Saturday, December 10, 2005

Put the information where you need it (?) 1.4

Two new gadgets limn the outer limits of putting information wherever you maybe, might *possibly* need it.

First, the rsstroom reader -- a gadget that prints rss feeds onto your toilet paper. [via everyone and their mom]

Next, the weather toaster -- a gadget that prints the days weather on your toast. Well, actually, it toasts the bread and singes a graphic of the day's forecast. [via information aesthetics]

[image from The Register]

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Calculator Help

C? CE? I can never remember what each one does. So when I need to clear the current calculation, I hit them both (a couple of times actually... you can never over-erase a current calculation as far as I'm concerned... same goes for crosswalk buttons, but that's a different story).

So today while calculating income from a the few little projects that I've patched together for the summer (ah, academia), I had to choose CE or C. On a hunch, I right mouse clicked over the buttons and was delighted to see, "What's this?" followed by an explanation.

The mouseover help not only tells me what each button does, but explains it in terms of other familiar computer functionality. (Well, who uses the ESC key? But it's a nice gesture.) Now I'll just have to tape that information on my manual calculator.

[Update: I'm not the only one on about minute levels of usability today.]

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Wiki as Personal CMS?

This Ask Ars installment features a question about using a wiki as a personal content management system (the discussion offers myriad solutions). The writer, who lives in a house with four roommates, asks about using one to manage mundane tasks:
We’ve all decided that a wiki would be an efficient way to communicate information to everyone in the house. For example, when is the water bill due? Check the wiki. Who do we contact about the trash pickup which never seems to come? Check the wiki.

This life-hack question reminds me of Cheryl Geisler's research into the use of technologies for managing home-life (here and here). It's my home-life texts that I have the most trouble tracking (especially due to nearly annual moves). Electronic banking and bill-pay has cut down on the negative effects of this, but remember how complicated it can be with multiple roommates.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Strikethrough Text as Paralipsis

I’ve recently noticed the trend of using strikethrough text as a humorous device, as seen in this example from Stephen Bainbridge’s recent post about blogging during faculty meetings.

What started out as a useful way to update a document while leaving evidence of its original and new form became a device for ironic “correction”. Stephen Baker at Businessweek seems to think this is new, but as with most concepts and dramatic plots, the ancient Greeks came up with it first. It’s called paralipsis, meaning “to leave to one side”. Carolyn Miller once told me it was her favorite rhetorical trope, and I can see why. When used overtly, it can be wry. More often, it’s sneaky (as in, “I won’t be dragged in to discussing my opponent’s drinking problem.”).

But there’s precedence for print-based paralipsis too. The Hacker’s Dictionary describes pre-strikethrough “writing under erasure” thus:

There is also an accepted convention for ‘writing under erasure’; the text>

Be nice to this fool^H^H^H^Hgentleman, he's visiting from corporate HQ.

reads roughly as “Be nice to this fool, er, gentleman...”, with irony emphasized. The digraph ^H is often used as a print representation for a backspace, and was actually very visible on old-style printing terminals. As the text was being composed the characters would be echoed and printed immediately, and when a correction was made the backspace keystrokes would be echoed with the string ‘^H’. Of course, the final composed text would have no trace of the backspace characters (or the original erroneous text). Chapter 5. Hacker Writing Style

I also see similarity to a comedic technique I’ve seen two other places: Kevin Nealon’s SNL character Mr. Subliminal, who would make a statement and quickly interject its (usually politically incorrect) translation, sotto voce. Today, we can see the same effect on Comedy Central’s new Colbert Report in my favorite segment “The Word”, in which the politically incorrect translation appears beside Colbert. [Edit: On re-reading, I think this technique is merely similar to paralipsis... I might have to coin a new trope!]

Mostly, I see print-paralipsis as yet another clever playfulness with language that seems typical of hackers specifically and technophiles more generally. Clever word-play and retoolings of language and use is in their nature.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Artistic Proof 1.1: Maxims

There's nothing like leather.

Paying so much attention to the role of tools in getting work done, I'm especially interested in sayings about tool use. This one's a bit older, but speaks to the tendency to derive one's nostrums from one's (usually limited) experience. It's a lot like a saying by Abraham "hierarchy of needs" Maslow, which is almost annoyingly popular today, especially among programmers:

If all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

It's true we get overly reliant on the tools we know how to use, especially when the learning curve for such specialized tools as software is so steep and their proliferation so tremendous that it's hard to keep learning new tools.

Oh, and this tidbit from Hal Fulton at Rubyhacker is just too good to leave out.
I don't mean to sound like a spammer,
But Ruby has such a neat grammar —
When a task I assail
Starts to look like a nail
Then my code starts to look like a hammer!
One last one:

He that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools. ~ Confucius

To me, it speaks to both the role of tools in getting things done and our tendency to futz about a good bit before settling in to get work done. ("Hmm... gotta mow the lawn... Wait! I think this mower blade needs sharpening!" Yep, that's me alright.)

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Leapfrog Fly Pen/Computer: Friend or Foe?

One of the most-touted kid-gifts this holiday season is Leapfrog’s FLY Pentop Computer (warning: slow, flash-heavy, chatty, youth-oriented website). In short, it’s a pen-based PDA with standard functionality (music, calendar, calculator, notepad, etc.), geared toward tweens, as opposed to Logitech’s io2 Digital Writing System (designtechnica review).

The FLY pen allows you to interact with your writing… you can draw a calculator, drum pad, date & time, etc. on special paper and interact with it. Actually, the concept is pretty cool – being able to draw a calculator and then use it – but I’m not convinced how useful it is to have to draw one’s tools every time one wants to use them.

Fly’s functionality is well described in this article from BusinessWeek Online. And it’s been featured in The New York Times [subscription required] and Gizmodo (twice). But the most interesting critique has come from Kristen Kidder of Bitch Magazine (“feminist response to pop culture” and a damn good read) about a functionality I’m particularly interested in: computerized interlocutor as aid to invention. To prompt journal-writing, the pen has pre-recorded questions it can ask. In theory, this is an excellent idea. Conversation (even in the form of leading questions) is a good way to prompt writing. It’s why all grade-school reading is followed by “discussion questions”. But the questions that are posed and how they are phrased can speak volumes, as Kidder reveals:

LeapFrog Enterprises, leading U.S, manufacturer of educational toys and longtime enthusiast of gender stereotypes, is poised to extend their reign this fall with the launch of Fly... Fly's accessories fall sharply along the boy/girl divide. The most notable program is the female-oriented Dear Me Diary (recently renamed the Fly journal), an interactive notebook full of more than 600 writing prompts designed to excite girls about writing and self-expression. The concept is simple: With just a touch of the pen, preteens suffering from writer's block can trigger questions designed to stimulate their creative impulses. A good idea, no? Sure, but there's a catch: A good portion of the topic suggestions reinforce the misconception that all middle-¬school-age female friendships are cemented through the sharing of petty gossip. “Ooh—dish alert! What's going on?” and “What are you so jealous about?” are just two examples of the questions designed to get Fly girls thinking.

I'm all for promoting female self-expression (and what writer doesn’t need a little inspiration from time to time?). I just wish LeapFrog was able to deliver it without aggressively channeling their inner mean girl. – Kristen Kidder
[“Poison Pen” November, p. 21]

I’ve come to see that one potential benefit of technology is using it to prompt social interaction. For example, what if, when creating a resume in MS Word, the task pane included a link, “Chat about this document with a buddy”? As a writing teacher, I’d be pleased as punch if technology suggested social interaction that should happen to improve the document or writing process, but when enacted in the social-norming ways Kidder describes, maybe those girls would be better off with traditional paper and pen and a real friend.

[Image from NY Times]

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Magazine Usability 2.0

ReadyMade is another magazine that understands how its readers use it. Primarily a how-to mag for hip, young DIYers, much of ReadyMade's contents are instructions for household projects. But they seem to know how people make decisions about what projects to do and how they use instructions.

For each project, they include this handy Project Card that outlines time, cost, difficulty, and materials in addition to the instructions. The card makes it easy to compare projects and to decide which to take on and which are beyond my skill-level (most). The evolutionary scale chart for project difficulty is clever an intuitive. The stopwatch, however, requires that you read the Project Card description at the front of each issue which explains:
Completion times range from one hour to two days depending on how many minutes have elapsed on the stopwatch. At the 5 minute mark, you'll spend less than an hour; at the 55 minute mark, you're skipping Reno 911.
The convention is consistent across issues, but they could just as easily write "3 hours". (Imagine if the cost were depicted as dollar bills where each bill represented $5.00.)

[Project Card from ReadyMade, 17, May/June 2005, p.78]

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Usability Frogs

Two frogs critique websites. What more can I say about that?

[Thanks Boing Boing!]

Friday, November 18, 2005

Projector fetish

Farewell to overhead -- a tribute in lyric, image, and song to the lowly overhead projector.

As a writing teacher and research of writing technologies, I have a special place in my heart for the overhead projector. There's something about the flexibility of the overhead projector that PowerPoint, digital projectors, and whiteboards don't quite capture. It was crucial for one teaching stunt I pulled spontaneously one class period a few years ago.

I was trying to get my students to really understand the flexibility of language. They often know when they'd written something that doesn't sound right, but don't have revision strategies. I find it helpful to rewrite a bad sentence or phrase several times and pick the best version. I stole this method from Desiderius Erasmus who, in his Copia, wrote hundreds of versions of sentences such as "Your letter pleased me greatly." I had a picture of him on an overhead and, while we were trying a similar exercise, it occurred to me to turn the projector 90 degrees and project his picture on a blank wall to our side. At that distance, his bust covered the entire wall and there he stayed, looking over us, like the patron saint of linguistic flexibility. It really created a moment.

Nostalgia aside, I didn't have a projector in my class this quarter and seemed to get along fine without it, from a pragmatic standpoint.

[Ode link via Boing Boing]

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Someone keeps moving my tools!

Previews of the new Office 12 interface are available [see here and here] as is C-net's video review. While I understand this process is how we got from here to here, I still get tired of having to learn where particular functionality has been moved. Can you imagine typing if, every few years, the keyboard developers decided to swap and add new keys? How's a guy supposed to develop operational fluency?

Anyway, here's the new "ribbon" interface.

[via Digg,
image from xBetas@PDC05, oh and title adapted from "Someone keeps stealing my letters..."]

Monday, November 14, 2005

Magazine Usability

Cargo is a great example of the new magazine usability. Two innovative, non-content features reveal that the editors understand how people use magazines. First, as a "shopping" magazine, Cargo understands that its readers might want to flag a featured item for purchase, so they include stickers (little Post-it type affairs first used by their sister magazine, Lucky).

Next, knowing that readers might use product reviews to make purchasing decisions, they created little wallet-sized summaries of their reviews that bullet-point the products, pros, and cons (ooh! their website facilitates downloading the same info to a PDA!).


Thursday, November 10, 2005

Text. Coord. in popular fiction

Just finished reading, and enjoying, Erik Larson's Devil in the White City -- mandatory reading on Chicago's El (I see at least one person a week with it on the train). Besides being interesting historical non-fiction covering the drama of architects preparing for the 1893 World's Fair and a Category 5 mad-doctor/serial killer, there were two fun examples of textual coordination that caught my eye...

1) A wonderful example of textual intervention -- the strategic placement of text for changing action -- by the Fair's chief architect:
As a reminder to himself and anyone who visited his office in the shanty, Burnham posted a sign over his desk bearing a single word: RUSH. (121)
I know just how that feels.

2) In describing his research process in the book's notes, the author writes:
I do not employ researchers, nor did I conduct any primary research using the Internet. I need physical contact with my sources, and there's only one way to get it. To me every trip to a library or archive is like a small detective story. There are always little moments on such trips when the past flares to life, like a match in the darkness. On one visit to the Chicago Historical Society, I found the actual notes that Prendergast sent to Alfred Trude. I saw how deeply the pencil dug into the paper. (396)
Larson includes this finding in the book itself -- a kind of detail made impossible through Internet research. But Larson seems to pooh pooh an increasingly valuable resource (Google Print post coming soon). While I will be the first to agree with the limits of any particular technology, I get a little annoyed when technologies are written off uncritically and wholesale.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Typewriter Fetish

The Classic Typewriter Page is a vast storehouse of information about early versions of a breakthrough writing technology. The site includes a brief illustrated history of typewriters, "typewriter collecting and care", and huge lists of early models complete with pictures.

The most interesting aspect of the site, from my perspective, is the glimpses it affords into the development of the technology. A variety of unusual arrangements can be seen, helping us to imagine what might have been had qwerty not become the standard.

[Image from The Classic Typewriter Page]

Monday, November 07, 2005

When not to automate

One value of IT is that it can automate the more mundane, operational-level tasks of textual coordination. Where would I be without Copy/Paste? But there are occasions when it is beneficial to do things “by hand”.

Case in point -- this anecdote from today's 43 Folders post, “Productivity for the Practicing Musician”.
Personally, I don’t like automatic syncing between devices — it’s brain-dead. Manually transferring the information at least once allows it to tickle my brain a bit and stimulate new ideas. It’s sync with a built-in review.

Not only do I like the pithy descriptor “brain dead” but the awareness the writer has for the effect of the choice of processes on the activity. This is what I hope to teach my students.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

PowerPoint Presenting Redux (Reduced...)

Nevermind the Lessig, Kawasaki, or Takahashi methods, here's Lowtax. Richard "Lowtax" Kyanka, owner and operator of (a humor site of questionable taste) recently "presented" at an ACM seminar. His style is yet another alternative for using PowerPoint in ways that overcome its weaknesses -- mostly by grossly overusing its weaknesses, to humorous effect. The result? A weird combination of cleverly lampooning the genre of conference talks and generally bad public speaking. Somethingawful hosts the talk (warning: not exactly "work-appropriate").

Friday, November 04, 2005

Pencil Revolution

Our love of the tools of literacy... Where does it stem from? In some cases, it's nostalgia -- the deep-rooted connection we made to the smell of pencil shavings beginning at age 5, the intense relationship we had with paper ruled with pink & blue, solid & dashed lines and the struggle to get our wobbly letters to adhere to those lines.

In other cases, it's techno-philia in its true geek-guise. The rabid appreciation for the latest, sexiest technology. In both cases, it stems from the time we spend alone with these tools as we work with our ideas. It's why Ray Bradbury named characters Faber and Montag (a paper manufacturer) in what I consider to be his greatest work.

With this relationship in mind, I begin an ongoing series of entries entitled Writing Technologies Fetish. Today's installment -- Pencil Revolution, a blog/manifesto devoted to our little leaden friends (sorry, "graphite" didn't have the alliterative zing). There's a companions site in the form of the Pencil Revolution Flickr Group. [Image from Pencil Revolution]

[Update: Pencil Revolution brings us this piece of web-based zen: images and sounds of pencil writing.]

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Happy World Usability Day!

From BBC:
It's World Usability Day, the chance to celebrate the products and services that make our daily lives easier and more efficient.
Learn more!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Gettin' ILL

my desk
Originally uploaded by elevatedprimate.
InterLibrary Loan requests... textual coordination for a text that's not where you want it!

I can empathize with Elevatedprimate. I've spent this month requesting books from every corner of Illinois.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Rate my network diagram .com

A nice change from the usual, more prurient "rate my" fare. offers a chance to get feedback on a challenging task -- creating a clear representation of complex network structures. Always good to see productive uses of the web -- peer (to peer?) review.


Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Another critique of IT use as depicted in film...

Minority Report had a pretty sexy view of future IT. Johndan mentions it in Datacloud, but OK/Cancel sees a problem.

[From: OK/Cancel]

There was also the climactic scene where, for some reason, a file had to be physically removed from one screen and walked over to another. Yeah right, all that futurism and still the climax relies on sneakerware.

Transparent Aluminium & Scotty @ 120 WPM

A funny ciritique of technology use in film from a good friend...

From : john helsabeck
Sent : Tuesday, October 18, 2005 4:04 PM
To : Shaun Slattery
Subject : Transparent Aluminium!?

Remember the part in that God-Awful Star Trek movie - the one where they go back in time to save the whales - where Scotty reveals the molecular make up of transparent aluminium in return for a small batch of the stuff because it is needed to construct a holding tank for a soon-to-be-saved whale?

At first, Scotty tried talking to the computer. "Computer? Hello, Computer?" Then, when someone pointed to the mouse, he picked it up and spoke into it, "Computer?" Finally, realizing that he was going to have to use a keyboard, he proceeds to FLY over the keyboard, typing and switching between windows at alarming speed, until he finally reveals a picture of a transparent aluminium molecule.

What's up with that? If dude has never had to type before because, in his time, you can just talk to computers, why the hell would he be proficient with QWERTY? And why the hell would he know any of the programs they use?

Mr. Nimoy, you disappointed me.

Oh yeah, about that transparent aluminium.... Apparently it is time to move it to the 'Science Fact' category:

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Put the tools where you need 'em...

While looking for images of pens, I found this ingenious hack...

[From Wake Forest U.]

Friday, October 14, 2005

Interruption Science

From NPR today: 'Interruption Science': Costly Distractions at Work. Description from the NPR website:

Technology forces us to juggle competing demands on our attention over the course of our workdays. Alex Chadwick speaks with New York Times Magazine contributor Clive Thompson about "interruption science," the study of the effect of disruptions on job performance.

The research isn't as productivity-driven as it sounds. In fact, much of it echoes Johnson-Eilola's Datacloud which I'm re-reading. For example...

"Interruptions can turn out to be useful." Work is "interrupt driven... it's not merely that you get interrupted during your work, the interruptions are your work."

No link yet for article they're talking about. [Update: Ah, here it is, via 43 Folders.]

Over-attributing Causality

One danger in research is the desire to interpret all findings as meaningful. Here’s an interesting example from our campus bookstore…

A colleague of mine, knowing my interest in such things, notified me of a change in the size of our blue exam books, from 8 3/8 x 6 3/4, 12-page to 8 1/2 x 11, 24-page:

“How interesting,” I thought. I began to hypothesize: “I wonder if they had complaints about the old smaller books. I wondered if students filled more than one during exams and faculty ran into problems grading multi-book responses. Or perhaps more exams were requiring more writing. Wouldn’t that be something!” So I wrote to our bookstore manager to inquire about the reason for the change. The answer?

We ran out. We will replentish (sic) and have both sizes.

Ah, of course. How silly of me to forget Occam’s razor: The simplest answer is usually preferable.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

New Post-It Fiasco!

My vision for Post-It's next product...

[New Post-It Fiasco!] [Fiasco in use]

Co-locating the Tools of Annotation

"Post-it® Flag Highlighters and Pens" -- while innovative and perhaps useful, this company's product proliferation is getting as bad as Oreos'.

New Hope for PowerPoint

Maybe Spinuzzi's got it right. I've been agonizing over his "Print Shop Moment" concept --
...the point at which a new technology gives the broad public access to tools once considered the domain of a specific profession, resulting in an explosion of artifacts. Most of these artifacts will be badly produced, but a few will be genuine innovations, and the artifacts will eventually regain regularity as the public acquires a more discriminating eye (and templates).

Are the bad artifacts the result of unskilled folks or bad technology? Probably both, but I think two recent changes to typical PowerPoint presentation styles are beginning to combat so-called Powerpointlessness -- the "Lessig Method" (from Presentation Zen) and the Kawasaki & Takahashi Methods (from Presentation Zen and 37 Signals).

These artistic flights from the typical PowerPoint fare work best for "sexy" high-profile presentations but may or may not be appropriate for the vast majority of situations that require presentations. For example, I wonder how it would impact a classroom -- more interesting, but less followable.

And while I'm banging on about reconceptualizations and critiques of PowerPoint, I might as well mention David Byrne's art (from Wired, Byrne's site, NPR, CNN, etc.) and the oldie-but-goody, Peter Norvig's Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation.

[Update: Beyond Bullet Points, "a book on understanding PowerPoint presentations as stories" -- as posted on Datacloud]

But here's my all-time favorite use by Boston-based band Bishop Allen.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Tracking your own changes

I'm fascinated by people's writing processes and how they strategically mediate those processes. Here's a wonderful anecdote from Jenny's comment to Jason Swarts' interesting post on particle vs. stream views of text:
I even use Track Changes myself when writing a paper. I like to have the original draft embedded in even my sixth or seventh draft, since it is in essence the same document, just with lots of different colors.

In a sense, using Track Changes enables me to develop my thoughts more thoroughly and clearly. And days later, when I'm reading and re-working the paper again, I don't have to wonder where a thought was coming from. My entire thought process is right there embedded in the text. It doesn't seem static to me because I can see how things developed from my initial ideas.
[via: Coherent Fragments]

Tracking your mediated life

Bill Hart-Davidson pointed me to Onlife, a new Mac-based software use tracking program.
[Onlife] observes your every interaction with software applications... and then creates a personal shoebox of all the web pages you visit, emails you read, documents you write and much more... then indexes the contents of your shoebox, makes it searchable and displays all the interactions between you and your favorite apps over time.
The idea isn't too far off from this project (from Bill, Clay Spinuzzi, and Mark Zachary), which seeks to reveal patterns of communication among people rather than an individual user's patterns of software use. And Onlife's visualization displays look quite similar to my own research data charts of writers' object use over time:

So naturally, just as I mis-used screen-capture software, I'm interested in Onlife as another possible tool for researching writing. ;-)

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Cool on (Massively?) Multiple Levels: This Spartan Life

The repurposing of video games to animate new content (machinima) first came to me in the form of Red vs. Blue. This Spartan Life is an innovative use of the same technique to reinvent the familiar genre of talk show. Billed as "a talk show in space", their interviewee list includes media pioneers like Bob Stein and Marty O'Donnell. Episodes also include DJ OCTOBIT and the Solid Gold Elite Dancers -- the funniest synchronized movement I've seen since the SNL men's synchro swimming skit.

Better yet is the intelligent discussion about the promises and challenges of new media. Here's a typical quote from the Bob Stein episode:
Imagine a company's manifesto written today and fast forward 150 years since it was written. You would have not just the 50-page essay, you'd have the comments of millions of people who would not only say 'yea' or 'nay' about various points, but they'd make links to other arguments etcetera, etcetera -- you know every few years, the authors -- Marks and Engles -- might come around and they might actually look at everything everyone had said and reissue a new version so that after 150 years you have a corpus that's literally millions of pages. So the problem becomes how does an editor make navigating through such a large data space useful?

All this and the Solid Gold Elite Dancers? Awesome.

Tune in and get fragged.

Screencap from Posted by Picasa

Co-locating Text as Life-Hack

Giles Turnbull over at O'reilly describes his attempt to "organise all my work, all my personal stuff, all my writing, in one huge text file?" -- the most extensive attempt at textual coordination I've heard to date. Read his post and the 43 Folders post that told me of the attempt to learn more about the rationale and pros and cons of the approach.

Friday, August 26, 2005

"The great-great-grandfather of the Hipster PDA"

43 Folders links to a blurb about life-hacking forefather Thomas Jefferson's portable note-taking device.

Jefferson's hipster PDA [from] Posted by Picasa

Speaking in Ignorance (of Audience and Context)

I now know how my students feel. In my field, student writing is often criticized for being poorly thought out. I believe bad communication is more the fault of ignorance about the situation in which it will be used. And students, through the mere fault of being young and inexperienced, are often ignorant of the contexts in which writing occurs. This happened to me yesterday with my voicemail.

I'm a brand-new faculty member at DePaul University. Yesterday, I tried to set up my voice mail. It's been years since I had a real job, let alone voicemail; and setting it up is quite different from setting up one's answering machine at home. It was the task of making three separate recordings that put me in my students' place.

  1. record your name
  2. record a message for external calls (coming from outside of DePaul)
  3. record a message for internal calls (coming from within DePaul)

The problem was, other than #1, I had no idea how these recordings *ought* to differ, because it's been so long since I used or experienced voicemail in this way, that I had no idea of audience expectations or contexts. I had to *guess* what would be useful for these two different audiences. And I don't know when my recorded name gets invoked either. So here were my best guesses:

  1. "Shaun Slattery" (I had the option of also stating the extension number. I decided against it, but don't know if that was a good or bad decision.)
  2. "This is Shaun Slattery at DePaul University; I can't take your call right now. Please leave a message and I'll get back to you."
  3. "This is Shaun Slattery in the Department of English. Please leave a message and I'll call you back."

Are these sufficiently distinguished for internal and external calls? Do they provide information useful to those two audiences? No. Idea. Whatsoever.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

CFP: TechComm special issue

Clay Spinuzzi will be editing a special issue of Technical Communication Quarterly, "Technical Communication in the Age of Distributed Work." See the full call for papers; here's a taste:
It goes by many names: Distributed capitalism, the control society, the informatics of domination, the support economy. Whatever its name, the characteristics are the same: control over organizations is as distributed as ownership is in managerial capitalism; digital technologies play a vital enabling role; consumption is individuated, taking the form of the desire for unique identities and unique experiences; direct relationships between customers and businesses become more important; and customers look for stable beneficial relationships among consumers and producers that support these individual experiences. These needs are supplied not by large, vertically integrated companies but by temporary "federations" of suppliers for each individual transaction. These federations are endlessly recombinant. Work is fragmented temporally, geographically, and disciplinarily.

What does distributed work mean to us as technical communicators? How is it changing our field? Should we adapt to it, critique it, or resist it? In this special issue of Technical Communication Quarterly, we will discuss distributed work's implications for technical communication theory, methodology, pedagogy, ethics, and practice.
  • 1-2 page proposal for paper: March 15, 2006
  • Full paper (if proposal is accepted): June 30, 2006
  • Scheduled publication of issue: Summer 2007

Contact information: Send proposals in .DOC, .RTF, or .HTML to
Clay Spinuzzi, clay.spinuzzi[at]

Monday, May 23, 2005

Automated textual coordination 1.0

Mostly, this is an excuse to play with a neat online toy, "Spell with flickr", by Kastner. But it also shows that by executing rules for coordinating texts, scripts can automate some processes that would take quite a bit of time to do by hand.

T square up closeEXt

[Actually, I had to hand-paste the auto-generated HTML because Blogger wont allow Kastner's java. But it's still pretty nifty.]

Healthy Technological Criticism

In his recent post "The right tool for the job", Jason Fried over at Signal vs. Noise shows the kind of critical thinking about technology that I'm hoping to teach my students. He does a great job ackowledging that any technology is only one of several possible solutions for a given situation and it's that situation or context that should drive one's choice of technologies.

Amen Jason!

Friday, May 20, 2005

Taking Notes

Taking Notes
Originally uploaded by

This blog serves as a sort of zoo where I can collect specimines of writing phenomena related to my research. Today's exhibit is a wonderful example of textual co-location and remediation found in the wild.

Phil Gyford has posted this Flickr image of his life-hack/notetaking system. He's got a carfully managed process of taking Post-It notes while reading, then transposing them to the web so that he (and others!) might use them.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Amazon's "Statistically Improbable Phrases"

Wired explores Amazon's new "Statistically Improbable Phrases" -- unusual word strings based on statistical analysis of word frequency and data mining. The technique is also producing concordences of Amazon's offerings.

I tried Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose and the list included "dead monks" and "treasure crypt" (well, and "heptagonal room" -- probably one of the more statistically improbable word string one might hope to unearth).

I'm intrigued by the idea of SIPs as authorial fingerprints. Hunter S. Thompson is one of the only authors I know who regularly uses "atavistic" but curiously, "invective screed" was nowhere to be found.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Video killed the text-based star

Christina Wodtke over at Elegant Hack pointed me to Jon Udell's screencast "Heavy metal umlaut: the movie" in which he tracks the development of Wikipedia's Heavy metal umlaut page. While the content of the screencast is fascinating enough, it's Udell's combined use of Wikipedia's page edit history and screen capture software to create a captivating instructional video that really got me thinking, "This is the future of online education in writing."

Friday, April 29, 2005

Better Research through Better Technology

I just came across a note I made while watching the December 20, 2004 Charlie Rose interview with Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner and Joint Director General of Cancer Research UK.

Nurse discussed the important role of technological innovations in research for driving changes in thinking about science. He described better understanding as a being a result of more precise instruments for measuring and imaging physiological (and other) phenomena.

I was wondering why that hasn't been the case with writing studies.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Autopen and the distant hand of authorship

This somewhat recent Talk of the Town from the New Yorker raises some interesting questions about what happens when a writer is physically removed from the writing he or she is doing. I find it facinating that, despite Margaret Atwood's argument, remote signing doesn't feel the same.

Even more intersting, to me at least, is how similar Autopen looks to Thomas Jefferson's polygraph machine. Really, I guess its just a matter of scale as to how removed the writer is from writing on each machine. La plus ca change...

DAMILIC Corporation's Autopen [from]
Posted by Hello

Jefferson's polygraph [from] Posted by Hello

Also mentioned in the Talk piece, LeapFrog’s FLY pentop computer and Margaret Atwood's tragically named Unotchit "gizmo".

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Annotate your childhood

My new favorite Cool Tool is Google Map's satellite imagery feature. Lots of folks have been spending time clicking and dragging around the locations of their past and present, leading to the phenomenon of Memory Maps. This annotated example from megpickard's photostream is just too cool.

Annotated memory map [from megpickard's photostream]
Posted by Hello

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Textual coordination 1.6: Planning for later use

43 Folders has a post about Anne "Bird by Bird" Lamott’s writerly practice of carrying index cards at all times. I'm fascinated by the idea that we must "capture" our ideas in the moment to prevent their slipping away and that by having them on index cards, we can "use" them later. I'm even more interested to know how many of these cards, once written on, actually get used. I stage a lot of information just in case I might ever need it again. But often don't.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Madame Dissertationne

At night, she waits for me... Posted by Hello

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Materiality of Textual Coordination

I've argued that textual coordination involves both a cognitive and manual dexterity. In order to coordinate documents, one often need to bring them in to close proximity on or off screen. I recently described the number of .pdfs I'm reading on-screen these days and one tool that helps me do this is my scroll wheel mouse. But my scroll wheel has been a bit stiff lately. The damn cheap mouse is practically welded together, so I had to go in through the underside and use a paper clip to channel just a *touch* of lubricant to the wheel axle. It helped for a while, but it's starting to stick again. Dern.

It's smooth scrolling from here on out, boys! Posted by Hello

Friday, April 01, 2005

Textual coordination 1.6: Pdfs

The nice thing about electronic journals is their instantaneity. I'm able to get hold of much of the literature I need at a moment's notice. And I can download it as a .pdf. Now, I've got a bunch of reading to do on the rhetorical concept of techne.

Because I've only got a cheap printer at home, I'm having a go at doing all my reading and note-taking on-screen. There's a reason for this. I'm trying to eliminate the double process of my old work process (read and annotate printed documents, then sit in front of the computer with them and "type up" my notes") and go directly to note-taking in the target environment -- digital -- essentially enabling me to "write" sections of my dissertation by copy/pasting from my copious notes. I've even gone so far as to write my notes in "sentence" form, so they may be more easily assembled:
Dubinsky argues that "knowing how" is a reflective and contingent kind of rhetorical knowledge that differs from "knowing 'how to'" (131).

One difficulty I've run into is managing my document views. The actions I need to perform (reading several articles in a particular sequence and moving back and forth between articles to compare points) aren't easy given a limited screen size and clunky way of moving amongst several documents. I've got four down, seven to go. We'll see how long this madness lasts.

Not the easiest way to coordinate texts. Posted by Hello

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Textual Intervention 1.2

I've described before my notion that one way to actively bring about changes in your thinking is to stage "interventional texts". A recent thread on the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing listserv discussed dissertation writing advice. It produced these examples of textual intervention:

I'm Not sure who to give credit for this but...when I was writing my master's thesis my mantra became "Don't get it right, get it written!"

I printed it out large and taped it on the wall above my computer. Worked like a charm! ; ]

And may I add to "don't get it right--get it written" and "done is good" the following:
"Butt in the chair!" (Thanks, Mary Kay.)
"The best dissertation is a done dissertation." (Thanks, Carl.)
Both these statements fit nicely on Post-Its stuck to computer monitors.

But I need to mention that this is no silver bullet. I don't believe that a prominently placed piece of paper *necessarily* changes what goes on around it. We ignore signs all the time. They might work if they are new and might not work because they've been there so long we tune them out. A third option is that they work like advertising -- by being so omnipresent that they work almost subconsciously. A friend of mine described safety signs posted all around Navy ships that created a "climate" of safety.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Textual Coordination 1.5: Splitscreen

Recently, while writing the document pictured below, I needed to simultaneously view the introduction (which contained several academic citations) with the works cited list, to recall who was arguing what. I'd forgotten about this functionality in Word, but you can split the screen to view two portions of the document simultaneously -- formerly impossible with digital documents and a major affordance of print over on-screen reading.

But I'd been using Excel a lot recently, and I remembered that split screen was available in Word too. So here's an image of splitscreen textual coordination in action.

Coordinating on-screen texts with splitscreen funtionality Posted by Hello

By the way, to do this, you grab a little tiny bar over on the scroll bar and drag it to where you want to create the split. You can then scroll each part of the document independently. Nifty!

How to split zee screen -- grab and drag. Posted by Hello

Finally, I found myself wanting to do the exact same thing in Adobe Acrobat while reading a .pdf. No such luck. The functionality hasn't migrated beyond MS programs to my knowledge.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Presence of text for social change

While studying how tech writers created new texts by carefully staging and incorporating existing texts into the target document, I began to try to think of the texts that *weren't* being staged. For example, in writing the document, the writer never consulted a text about ethics . So I've begun ruminating on staging texts as an intervention. I think this quote (from CultureCat's 100 Things list revisited) is an example of someone attempting to do just that:

#57: One of the "How to be more productive" self-help books I'm reading advises its readers to have a "mind like water," which means a mind that reacts in exact proportion to the situation. When you throw a pebble into a lake, there's a ripple effect that corresponds to the weight of the pebble. The water never underreacts or overreacts. I found the principle so helpful that I now have a post-it on my desk that says "Mind like water".

[Update: She's not alone.]

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Textual Coordination 1.4: Clay Coordinates

Here's UT's Clay Spinuzzi demonstrating a highly sophisticated annotation system the night before ATTW 2005. Note the use of two meaningfully different colors of Post-It Notes. (Well, meaningful to him at least.) This shouldn't come as a surprise; Clay's very aware of his own literate processes (see also: his "Encomium on Sticky Notes").

Clay Spinuzzi coordinates text, oh yeah!Posted by Hello

A coordinating madman. Posted by Hello