Archive for April, 2007

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A few things brewing …

April 25, 2007

Went to a library event called “Digital Odyssey” last week to hear a number of people speak. I was quite interested in just hearing what the relatively new Chief from MacMaster had to say, and that was quite interesting. (on a completely different topic … to write this I just switched over to my Powerbook from a PC … the keyboard on this thing is beautiful after the PC … it just feels so perfect!) Anyway, I went in thinking about a recent webby application I’d become interested in, and a number of topics merged. There was one talk on putting web 2.0 features into a library catalogue and something about it was really rubbing me the wrong way … it was good work, but there was just something wrong. It struck me that this project, by implementing rating systems, comments, and such was focusing too much on the discreet end points of searching. i.e. – they were collecting searches, and they were collecting the items (and reactions to them) at the other end. This is all fine and good, but I’ve been focusing lately a lot on the idea that research is not just entering a search and receiving results. It’s also more than just matching like people with like results and preferences. Research, in fact, is a process, and it’s a complex and often social process. The bit that’s missing in this focus on search beginnings and endings, is the “trail” that takes up the middle, and the trail is extremely important to the person seeking information.
I’ve thought about this quite a bit and discussed it with scholars. The most obvious manifestation of the trail is following citations. Once a person reaches a certain point in their education, they realize that the endnotes and bibliography of any article can be almost as important as the content. These elements of a paper show you who is an influence on the author, and how the author has constructed his or her argument. Many times I have followed citations and created a “trail”, and I know that my research is nearly complete when I begin to see the same sources being mentioned repeatedly … at that point I begin to feel like I have a grip on the community of people working on this topic and that I have “covered the ground”. The trail can also certainly be a social circle of actual people, and I suspect that people utilize these trails without even realizing that they are utilizing a technique (you know that the guy down the street has had some great work done on his house, so you ask him about the process of getting renovations done, he tells you to contact so and so, etc).

Anyway … trails. As I mentioned some posts ago, this fellow Vannevar Bush undertsood the importance of trails way back in 1945 when he speculated about information technology. I think that we have gone through a period in digital information use that has lost the utility of the trail to a certain degree, as we each do discreet searches, find some stuff, and then exit Google or whatever, our search history more or less lost forever. The current library catalogue most definitely has no memory, and does nothing to tie together all of the bazillion people who use it … and there’s a lot of information being lost there. Remembering their searches, their results, and their ratings would be something, but to remember their “trails”, and the networks that they create as they move through information would really be something.

There is actually at least one product attempting to put the idea of “trails” into use. the folks at trailfire get the concept and are trying to create a tool to allow one to keep track of trails. They are in the early stages, but it’s quite interesting. They offer a tool that allow you to mark and annotate websites as you search for information and to save these collections as “trails”, and to share them with others (just as Vannevar Bush envisioned). It almost works, and the ability to save collections of websites in clusters with annotations is useful in itself. The “trail” thing isn’t quite there, though, as most of the examples seem to be just collections of un-connected sites … the potential is there, perhaps as they develop this thing it will develop some true power.

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Divergence

April 18, 2007

We’ve been at an interesting point for a while now, in terms of having many (many) paths to take as far as the services we offer, and technologies that we employ. Around here, there seems to be a sudden surge of interest in technologies, with many people joining Facebook and a flurry of enthusiasm for Second Life. I’ve always been an “early adopter” and I have also played with these things and done some thinking about their use for libraries or education in general. At this moment, however, there seems to be a real possibility of simply freezing while being faced with the number of available options. I’m sure that I’m not alone in feeling that there are so many things to do these days with technology that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to simply absorb all of the various information flows coming at me. I listen to tech podcasts while walking to and from work, and watch Diggnation while I’m doing the dishes … I carve out time to write these rambling blog posts. One thing that strikes me about all of this. One thing that I’ve been thinking about is how very different some of these technologies are that we are choosing between. In particular, it interests me that “young people” (as we like to call them) choose technologies that are both extremely hi-tech and extremely lo-tech, and use them both. Lo-tech to me is text-messaging which is being used heavily … hi-tech would be the games that they are playing on the latest thing, be it Wii, X-Box, or Playstation. (this is not unlike the fact that many people now watch video on giant hi-def screens at home or in bars, and also watch video on tiny little iPod screens depending on their situation). So, it’s not so simple when trying to decide how to reach people, to say “our users like hi-tech … see how they play these games?”, or “our users are fine with lo-tech, punching out little text-messages on tiny little keypads”. Clearly, (and not really that surprisingly), they like both depending on where they are and what they’re doing. Part of our problem though comes when we want to communicate with these people … do we set up text-messaging, or do we create a giant billboard in Second Life. For certain purposes, one will work, and one will be a flop (or perhaps neither will have any impact).

So, as is so often the case, I have a very simple message. It is not only important to know what our users like to use … it is also important to know why they use technologies, or quite simply, how they behave. It is not simply the case that if we build it, they will come. It may very well be the case that nobody will see your email or nobody will play your game if it is built outside of the context that makes sense to people. Fact is, it is necessary to live inside of these communities and adopt the technologies, not just to observe and then send a message from your planet to theirs in the hope that they will take notice.

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Video Podcasts and High-def

April 5, 2007

An interesting thing has happened as a result of the trend to download video (TV, movies, video podcasts) that has coincided with the long anticipated popularity of high-definition television.  Any of you that already receive video ligitimately or illegitimately from an online source are well aware that  the current state of broadband makes downloading multiple gigabytes a bit of a chore. It can be done, but that little messages that tells you that you have a couple of days to wait, can be discouraging.  Things like Bittorent technology can provide you with the speed produced by a frenzy of downloaders all working together, but this only works with particularly popular downloads (it can be stunning when it works).  Fact is, though, I haven’t even considered the concept of downloading a feature-length film in HD, as that is just a step beyond what is really feasible, file-size-wise.  This creates an interesting situation, however … while film producers are eager to make HD DVDs, and providers are eager to sell them over the web, not many people want to download these things.  iTunes music store, which seems to be one of the most common places that people go to find such things (you can also download them to your Xbox from some microsoft-based service) is currently providing HD movies at a relatively low level of HD (640p?) in order to make downloading manageable.  What’s interesting, is that people who produce relatively short pieces are much more capable of taking advatange of this technology because a truly HD film that is one-tenth of the length of a feature film can be downloaded.  This means that makers of relatively small-time productions have the ability to provide their product with better quality and increased convenience when compared to their rather well-funded and powerful Hollywood competition.  Of course, when these things are video podcasts, they are also free.  In  a strange twist, podcasters are madly getting HD cameras (which have also become cheap) to catch up with this trend, and those who already produce in HD, can’t distribute over the ‘Net.  (By the way, this phenomenon is retricted to the delivery of HD by web … you can still get it streamed to you via cable … but, if you’re like me, that is becoming less appealing as time goes by … hint, cable packages drive me nuts and I won’t play that game).