Book Review: Alif the Unseen

I gave this four stars on Goodreads. I’m not sold on the idea of ranking novels and I know my rankings are completely consistent, but this is a book to read and to recommend. It doesn’t get five stars mostly because I need to give Wilson room to grow as an author. This book has the seeds of greatness in it, but I think she still has greater work to write after this.

Summary: Alif the Unseen is a story of IT, Arabic folklore, religion, politics, and love. It mixes Jinn with security forces, ancient texts with C++ code, and insight into the human heart with a political axe to grind. The big takeaway is to humanize Islamic culture for Western audiences and to move the discussion of global politics away from “axis of evil” and towards the human in all of us.

This novel wrapped me up from Chapter Zero and kept me entralled most of the way through. Wilson does an impeccable job with her choice of setting, of tone, and the way she shows us layers of things. Most characters and themes are shown with complexity. In fact, the novel only breaks down when one looks closely at parts that seem to be fully one thing or another. (The love interest and the villain are among the least interesting bits, because they are too polarized. Everything else seems human and fascinating.)

The views on spirituality and politics are especially refreshing. She doesn’t give us simplified versions of these two things, but messy, bloody, complex and risky versions. It is clear to me that Wilson loves humanity and loves her characters because she allows them to be flawed without endorsing the flaws. (Again, this breaks down in the character Dina, who was almost a great character. I loved the risks the author took in making the heroine a conservative-by-choice Islamic woman, who veils herself by choice, but in the end Dina was too didactic and perfect and not human enough.) Wilson’s spirituality and politics are realistic and not idealized and by themselves they would make the novel worth reading, but there are other things even more appealing in her work.

Wilson deftly weaves together threads from the 1001 nights and information technology to put our world into both a new and a familiar context. Sure, some IT details are glossed over, but she knows her stuff and includes enough realism to engage nerds in the tale. The Jinn and the half-world are used to make a point, not just to add spice to the story. Many other authors who try to mix magic and technology should read Wilson and learn from her style.

There are a lot of places this novel could have gone wrong. Wilson took some huge risks, but she clearly has the chops as a writer, a thinker, and a religious person to pull it all off. I look forward to reading more of her work.

It should be noted that characters insult each other with accusations of homosexuality “ass coveter” is a favored slur, but there are no positive examples of sexual diversity. In Wilson’s world there is only sexual and gender polarity.

The Mobile App Design Process: A Tube Map Infographic

**This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on March 4, 2013***

The Mobile App Design Process Tube Map:

Last June I had a great experience team-teaching a week-long seminar on designing mobile apps at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI). Along with my colleagues from WSU Vancouver’s Creative Media and Digital Culture (CMDC) program, I’ll be returning this June to the beautiful University of Victoria in British Columbia to teach the course again [1. http://dhsi.org/]. As part of the course, I created a visual overview of the process we use for app making. I hope you’ll find it a useful perspective on the work involved in crafting mobile apps and an aid to the process of creating your own.

topological map of the mobile app design process
A visual guide to the process of designing and building mobile apps. Start with Requirements Analysis in the upper-left and follow the tracks to Public Release. (Click for full-sized image.)
Creating the Tube Map:

I’m fond of the tube-map infographic style, also know as the topological map[2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Topological_map], because of its ability to highlight relationships between systems and especially because of how it distinguishes between linear (do once) and recursive (do over and over) processes. The linear nature of text in a book or images in slide-deck presentations can artificially impose a linearity that does not mirror the creative process we want to impart. In this example, the design and prototyping loops on the tube-map help communicate that a prototype model is an aid to modeling the design process and not a separate step completed only when the design has been finalized.

These maps are also fun and help spur the creative process. There are other tools for process mapping such as using flowcharts or mind-maps, but in this case I found the topological map has a couple of advantages. First and foremost, I associate the other two with our strategic planning process, so the tube map immediately seems more open, fun, and creative. This is, of course, rooted in my own experience and your experiences will vary but if you are looking for a new perspective on process mapping or a new way to display interconnected systems that is vibrant, fun, and shakes things up a bit the tube map may be just the thing.

I created the map using the open source vector-graphics program Inkscape[3. http://inkscape.org/] which can be compared to Adobe Illustrator and Corel Draw. Inkscape is free (both gratis and libre) and is powerful, but there is a bit of a learning curve. Being unfamiliar with vector graphics or the software tools to create them, I worked with an excellent tutorial provided by Wikipedia on creating vector graphic topological maps[4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Graphic_Lab/Resources/Draw_topological_maps]. It took me a few days of struggling and slowly becoming familiar with the toolset before I felt comfortable creating with Inkscape. I count this as time well spent, as many graphics used in mobile app and icon sets required by app stores can be made with vector graphic editors. The Inkscape skills I picked up while making the map have come in very handy on multiple occasions since then.

Reading the Mobile App Map:

Our process through the map begins with a requirements analysis or needs assessment. We ask: what does the client want the app to do? What do we know about our end users? How do the affordances of the device affect this? Performing case studies helps us learn about our users before we start designing to meet their needs. In the design stage we want people to make intentional choices about the conceptual and aesthetic aspects of  their app design. Prototype models like wireframe mock-ups, storyboards, or Keynotopia[3. http://keynotopia.com/] prototypes help us visualize these choices, eventually resulting in a working prototype of our app. Stakeholders can test and request modifications to the prototype, avoiding potentially expensive and labor intensive code revisions later in the process.

Once both the designers and clients are satisfied with the prototype and we’ve seen how potential users interact with it, we’re ready to commit our vision to code. Our favored code platform uses HTML 5, CSS 3, jQuery Mobile[4. http://jquerymobile.com/], and PhoneGap[5. http://phonegap.com/] to make hybrid web apps. Hybrid apps are written as web apps–HTML/JavaScript web sites that look and performlike apps–then use a tool like PhoneGap to translate this code into the native format for a device. PhoneGap translates a web app into a format that works with the device’s native programming environment. This provides more direct and thus faster access to device hardware and also enables us to place our app in official app stores. Hybrid apps are not the only available choice and aren’t perfect for every use case. They can be slower than native apps and may have some issues accessing device hardware, but the familiar coding language, multi-device compatibility, and ease of making updates across multiple platforms make them an ideal first step for mobile app design. LITA has an upcoming webinar on creating web apps that employs this system[6. http://www.ala.org/lita/learning/online/HTML5].

Once the prototype has been coded into a hybrid app, we have another opportunity for evaluation and usability testing. We teach a pervasive approach that includes evaluation and testing all throughout the process, but this stage is very important as it is a last chance to make changes before sending the code to an app marketplace. After the app has been submitted, opportunities to make updates, fix bugs, and add features can be limited, sometimes significantly, by the app store’s administrative processes.

After you have spent some time following the lines of the tube map and reading this very brief description, I hope you can see this infographic as an aid to designing mobile web apps. I find it particularly helpful for identifying the source of a particular problem I’m having and also suggesting tools and techniques that can help resolve it. As a personal example, I am often tempted to start writing code before I’ve completely made up my mind what I want the code to do, which leads to frustration. I use the map to remind me to look at my wireframe and use that to guide the structure of my code. I hope you all find it useful as well.

 

(This was originally published on the ACRL TechConnect site. If you care to comment, please join the conversation there.)

Book Review: The Summer Prince

summerprincecover

I decided to read The Summer Prince based on the recommendation of Ellen Kushner and John Scalzi. I’m glad I did, I’m not a frequent reader of young adult fiction, but now I think that might be a mistake. It took me a little while to get into the swing of this book. Alaya Dawn Johnson is slow in laying down a rhythm and a melody in her pages and I stumbled along for a bit before my feet found the steps. Once I did, I enjoyed the rich and intricate dance she led me along.

The story is structured into four parts, based on the seasons and I didn’t realize I loved the book until the third section. Please don’t let this stop your from reading it;  I don’t think it is a failing of the book. Structurally, the beginning is less interesting than the rest of the novel, but Johnson is slowly setting the stage for a moving piece. Like a musician playing a classic piece, we’ve heard these notes before, but she’s able to give a virtuoso performance by taking the notes to a different place than we’re expecting.

There are two reasons I’d recommend this book to other readers. The first is the setting. It’s fabulous. Alaya Dawn Johnson has captured in her future city-state of Palmares Três a living and evocative mix of Brazilian Carnival, post-apocalyptic matriarchy, and a coming of age story that ignores our taboos. (It doesn’t flaunt contemporary hang-ups, it just refuses to acknowledge their existence, making an honest and innocent coming of age story possible.) The second is the emotional depth of June’s coming of age journey. Through her characters June, Enki, and Gil, Johnson is able to show us a lot about the nature of love that is sweet, tragic, and honest. She shows us a complex perspective on love that is neither cheap nor jealous but is both free and liberating.

The plot is adequate, there are all the expected pieces in their expected places. Nothing is missing, but if all this book were about is what happened in the story, it would not be remarkable. We’ve all read love triangles set in post-apocalyptic societies with bizarre social contests that victimize teenagers. You could draw a lot of crude lines between the structures in The Summer Prince to Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games. If you did, you’d be missing the point completely. The value of the story does not lie in its genre conventions. The value of The Summer Prince lies in telling us a familiar tale that takes us to unfamiliar places.

If you read The Summer Prince, and I hope you do, here are a couple of things to think about along the way. There are two prime myths from Western culture lying at the foundations of the story. We have an expulsion from paradise myth and the willing sacrifice myth. As you read about Enki and June finding the key to knowledge of good and evil, think about the role of the serpent. Where would you expect the temptation to come from and where does Alaya Dawn Johnson put it? Second, what is Enki saving people from? What is he saving people for? I don’t think these are idle questions and a lot of people have used the same central myths without the effect that Johnson manages with The Summer Prince.

Book Review: Andrew Blum’s Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet

Note: as part of my new reading project, I’m going to start posting book reviews on the site. This is the book I had queued up on Audible.com and it should clear the way for reviews of the diverse authorship I’m setting out to read.

Book Review

This is a solid book with good journalism about a piece of our information infrastructure that is vital, but poorly understood and frequently ignored. Andrew Blum sets out with a project: follow the cable out of his house back to the physical structure of the Internet. What follows is a interesting and personable exploration of global networking. Blum avoids technical talk, I didn’t have to use much of what I learned getting an ancient Network+ certification to follow him. {Tech: He briefly mentions TCP and IP and also the physical, network, and transport layers, but not in the context of the OSI model.} While Blum is no engineer, I think he make wise choices about how to frame his book. His story of following the tubes from his house to find the Internet is interesting. He identifies hidden parts of our global network structure and sheds some light on an industry that is usually obscure. Sure, we all heard about Global Crossing when they went bankrupt, but Blum explains how the undersea fiber business works in lay persons terms that is illuminating.

I really enjoyed listening to Blum read Tubes. Many author-read books on Audible make me wish they’d have sprung for voice talent, but Blum does a good job here. I enjoyed the content and subject matter. I enjoyed his perspective, humor, and insight. Over all, this was very well done.

So, if you have ever been curious about how fiber networks are structured or want to know how the internet gets to your house, read this. If you want to more about the OSI network model, router protocols, or packet switching, look elsewhere. If fiber networks and physical infrastructure bore you, avoid at all costs.

My Year of Reading Diversely

We’ve Been Talking About Gender:

In the circle of librarian blogs that I sometimes inhabit we are currently talking about gender. More specifically, people have been writing about bad behavior, institutionalized biases, and the caustic results of these things. I’m also working (struggling) to write a post for the ACRL Tech Connect blog about diversity in the technology community. More specifically,I’m trying to acknowledge that the smooth path I followed into tech fields may present barriers to others that I never experienced. How we can open new doors, widen existing ones, or do something that makes more people experience the empowering joy of technology in place of walls, barriers, and exclusion? I’d love to be an unreserved and enthusiastic proponent of self-empowerment through learning technology, but my enthusiasm is tempered by reservations stemming from disempowering experiences with technology reported by others.

So I’ve been reading a little about the experiences and perspectives of a broader range of people in technological fields. I’ve been focusing on blogs and personal accounts in library, technology, and video game circles. These are the circles I inhabit. I’ve been looking at things like Joseph Reagle’s Free as in Sexist: Free Culture and the Gender Gap, at groups like The Ada Initiative, and at Gabriella Coleman’s anthropology of hacker communities. In the midst of this, I stumbled across a Post titled Dear Male Allies: Your sexism looks like my racism at The Geek Feminism Blog, that seemed perfectly framed for my purposes. Yatima, the author of the piece, writes this gem:

It’s relatively easy for me to advocate for feminist change because I can – in Ursula Le Guin’s words – offer up my experience as my wisdom. My testimony is relevant, because I am a woman. It turns out to be much harder for me to advocate for race or ability or class issues, because oftentimes I just don’t know what these issues are. My racism, and my other *isms, are a function of (among other things) my ignorance. Privilege conceals from me the experiences of not-having-privilege.

This perfectly outlines the problem for someone struggling to be a clued-in, white, hetero, educated, middle-class, cisgendered dude. I want to live in a world where we can all experience the unfamiliar without feeling at-risk or threatened by the other. I want to work in places where “fit” is never considered as something to look for in a new hire. I want to hire new colleagues who don’t fit the status quo and can fill in our gaps and weaknesses with previously unconsidered perspectives. But I am unable to “offer up my experiences as wisdom” because I don’t have direct experience of most of these issues. At best I can say that working in organizations with gender balance and working for women running IT departments has been a wonderful experience. Gender diversity in the workplace has made my life better than it otherwise would have been. This is a perhaps a better way of phrasing my previous post. I’d like to make this about something more important than making my already privileged life better, but I can’t find a way to make a grand claim that doesn’t falsely assert control over a situation that is not mine to control. A central problem is people like me trying to control too many things and I don’t want to perpetuate that chain of stupid. There are few things less worthy of respect than a white dude mansplaining to others what it is like to experience oppression. I’m not going to do that, but I do want to do my part to improve things.

The Problems are Acknowledged, What do I do About Them?

So now what? Now that I’ve recognized that there are issues that I’d like to see solved. I’ve acknowledged that I lack perspective and experience to be a leader. There are better equipped, more highly skilled people for the task, so I should listen to them and follow their vision. Does this mean my response to diversity issues should be passive? I don’t think it has to be. I think I can find a middle ground between taking control (the stereotypical role for white, straight, cisgendered males) and passively accepting injustice. It is especially important to find this balance when the entrenched system of  injustice works to my advantage.

For now, I think this middle ground is learning. I want to fill in the gaps I have and gain more understanding. So I’m going to follow Yatima’s advice and read fifty works by people from backgrounds different from my experience. Yatima suggested the 50 works by people of color livejournal group, but I think I need to include gender, ability, and sexual diversity as well as ethnic diversity in my reading project. So, I’m going to tag books with #diversity-50 in my LibraryThing and Goodreads streams and set a goal to read or listen to fifty works by people with perspectives significantly different from my own. I’m a fan of new media, so this isn’t a book-exclusive project. Games, comics, video, and other creative media are all fair game. Recently my pleasure reading has been mostly speculative fiction, but I’m open to other genres.

Will you join me? Will you help me?

A Year of Reading Diversely: #diversity-50

Disclaimer: this is not my idea, it is not a new idea. I take no credit for this idea, but I think it is a good one and I’d like to invite others to join me. In 2013 I’m setting myself the goal of reading 50 works by writers of color and other creators who have a cultural perspective different than my own. I think I have a lot to learn and this is a great way to start to fill in some gaps. I’d love it if other librarians and friends joined in. If you don’t share my need for an influx of new perspectives, will you share reading suggestions from your experience on great work that has been overlooked? Will you share this project with your followers on Twitter, Facebook LibraryThing, or Goodreads? Collective readers’ advisory is a great thing and I’m eager to discover new things to read. I read a lot of fiction, but as a librarian it has never been something I’ve worked with directly. So I’m hoping to get suggestions and opinions from the experts. There is a wealth and a huge body of great material out there already, gathered and curated by librarians who are much better at this sort of thing than I am. As you will note, my pleasure reading is mostly fantasy and science fiction. I’m open to other things, after all that’s one of the points of the whole exercise.

Sacrifice

Since I have limited reading time, this means some things I’ve been looking forward to reading are going to have to wait a bit. So, Douglas Coupland’s J-Pod, Robert Harris’ Conspirata (I’m sad to delay reading his 2nd novel of Cicero and Roman politics), The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi, and Ian MacDonald’s The Dervish House are going to gather a bit of dust before I can get to them. I’m sure the authors will understand. I’m also not going to include my professional and technical reading in the program. I’m still going to read, of course, but I’m not going to count professional reading toward my #diversity-50 list. While I have a lot to learn from women in my field, I would be reading them anyway and it seems a dodge to include them in the project. So while I’ll still be reading Kathleen FitzpatrickSherry TurkleCathy Davidson, and Jane McGonigal, I think I share a disciplinary and academic framework with these thinkers that my #diversity-50 project is attempting to pierce.

Starting Out

The first of my fifty books is going to be The Summer Prince, a new release YA novel by Alaya Dawn Johnson that sounds perfect. It comes recommend by two authors I adore, Ellen Kushner and John Scalzi. After that, I may try to revisit Cities of Salt by Abelrahman Mufif. I started reading this years ago in the middle of  a Paul Bowles phase, but I put it down halfway through. I’m going to read Alice Walker, because she’s amazing and I won’t be ALA to see her in person. I’m going to FINALLY read Octavia Butler I’m ashamed of this gap in my education. Which of her books should I start with? Colson Whitehead’s Zone One is definitely on the list.  If any of my readers are looking for suggestions, ask your public librarian. Really, they will be more widely read than I. My suggestions include two of the absolute best things I read last year: Dr. Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death and Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. Also, Naghib Mahfouz’ Children of the Alley is the only Arab novel to win a Nobel Prize for literature. It’s worth all the acclaim and more.

I’m not going to include books by white dudes writing about issues of diversity, but I’m open to having my mind changed by compelling arguments. I’ve had a copy of Craig Thompson’s Habibi on my to read pile for a year. It may be an excellent comic, but I’m looking for new perspectives, not familiar perspectives on diverse subject matter. I’m on the fence as to whether Brian Selznik’s Wonderstruck should count. I’m voting no, but I’m open to having my mind changed. My goal here is to open myself to perspectives that are foreign to me, and so worthy books written by people like me don’t seem to count.

If you can think of great material for my #diversity-50, please let me know in the comments. You can connect with me at Librarything and Goodreads.

My Silence on Gender Issues in Libraries and Technology

I started writing this post a while ago and shelved it, waiting for more insight. Gender issues, technology, and librarianship is a huge issue. I didn’t want to get something this important wrong, so I didn’t finish my thought and hit the publish button. While I’m not certain I have more insight today, I do think it has become timely again and I want to air my thoughts this time, warts and all.

Attention Distribution Disorder

This week on the library blog Hi Miss Julie, Julie aired her discontent with the way attention is distributed to librarians. I have some trouble with some of the underlying assumptions behind the post, but it is undeniably honest and timely. It very clearly strikes a nerve and resonates with a lot of my colleagues in a way that is worth paying attention to. Make no mistake, this is an important issue.

The post also offers indirect but clear insults to people I am friendly with. The insulted are adults who can handle criticism or mild Internet bullying. However out of loyalty and fairness I want to be direct and point out what I perceive to be a lapse in manners. ( I hesitate to pick a fight and refuse to choose sides, but I am loyal to my friends and I respect Julie enough to take her own advice on speaking up when we witness a perceived wrong.)

The reason Julie’s recent piece draws my response is that I couldn’t figure out how to respond to it. She clearly has identified something about gender and power in our profession that resonates. I want to understand that better. I also observed that at least three eminent library speakers offered excellent advice on raising one’s profile as a speaker. Their advice is spot-on, practical, and following it will lead to the desired outcome, but I didn’t get the feeling her original post was seeking advice. I don’t share some of the post’s assumptions, but again, I didn’t get the feeling that the appropriate response was to engage it in critical dialog. So I returned to the draft of this post that I had started and abandoned. When I read my earlier thoughts about gender disparity in libraries and technology I found my answer. The appropriate response to Julie’s post on gender and attention was to listen to it.

So I sat down and read it again. I listened. I divorced it from the context of ongoing librarian Internet feuds or disagreements about whether books ARE stories or if they just CONTAIN stories. I tried to listen to the piece and it told me that gender influences attention in our profession in disturbing ways. A significant number of smart and competent librarians don’t feel smart or competent because people like me get more than our fair share of attention. I don’t have a metric for the attention economy, but I believe my work has received its fair share of attention. I believe I’ve done damn fine work and that my awards, attention, and paid speaking gigs are justified by my competence. But I’m not fool enough to believe that there are not smarter, more competent, and more eloquent librarians who toil in relative obscurity. It is unlikely that many of these overlooked librarians are male. That sucks. So this is what I’ve decided my appropriate response to Julie’s post is: first listening carefully to what she has to say and then mourning the fact that many of my smart and competent female colleagues don’t feel as brilliant and accomplished as they deserve to because our culture is diseased. This is a tragedy.

I have ideas on how we can change this on an individual scale and I have some problems with other things she wrote in the post, but since no one asked me, I’m just going to stick to listening and mourning at this time. It is a tragedy that competence and hard work do not always receive their just deserts. It is a crime that our culture allows this to happen to females so much more often than to their male counterparts.

Below is the post stub that generated these thoughts:

Mansplaining, 1reasonwhy, and gender issues in library technology leadership

Society, at least the American, educated, technological society that I inhabit most of the time, has a problem with gender. I’m probably not best placed to identify and describe this problem, so I’ll just point to three examples. The first is explained clearly by Rebecca Solnit in 2008 Men Explain Things to Me. This piece has circumnavigated the Internet several times and each time it comes around again it has been heavily linked, liked, and retweeted. It has become the seminal work on mansplaining. My second example is the twitter hashtag #1reasonwhy. Each #1reasonwhy tweet relates one reason why there aren’t more women in the video game design industry. Third is Roy Tennant’s Library Journal piece : Fostering Female Technology Leadership in Libraries.

Looking at them in reverse order, these examples explain that libraires need more women in positions of technology leadership, that women in technology fields are often treated poorly, and that men (such as myself) may not be best placed to articulate or remedy this problem. It’s the third point that gives me trouble. The first two seem well established. So let’s work backwards through these and see if we can uncover additional insight when we get back to the sticky point.

Is Fostering Female Leadership a man’s role? I don’t know, but I want more of it.

First, Roy Tennant’s piece on fostering female technology leadership in libraries. My response to this is: “Yes, please. Let’s have more.” I’ve been fortunate enough to work for two women who ran both libraries and campus IT. It seems natural to do things that way, but I know my experience isn’t the norm. I’ve also had the very good fortune to be mentored by amazingly brilliant and technologically adapt women. Every job I’ve had in libraries and academe I’ve had the opportunity to be trained and mentored by brilliant women whom I am striving to accomplish enough not to bring shame to their legacies. I bring this up because I’ve been where Roy wants us to go (as a profession) and it is a wonderful place. Why hasn’t it happened yet for more of us?

#1reasonwhy libraries need to do better: the rest of the world sucks.

Second, I want to compare this experience to my experience working in non-libraries IT. It ain’t the same thing. Before library school I worked in a tech support call center where thousands of stereotypical male geeks toiled under the leadership of aging bros and fraternity brothers with MBAs. It. Was. Hell. Oh my gods it was awful. Having gone through that nightmare I believe I can empathize (without fully understanding what they go through daily) with the contributors to the #1reasonwhy hashtag. When the culture is actively hostile yet refuses to acknowledge that any privilege or oppression exists, a reasonable existence is not possible. If my first point was to acknowledge that I have it good because I have the good fortune to work for brilliant women, my second point is to acknowledge that my situation is relatively unusual and not everyone is so fortunate. Technology fields can be actively hostile towards those it needs the most.

Let me ‘mansplain it to you:

Which brings me to my third point: Solnit’s piece and mansplaining in general make me loathe to comment on gender issues. What do I have to contribute? (The fact I don’t ask this more often is perfect evidence of straight-white-male-privilege.) More than that, what happens when I disagree with a woman on a gender-related topic? There does not exist a safe party line I could toe, even if I was inclined toward that kind of intellectual safety, but how can a guy struggling to be cluefull avoid looking like the buffoon in Solnit’s piece? To use a line from Quentin Tarrantino (of all people): “the less a man makes declarative sentences, the less likely he is to look foolish in retrospect.” Sometimes the appropriate answer risking looking like an ass and sometime the appropriate answer is silence.

My Silence

I’m not saying males don’t deserve to speak, our opinions don’t matter, or I need to be silenced. It’s not that our voices doesn’t have a place, but silence itself is a space to be filled. Cluefull men can leave pregnant silences to be filled by others. Others may be waiting for silences to be filled. Others may not be brought up and acculturated to believe that their words are desired and useful in all conversations. As a teacher, I see every week that the voices most comfortable speaking in class are not always the voices with the most to contribute. As a professional, something I would like to become more skilled at is offering my silence to my colleagues, especially in matters such as this. Gender equity is important, but I may not be the right person to talk about it. I may be the perfect person to be silent and listen.

Of course, I’m not silent now, I’m writing and adding my voice. I’m also not promising to submit to ideas that I find unreasonable. It’s just that the more I think about this issue, the more convinced I am that finding ways to indirectly defer to previously silenced voices is the best way forward.

From Cool to Useful: Incorporating hobby projects into library work

This was originally posted at ACRL TechConnect on January 09, 2013.
Cool or Useful? A guide to incorporating hobby projects into library work

Sometimes I have trouble creating a clear line between geeky hobby projects I do on my own time and professional tasks for MPOW (my place of work.) This time, the geeky-thing-I-think-is-cool is a LibraryBox. LibraryBox is a hardware hack created by Jason Griffey.  What I’m currently trying to work out is, is this project a viable solution to a practical work-place problem? Of course, I have to watch out for Maslov’s Law of the Instrument which can be paraphrased: “To a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” These days I’m seeing a lot of LibraryBox-shaped nails. I’m eager to find potential applications for my new toy tool. My project in today’s post is to describe the LibraryBox project and describe a method of determining whether or not it has a work-related application.

What is a LibraryBox?

A LibraryBox is a very portable pocket-sized device that serves up digital content to wifi devices. It is designed to provide free ebooks to readers with wifi devices but without access to reliable Internet or power. The best introduction to LibraryBox may be found on the LibraryBox site. Jason Griffey has done an excellent job with the site’s design and has written comprehensive instructions for building and deploying LibraryBoxen. The site describes the project as: “an open source, portable digital file distribution tool based on inexpensive hardware that enables delivery of educational, healthcare, and other vital information to individuals off the grid.”

The LibraryBox project was designed to solve a very specific kind of problem. It is useful in scenarios involving all of the following conditions:

  • Either no access or sporadic access to Internet and electrical utilities
  • a need to distribute digital content
  • users that have wifi enabled devices

In order to meet these objectives, the LibraryBox

  • uses inexpensive parts and hardware.
  • runs off of batteries and is highly portable.
  • uses open source software. (The code is both kinds of free; both libre and gratis.)
My LibraryBox

Building the LibraryBox was fun and easy. I bought the necessary parts: a mobile router, a large usb flash drive, plus an optional battery. (I’m using a Sony Cycle Energy CP-EL I found on sale at the grocery store for $13). Then I went through the instructions. The process is easy and straightforward. A friend of mine completed them while his baby daughter was down for a nap. I took a little longer because I didn’t read the instructions through before starting and did some steps out of order. If you more diligent with following directions than I am, Jason’s instructions will get you from start to finish easily and without a hitch. Once I had my LibraryBox up and running, I filled the flash drive with some free and creative commons licensed content. I tested it out and was happy to see that I could use it to download ebooks onto my phone, laptop, and tablet. Once I demonstrated that it worked, I began to look for practical applications where it could be more than just cool, I wanted my hobby project to be useful.  To keep myself honest and keep my project enthusiasm in check, I’m using a series of questions to help determine whether I’m being blinded by the new shiny thing or whether it is, in fact,  an appropriate tool for the job at hand. These questions help with the tool/toy distinction, especially when I’m under the spell of the law of the instrument.

Questions:
  1. Does this tool or technology offer a solution to an existing problem?
  2. If the answer to #1 is yes, does it solve the problem better (more efficiently, cheaply, etc.) than alternate solutions?
  3. Does this tool or technology introduce unintended consequences or side-effects that are worse than the original problem?
Applying the Questions:

There are two ready applications for a LibraryBox at MPOW. Neither directly involve the library, both involve faculty projects in our Creative Media and Digital Culture (CMDC) program. Both are interesting projects and both project leads have indicated interest in using a LibraryBox to solve a problem. The first case involves using a LibraryBox to allow visitors to a remote historical site the ability to download and install a mobile app. My colleague Brett Oppegaard is leading development of a mobile app to provide visitors to a historic site access to interpretive materials. The location is somewhat remote and mobile broadband coverage is spotty at best and varies depending on the cell provider. My thought was to provide visitors to the site a reliable method of installing and using the app. Applying the three questions from above to this project, I learned that the answers to the first two questions are an unqualified yes. It solves a real problem by allowing users to download a digital file without an active net connection. It does so better than alternate solutions, especially due to its ability to run off of battery power. (There are no utilities at the site.) However, the third question reveals some real difficulties. I was able to successfully download and install the app from its .apk file using the LibraryBox. However, the steps required to achieve this are too convoluted for non-technical end users to follow easily. In addition, the current version of the app requires an active Internet connection in order to successfully install, rendering the LibraryBox workaround moot. These issues may be able to be resolved with some hacking, but right now the LibraryBox isn’t a working solution to this project’s needs. We’ll keep it in mind as the project develops and try new approaches.

Fortunately, as I was demonstrating the LibraryBox to the CMDC faculty, another colleague asked me about using it to solve a problem he is facing.  John Barber has been working on preserving The Brautigan Library and re-opening it to submissions. The Brautigan Library is a collection of unpublished manuscripts organized in the spirit of  the fictional library described in Richard Brautigan’s novel The Abortion. The Brautigan Library manuscripts currently are housed at the Clark County Historical Museum and we tested the LibraryBox there as a source for providing mobile access to finding aids.  This worked, but there were speed and usability issues. As we tested, however, John developed a larger plan involving a dedicated tablet kiosk, a web-app template, and a local web server connected to a router in the building. While we did not choose to use LibraryBox to support this exhibit, it did spark useful conversation that is leading us in promising directions.

Next Steps:

After learning that the LibraryBox isn’t a turn-key solution for either project, I still have some productive work to do. The first step is to install a light-weight web server (lighttpd) on the hardware currently running LibraryBox. (Fortunately, someone has already done this and left directions.) It’s possible, but unlikely, that will meet our needs. After that we’re going to test our plans using more powerful hardware in a similar setup. I’ve acquired a Raspberry Pi to test as a web server for the project and may also try running a web server on a more powerful router than the TL-MR3020 LibraryBox is based on. (Some open-WRT capable routers have as much as 128mb of RAM, which may be enough.) There is also work to do on the Ft. Vancouver project. The next steps there involve working on-site with the design team to more clearly articulate the problem(s) we are trying to solve.

In both cases my hobbyist tinkering is leading to practical and productive work projects. In both cases the LibraryBox has served as an excellent kluge (jury-rigged temporary solution) and has helped us see a clearer path to a permanent solution. These solutions will probably not resemble my early amateur efforts, but by exercising a little discipline to make certain my toys tools  are being employed productively, I’m confident that my hobby tinkering has a place in a professional workplace. At very least, my leisure time spent experimenting is benefiting my professional work. I also think that the kind of questions used here have application when considering other library toys fads innovations.

 

Hacker Values ≈ Library Values*

* The ≈ symbol indicates that the two items are similar, but not equal, to each other.

This post was originally published at ACRL TechConnect 2012/11/13.

Disambiguation

Hacker is a disputed term. The word hacker is so often mis-applied to describe law breaking, information theft, privacy violation, and other black-hat activities that the mistake has become permanently installed in our lexicon. I am not using hacker in this sense of the word. To be clear: when I use the word hacker and when I write about hacker values, I am not referring to computer criminals and their sketchy value systems. Instead, I am using hacker in its original meaning: a person who makes clever use of technology and information to solve practical problems. 

Introduction

With the current popularity of hackerspaces and makerspaces in libraries, library hack-a-thons, and hacking projects for librarians; it is clear that library culture is warming to the hacker ethic. This is a highly positive trend and one that I encourage more librarians to participate in. The reason I am so excited to see libraries encourage adoption of the hacker ethic is that hackers share several core values with libraries. Working together we can serve our communities more effectively. This may appear to be counter-intuitive, especially due to a very common public misconception that hacker is just another word for computer-criminal. In this post I want to correct this error, explain the values behind the hacker movement, and show how librarians and hackers share core values. It is my hope that this opens the door for more librarians to get started in productive and positive library hackery.

Hacker Values

First, a working definition: hackers are people who empower themselves with information in order to modify their environment and make the world a better place. That’s it. Hacking doesn’t require intruding into computer security settings. There’s no imperative that hackers have to work with code, computers, or technology–although many do. Besides the traditional computer software hacker, there are many kinds of crafters, tinkerers, and makers that share core the hacker values. These makers all share knowledge about their world and engage in hands-on modification of it in order to make it a better place.

For a richer and more detailed look into the hacker ethic than provided by my simplified definition I recommend three books. First try Corey Doctorow’s young adult novel, Little Brother [1. Doctorow, Cory. 2008. Little brother. New York: Tom Doherty Associates. http://craphound.com/littlebrother/download/]. This novel highlights the hacker values of self-empowerment with information, hands-on hacking, and acting for the public good. Little Brother is not only an award-winning story, but it also comes with a bibliography that is one of the best introductions to hacking available. Next, check out Steven Levy’s classic book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution [2. Levy, Steven. 2010. Hackers Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Cambridge: O’Reilly Media, Incorporated. http://shop.oreilly.com/product/0636920010227.do]. Levy details the history of hackers in the early 1980s and explains the values that drove the movement. Third, try Chris Anderson’s Makers: The New Industrial Revolution [3. Anderson, Chris. 2012. Makers the new industrial revolution. New York: Crown Business. http://worldcat.org/oclc/812195098]. Anderson tells the story of the contemporary maker movement and the way it is combining the values of the traditional do-it-yourself (DIY) movement with the values of the computer hacker community to spark a vibrant and powerful creative movement across the world.

In the preface to Hackers: Heroes of the Computer revolution,  Levy observed a common philosophy that the hackers shared:

It was a philosophy of sharing, openness, decentralization, and getting your hands on machines at any cost to improve the machines and improve the world.

The Wikipedia entry on the hacker programming subculture builds on Levy’s observations and revises the list of core hacker values as:

  • Sharing
  • Openness
  • Collaboration
  • Engaging in the Hands-on Imperative. 

These values are also restated and expanded on in another Wikipedia article on Hacker Ethics. Each of these articulations of hacker values differs subtly, yet while they differ they reinforce the central idea that there are core hacker values and that the conception of hacker as computer criminal is misinformed and inaccurate. (While there clearly are computer criminals, the error lies in labeling these people as hackers. These criminals violate hacker values as much as they violate personal privacy and the law.)

Once we understand that hacking is rooted in the core values of sharing, openness, collaboration, and hands-on activity; we can begin to see that hackers and librarians share several core values and that there is a rich environment for developing synergies and collaborative projects between the two groups. If we can identify and isolate the core values that librarians share with hackers, we will be well on our way to identifying areas for productive collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas between our cultures.

Library Values

If we are going to compare hacker values with library values, an excellent starting point is the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights. I recently had the pleasure of attending a keynote presentation by Char Booth who made this point most persuasively. She spoke eloquently and developed a nuanced argument on the topic of the narratives we use to describe our libraries. She encouraged us to look beyond the tired narratives of library-as-container-of-information or library-as-content-repository and instead create new narratives that describe the enduring concept of the library. This concept of library captures the values and services libraries provide without being inextricably linked to the information containers and technologies that libraries have historically used.

Library bill of rights
Char Booth’s distillation of the 1948 Library Bill of Rights into five core values

As she developed this argument, Char encouraged us to look to library history and extract the core values that will continue to apply as our collections and services adapt and change. As an example, she displayed the 1948 Library Bill of Rights and extracted out of each paragraph a core value. Her lesson: these are still our core values, even if the way we serve our patrons has radically changed.

Char distilled the Library Bill of Rights into five core values: access, freedom, advocacy, inquiry, and openness. If we compare these values with the hacker values from above: sharing, openness, collaboration, and the hands-on-imperative, we’ll see that at least in terms of access to information, public openness, freedom, sharing, and collaboration libraries and hackers are on the same page. There are many things that hackers and libraries can do together that further these shared values and goals.

It should be noted that hackers have a traditionally anti-authoritarian bent and unlike libraries, their value of open access to information often trumps their civic duty to respect license agreements and copyright law. Without trivializing this difference, there are many projects that libraries and hackers can do together that honor our shared values and do not violate the core principles of either partner. After all, libraries have a lot of experience doing business with partners who do not share or honor the core library values of freedom, openness, and access to information. If we can maintain productive relationships with certain parties that reject values close to the heart of libraries and librarians, it stands to reason that we can also pursue and maintain relationships with other groups that respect these core values, even as we differ in others.

At the end of the day, library values and hacker values are more alike than different. Especially in the areas of library work that involve advocacy for freedom, openness, and access to information we have allies and potential partners who share core values with us.

Library Hackery

If my argument about library values and hacker values has been at all persuasive, it raises the question: what do hacker/library partnerships look like? Some of the answers to this have been hinted at above. They look like Jason Griffey’s LibraryBox project. This wonderful project involves hacking on multiple levels. On one level, it provides the information needed for libraries to modify (hack) a portable wifi router into a public distribution hub for public domain, open access, and creative-commons licensed books and media. LibraryBoxes can bring digital media to locations that are off the net. On another level, it is a hack of an existing hacker project PirateBox. PirateBox is a private portable network designed to provide untraceable local file-sharing. Griffey hacked the hack in order to create a project more in-line with library values and mission.

These partnerships can also look like the Washington DC public library’s Accessibility Hack-a-Thon, an ongoing project that brings together, civic, library, and hacker groups to collaborate on hacking projects that advance the public good in their city. Another great example of bringing hacker ethics into the library can be found in TechConnect’s own Bohyun Kim’s posts on AJAX and APIs. Using APIs to customize web services is a perfect example of a library hack: it leverages our understanding of technology and empowers us to customize and perfect our environment. With an injection of hacker values into library services, we no longer have to remain at the mercy of the default setting. We can empower ourselves to hack our way to better tools, a better library, and a better world.

An excellent example of hackery from outside the library community is Audrey Watters’ Hack Education and Hack [Higher] Education blogs. Just as computer hackers use their inside information of computer systems to remake the environment, Audrey users her inside knowledge of education systems to make positive changes to the system.

eBook Review – Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines

Orignially posted at ACRL TechConnect 2012/11/01.

Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines

This is a review of the ebook Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines and also of the larger project that collected the stories that became the content of the ebook. The project collects discussions about how technology can be used to improve student success. Fifty practical examples of successful projects are the result. Academic librarians will find the book to be a highly useful addition to our reference or professional development collections. The stories collected in the ebook are valuable examples of innovative pedagogy and administration and are useful resources to librarians and faculty looking for technological innovations in the classroom. Even more valuable than the collected examples may be the model used to collect and publish them. Cultivating Change, especially in its introduction and epilogue, offers a model for getting like minds together on our campuses and sharing experiences from a diversity of campus perspectives. The results of interdisciplinary cooperation around technology and success make for interesting reading, but we can also follow their model to create our own interdisciplinary collaborations at home on our campuses. More details about the ongoing project are available on their community site. The ebook is available as a blog with comments and also as an .epub, .mobi, or .pdf file from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy.

The Review

Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines [1. Hill Duin, A. et al (eds) (2012) Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines at the University of Minnesota in 2012, An Open-Source eBook. University of Minnesota. Creative Commons BY NC SA. http://digital-rights.net/wp-content/uploads/books/CC50_UMN_ebook.pdf]

The stories that make up the ebook have been peer reviewed and organized into chapters on the following topics: Changing Pedagogies (teaching using the affordances of today’s technology), Creating Solutions (technology applied to specific problems), Providing Direction (technology applied to leadership and administration), and Extending Reach (technology employed to reach expanded audiences.) The stories follow a semi-standard format that clearly lays out each project, including the problem addressed, methodology, results, and conclusions.

Section One: Changing Pedagogies

The opening chapter focuses on applications of academic technology in the classroom that specifically address issues of moving instruction from memorization to problem solving and interactive coaching. These efforts are often described by the term “digital pedagogy” (For an explanation of digital pedagogy, see Brian Croxall’s elegant definition.[2. http://www.briancroxall.net/digitalpedagogy/what-is-digital-pedagogy/]) I’m often critical of digital pedagogy efforts because they can confuse priorities and focus on the digital at the expense of the pedagogy. The stories in this section do not make this mistake and correctly focus on harnessing the affordances of technology (the things we can do now that were not previously possible) to achieve student-success and foster learning.

One particularly impressive story, Web-Based Problem-Solving Coaches for Physics Studentsexplained how a physics course used digital tools to enable more detailed feedback to student work using the cognitive apprenticeship model. This solution encouraged the development of problem-solving skills and has to potential to scale better than classical lecture/lab course structures.

Section Two: Creating Solutions

This section focuses on using digital technology to present content to students outside of the classroom. Technology is extending the reach of the University beyond the limits of our campus spaces, this section address how innovations can make distance education more effective. A common theme here is the concept of the flipped classroom. (See Salmam Khan’s TED talk for a good description of flipping the classroom. [2. http://www.ted.com/talks/salman_khan_let_s_use_video_to_reinvent_education.html]) In a flipped classroom the traditional structure of content being presented to students in lectures during class time and creative work being assigned as homework is flipped.  Content is presented outside the classroom and instructors lead students in creative projects during class time. Solutions listed in this section include podcasts, video podcasts, and screencasts. They also address synchronous and asynchronous methods of distance education and some theoretical approaches for instructors to employ as they transition from primarily face to face instruction to more blended instruction environments.

Of special note is the story Creating Productive Presence: A Narrative in which the instructor assesses the steps taken to provide a distance cohort with the appropriate levels of instructor intervention and student freedom. In face-to-face instruction, students have body-language and other non-verbal cues to read on the instructor. Distance students, without these familiar cues, experienced anxiety in a text-only communication environment. Using delegates from student group projects and focus groups, the instructor was able to find an appropriate classroom presence balanced between cold distance and micro-management of the group projects.

Section Three: Providing Direction

The focus of this section is on innovative new tools for administration and leadership and how administration can provide leadership and support for the embrace of disruptive technologies on campus. The stories here tie the overall effort to use technology to advance student success to accreditation, often a necessary step to motivate any campus to make uncomfortable changes. Data archives, the institutional repository, clickers (class polling systems), and project management tools fall under this general category.

The University Digital Conservancy: A Platform to Publish, Share, and Preserve the University’s Scholarship is of particular interest to librarians. Written by three UM librarians, it makes a case for institutional repositories, explains their implementation, discusses tracking article-level impacts, and most importantly includes some highly useful models for assessing institutional repository impact and use.

Section Four: Extending Reach

The final section discusses ways technology can enable the university to reach wider audiences. Examples include moving courseware content to mobile platforms, using SMS messaging to gather research data, and using mobile devices to scale the collection of oral histories. Digital objects scale in ways that physical objects cannot and these projects take advantage of this scale to expand the reach of the university.

Not to be missed in this section is R U Up 4 it? Collecting Data via Texting: Developing and Testing of the Youth Ecological Momentary Assessment System (YEMAS). R U Up 4 it? is the story of using SMS (texting) to gather real-time survey data from teen populations.

Propagating the Meme

The stories and practical experiences recorded in Cultivating Change in the Academy are valuable in their own right. It is a great resource for ideas and shared experience for anyone looking for creative ways to leverage technology to achieve educational goals. For this reader though, the real value of this project is the format used to create it. The book is full of valuable and interesting content. However, in the digital world, content isn’t king. As Corey Doctorow tells us:

Content isn’t king. If I sent you to a desert island and gave you the choice of taking your friends or your movies, you’d choose your friends — if you chose the movies, we’d call you a sociopath. Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.[2. http://boingboing.net/2006/10/10/disney-exec-piracy-i.html]

The process the University of Minnesota followed to generate conversation around technology and student success is detailed in a white paper. [3. http://bit.ly/Rj5AIR] After reading some of the stories in Cultivating Change, if you find yourself wishing similar conversations could take place on your campus, this is the road-map the University of Minnesota followed. Before they were able to publish their stories, the University of Minnesota had to bring together their faculty, staff, and administration to talk about employing innovative technological solutions to the project of increasing student success. In a time when conversation trumps content, a successful model for creating these kinds of conversations on our own campuses will also trump the written record of other’s conversations.