Date Archives March 2013

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.