. These are just two of a huge number of examples of how manipulative Facebook can be.
  2. Authority on Facebook is a mess.  By that I mean that every ten seconds on Facebook, someone on my “feed” declares themselves to be an expert on something … very frequently something that they know absolutely nothing about. They then “tell me the facts” that they have made up or heard on some ridiculous website, or been told by an idiot.  Problem is, there is no actual debate on FB.  I have found repeatedly that offering facts in the face of complete bullshit on FB is somehow a horrible thing to do … if someone says on FB (as they often do) that Barack Obama is a Muslim, the fact that he is most definitely not a Muslim is completely irrelevant to the “discussion”.  In fact, the person who has spouted this garbage as though they “know” something will likely be offended that I even have a contrary opinion on the matter.  The evidence that I present will have zero weight, and as someone did recently, they might say something like “well, I got 25 “likes” when I said that … how many “likes” did you get?”  In short, I really have no interest in how many “likes” you got … the facts are not susceptible to a vote.
  3. Of course, since FB was created by a sociopath, there are only “likes”, not dislikes.  You can only approve.  I suspect that this is a direct result of how Mark Zuckerberg sees the world.  He says things, and people say “yeah Mark!” but never “I disagree with Mark”.  While this may be a lovely way to make it seem as though one is always correct, it’s also completely messed-up. So, you could have 1000 likes on a post, but if it’s complete BS, a large number of likes does not change the fact that it is still BS.  So, on FB it seems that all statements are equally true, and somehow when other people “like” your statement (true or not), it develops a certain level of authority based on the fact that equally clueless people agree with you.  The idea that a lot of clueless people applauding each other’s cluelessness somehow adds up to worthwhile info is downright bizarre and, to me, it’s depressing to watch. And, since I like to call people on BS, I get in a lot of trouble in the happy land where every ridiculous statement is as true as any other, and reality is not a factor.
  4. I suppose that’s my next complaint … I’m still talking about authority I suppose.  There was one thread on FB that really illustrated this complaint well.  Someone was discussing university governance (in the context of college basketball … nobody would ever discuss anything serious on FB), and they were spouting complete nonsense as though they knew what they were talking about.  I corrected them.  Needless to say, the 12 year old on the other end then asked “who made you an expert”?  In a very strange case for Facebook, I told them that I actually am an expert on this topic … I said, and this may never have happened on FB before or since … “I know more about this topic than you do … what you have said is pure speculation, and what I say is true”.  Needless to say, the fact that I had actual knowledge in this situation didn’t matter in the slightest.  Of course, this statement if also seen to be rude on Facebook, or inappropriate , or against the rules.  I’m not sure what it is, but I do find it very strange that people declare themselves experts constantly on topics they know nothing about, but if an actual expert claims to have expertise, that’s considered horrible behaviour. That, to me, defines a bizarre environment.
  5. When I left Facebook I thought to myself “I guess that I’ll have to visit websites again if I want to find the good stuff.  I immediately realized, however, that nothing had changed.  Facebook has very little content of it’s own.  All of the “content” is just links to websites that I wind up visiting anyway.  I will not have as many suggested places to go without Facebook, but so far I don’t seem to be missing a thing.  In fact, because now I cruise around looking for stuff instead of having it suggested to me constantly, I think that I may be finding more stuff that interests me. I had wondered whatever happened to “surfing the web” and I think that the answer might be that I’ve been sitting around passively having stuff handed to me for quite a while … I think that I’m better off finding it myself.
  6. I’m just happier.  Every time I posted something on Facebook I had to constantly think about what the reaction would be … my audience was this group of “friends” but in reality it was quite a varied crew, and worse, the friends of friends would be chiming in.  This was quite often where the “Obama is a Muslim”, or “climate change is a liberal hoax” types would suddenly appear.  I quite sincerely do not need these people in my life, and have no interest in listening to their replies, or spending a lot of time trying to convince them of the truth of and obvious fact.  I’m not very good at “suffering fools”.
  7. I read a newspaper again, and realized what I’d been missing.  The newspaper is edited, and they have an obligation to say things that they have verified to at least be kind of true.  This was a little startling when I picked up a newspaper again.  Smart people were writing things that seemed to actually be verified.  I forgot how much I valued that.

Some great harmonies

September 29, 2015

This biog is going to be about a lot of different things from now on … one of them will certainly be music.

I have always been interested in Gram Parsons, mostly because of the recommendations, particularly from Keith Richards. Parsons’ music is a little difficult for people to “get” at this point in time, because what he did that was significant really relied on understanding the historical context in which it happened. The idea of blending country and rock like he did seems unremarkable now, but it was quite remarkable at the time, and it was tremendously influential.  Listening to his music it strikes me that it sounds more like “country” than most country music today does.  It goes right to the core and taps directly into the heart of the music, but it does add an entire element of rock sensibility. The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street (one of the greatest albums ever made), is partly the result of Parsons’ influence on Keith Richards and the fact that he was living in Nellcote as the Stones recorded that record.  It’s a bit of a mystery when or if Parsons actually plays on that record, but from what I’ve heard of that recording process, it sounds as though it’s pretty likely that if he was in that house, he was in that recording.

Anyway, I’m sold.  Gram Parsons was the real deal.  I just bought a CD with the two albums he released as solo projects and I like them more than I expected to.  Today I was messing about on YouTube and came across one of the greatest duets I think that I’ve ever heard: Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris … you might not like the song that much (Love Hurts, but the Everly Bros) but the harmony is tremendous.


September 20, 2012

The internet has a distinct lack of accountability.  People say remarkably stupid or cruel things and then disappear never to confront their victim again.  Having been riding this contraption for 20 years now (almost exactly) I have said some smart things, been slammed for them, and never had the chance to say “I told you so”.  I suppose the thing to say is :  On the internet, there is no “I told you so”.

Well, I like to say “I told you so” once in a while because I tend to think of communication with other people as … communication with other people.

So, in February of 2010 when the iPad was released, I wrote a piece right here about how this thing was going to take off and that one should be buying Apple stock right there and then.  Thing I was right about #1:  Apple stock that day was worth approximately $200/share, and today is worth close to $700/share.  I was right … very right. A lot of people told me I was wrong that day and that the iPad was a silly device that wasn’t a tablet, or a computer, or a laptop.  Somehow, this proved (to them) that there was no place for this device, and the world would just make fun of it. Oddly, these people apparently had never witnessed the birth of a new category even though they had already witnessed the advent of the the personal computer (also mocked), the laptop, the cell phone, the gaming console … etc.  I’m glad that I waited until now to say “I told you so” because the numbers at this point are truly staggering … Apple has sold 84 million iPads, and that is beyond what anyone could have imagined.

Love it or hate it, buying Apple stock would have been a very good idea in 2010, and it would seem that people have found a category for those 84 million iPads.  In fact, it eventually became so obvious that this category existed that other companies copied the device and are selling millions as well. I’m watching for the next big thing and think more often that Apple may now be too big (and without Steve Jobs) to continue to be the leader in creating categories (remember the smart phone and iPod?). I’d like to see an upstart come out of nowhere.

Memory on the internet is pretty much non-existent, and I don’t really recall ever having heard someone admit that they were wrong on an internet forum.  This one of the times, though, when I’m going to say “I told you so” … even if nobody is listening.


Time to blog again …

November 21, 2011

Just found this draft from 6 months ago … liked it, so I post it now.


I haven’t posted here in a very long time, but every once in a while I need to put some points … somewhere … and I come back here.  There seems to be a lot to communicate lately, so here I am.

I just finished reading some stuff from Jane Burke of Proquest on the idea of discovery.  I must say, first of all, that I am instantly suspicious of “think pieces” written by corporate VPs with an interest in selling the very thing that they are writing about.  I won’t even suggest that I’m being too quickly dismissive, because I think that suspicion is completely warranted … it is, after all, no different than reading about the dangers of cigarette smoking in an article written by a tobacco company executive.  Harsh, but true.

It has become all the rage for companies to tell us in libraries that they have been studying the user experience, and in a sense, they have.  They have been doing qualitative research on user searching habits, and have been collecting some reasonable data.  Unfortunately, they also make a fundamental and critical mistake when it comes to dealing with their data.  The one message that has been coming out the loudest from these company is that students are comfortable with searching Google, and like a simple search interface.  Thus, they are offering a Google-like interface on their new products (at least when I’ve seen them demonstrated, this is what I’m being told).  This is good … sort of.  There is a quote by Henry Ford that is appropriate in this, and so many other situations:

“If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said, “a faster horse”.”

When you ask students what they like to use for searching (or anyone, for that matter), they do say “Google” … so do I.  To me, that’s because Google is the best search engine.  Now, if you were to respond to that by offering me an interface that looked like Google, I would not necessarily be delighted.  A single search box, and a clean looking page does not a search engine make.  In fact, I don’t care in the slightest what the page looks like, if I get the results that help me to get my work done. This is the problem with basing design decisions on what people say that they like. There are, quite simply, more questions to be asked before you really know anything.  You need to find out not only where they go to find their information, but what it is about that tool that satisfies them. It seems that when one says “Google” is their preference, the common response is to assume that it’s the way that Google looks, or the fact that is has a single search box that is important. If you dig even a tiny bit deeper, however, it should be quite obvious that people don’t go to Google because they like the interface, but rather because they like what they find when the results appear.  Simple really.  When I do a search on Google Scholar at the reference desk, I assure you that the student doesn’t run off to continue on their own because of the clean page and the single search box that they can’t wait to try …  they run off to do the work themselves because I just showed them a list of material that solves their current information need, that they spent hours trying to find on other tools. I continually think of an old saying when I hear vendor presentations describing to me all of the wonders of their new “discovery” product:

“It’s not the searching, it’s the finding (stupid)”

And this is why just asking people what they like is a huge mistake.  Henry Ford could have gotten into the business of developing a faster horse if he had simply asked people what they wanted, and this is precisely how many companies behave when it comes to product development.  Of course, Ford wasn’t just satisfied with that answer, but instead asked what it was people were doing with the horses and if there might be a better way to accomplish that same goal with a different product.  Since people were either travelling or hauling something with the horse, the real solution was not to create a faster horse, but something that traveled faster and was more comfortable, or that hauled more and did it more easily. This seems like a trivial example at this point in history, but the world is mostly full of companies trying to make faster horses, while very few respond by popularizing the automobile.

It was at a vendor presentation that this old saying most recently came to mind.  We were shown a product that searched a huge number of documents and libraries and came back with hundreds of thousands of hits.  The search allowed for faceting and all kinds of searching bells and whistles, and librarians eagerly asked questions about metadata and advanced search techniques, etc (as they tend to do).  I had only one question, however:

“In this list of a bazillion things, how is relevancy calculated”

The reason that question is the only one I care about is simple … You can offer all of the search options in the world, and search every document known to man, but if you don’t bring the best, most relevant articles to the top of the list, I’m going back to Google.  That’s because a million hits from a comprehensive collection is nothing but a really huge list … the searching (the using of all of the options) is not why I am here … I’m here to find. One great hit is infinitely more valuable in research than a million semi-relevant documents.

The part that really killed me came with the answer to my question.  The presenter said “that’s a technical question that I don’t know the answer to, and it’s a company secret.”  That’s also the moment at which I was ready to walk out.


The gap.

May 3, 2010

One of the most striking things to happen to me in my dealings with university students over the course of the 09-10 year was also one of the most mundane. I had become interested in the user experience for a number of reasons.  One is that my job officially became exactly that (User Experience Librarian). Secondly, I began spending a fair amount of time on the Reference Desk specifically so that I could experience our users more, and really a librarian’s job is somehow always focused on the experience of our users.

One little event summed up a great deal for me this winter.   It is very common these days for students to approach the Reference Desk holding some type of portable device and say “I found this item … how do I get it?”  Sounds mundane … not even interesting, really.  As I thought more about it, however, I realized that this was actually very interesting. This is not about the wonders of mobile devices or the wonders of searching.  Nor is this about how students are doing research “wrong”.   What’s going on here is the very important identification of a very serious gap. What would seem to be happening is that students are navigating their own virtual environment and finding the information that they need … just like I do, actually.  They are quite capable of searching (and more importantly, finding) by navigating their familiar tools (often Google Scholar), or utilizing their own social networks (a very legitimate way of conducting research). They search, they accumulate citations, and then suddenly they hit a wall. Their virtual world gets them very close to the information they want, but leaves them one step away.  The stuff that they need is in another world called the library.

One would think that this would not be much of a problem.  Academia is about sharing ideas and “standing on the shoulders of giants”, in the words of Newton. But these students are staring across an abyss. Every time they click on a citation for an article, they are told that they can not access it and, apparently, the library has this thing but there doesn’t seem to be a link from their world to the library world.  Well, at least they suspect that there is a link, but when they enter into the library world none of the conventions of their previous world hold, and none of the things they know from all of their searching to this point makes any sense. It would seem that the keyholders to the library world are at the Reference Desk (what we call, rightly, the Research Help Desk).   Those people can tell you how that citation in your hand that is so tantalizingly close to being an actual article can be turned into a real, honest to goodness, document.

In a rather frightful introduction to this system, the person at this desk suggests that “you’d better sit down for this”.  Now, this is a pretty weird introduction to the next step in your research process, since all of the previous steps have been done with the click of a mouse, or a call to your friend. In the world that you are entering materials are divided into the stuff that you find in the library catalog, and the stuff that you find in “journal indexes”.  Needless to say, this initial division of materials is nothing like what you’ve done so far.  The stuff in the journal indexes are broken down into even more (seemingly endless) divisions, based entirely on (get this): “who owns the thing”.  Every owner has provided their own interface to the material and none of them are all that great.  As a person who probably never even realized that journals were “owned”, this will be very unfamiliar territory. All of the owners put walls around what they own, and will never (NEVER) link to the other things that other people own.  Once again, this is nothing at all like what you have encountered to this point in your search.

The library catalog, while relatively familiar looking, is also pretty bizarre.  While to this point all of your searching has been done by keywords, and relevancy has been magically determined by an algorithm behind the scenes that can gauge the importance of an item by its relation to other items, this tool is different.  Keyword searching exists, but the only links between materials are based on “subject headings” … these subject heading things follow an arcane system that you have never seen, is used nowhere else, and utilizes language that is entirely foreign (and don’t even try to guess).

With your citation in hand, the person behind the desk will now spend the next ten or fifteen minutes explaining how to make the jump from the system you have used, to the system that the library uses.

Now, our users are way smarter than we think (we like to consider them naive for not understanding our system).  Ah, but they understand it very well. A recent webinar I attended helped me to understand this.  Users were asked about the most important roles of the library … more than ever before (and the numbers are increasing steadily), the users suggested that we are not primarily a “gateway” as we often like to think, we are not primarily a repository as we often like to think, and we are not the providers of effective search.  What we are is a mechanism for purchasing materials.  They have come to our desks or used our services online and they have understood the message that we send.

It is all about ownership.

We are the people that negotiate with the owners of information, and ensure that their ownership is protected from abuse.  We ensure that people who should stay out, stay out, and administer the security, and pay the yearly fee. Our system of walls between vendors, e-books that can only be used by one person at a time, and off-campus logins, send the message that our primary concern is ownership.  I suppose this is a good message, but I’m a little disappointed that this is being identified as the number one mission of libraries.  We want to be a gateway to good things, we want to help people search for information, we want to teach them about literacy and how information is organized … we want to organize and provide access to information … we want to be involved in discovery.

The guy standing in front of me with the citation who then sits down at the desk to learn our system, is not likely to be convinced …


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