Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Ruled paper for writing Arabic

Ruled paper for writing Arabic
Originally uploaded by kaleissin.
Learning to write on lined paper when we are very young tends to make those lines feel so Authoritative -- rigid, constant, unvarying.

Different writing systems require different kinds of lines. The lines come after the writing. But when they are given to us before we can write in order to help constrain our wobbly letters, they feel like they came before.

On a related note, I've experimented with writing of a variety of kinds of paper -- ruled, college ruled, graph, engineering graph, blank... None of them have any effect on my writing. I write all over the damn page, draw diagrams wherever I please, send arrows careening 'round the page to connect thoughts. And there hasn't been a line invented yet that can constrain my wobbly letters. My penmanship suggests mercury poisoning.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Beauty of Ugly

Ze Frank gets it right about the value of putting the means of production into the hands of the masses! His "I knows me some ugly Myspace showdown" contest prompted exchange below that was so damn good and spot-on, I just had to transcribe and post it. Rock on Ze!
S-s-s-something from the comments. Marion writes, "Having an ugly Myspace contest is like having a contest to see who can eat the most cheeseburgers in 24 hours. You're mocking people who, for the most part, have no taste or artistic training." Marion, thanks for telling me what I was doing. I didn't even know I was mocking people.

For a very long time "taste" and "artistic training" have been things that only a small number of people have been able to develop. Only a few people could afford to participate in the production of many types of media. Raw materials like pigments were expensive, same with tools like printing presses. Even as late as 1963, it cost Charles Peignot over $600,000 to create and cut a single font family.

The small number of people who had access to these tools and resources created rules about what was "good taste" or "bad taste". These designers started giving each other awards and the rules they followed became even more specific -- all sorts of stuff about grids and sizes and color combinations -- lots of stuff that the consumers of this media never consciously noticed.

Over the last 20 years, however, the cost of tools related to the authorship of media has plummeted. For very little money, anyone can create and distribute things like newsletters, or videos, or bad-ass tunes about Ugly. Suddenly, consumers are learning the language of these authorship tools. The fact that tons of people know names of fonts, like Helvetica, is weird!

And when people start learning something new, they perceive the world around them differently. If you start learning how to play the guitar, suddenly the guitar stands out in all the music you listen to. For example, throughout most of the history of movies, the audience didn't really understand what a craft editing was. Now, as more and more people have access to things like iMovie, they begin to understand the manipulative power of editing. Watching reality TV almost becomes like a game as you try to second guess how the editor is trying to manipulate you.

As people start learning and experimenting with these languages of authorship, they don't necessarily follow the rules of "good taste". This scares the shit out of designers. In Myspace, millions of people have opted-out of pre-made templates that "work" in exchange for Ugly. Ugly when compared to pre-existing notions of taste is a bummer, but Ugly as a representation of mass experimentation and learning is pretty damn cool.

Regardless of what you might think, the actions you take to make your Myspace page Ugly are pretty sophisticated. Over time, as consumer-created media engulfs the other kind, it's possible that completely new norms develop around the notions of "talent" and "artistic" ability.

Happy Ugly. This is Ze Frank thinking so you don't have to.

[Naturally, after transcribing, I found the wiki.]

Monday, September 11, 2006

Technology and the Scale of Interaction

The announcement of The Chronicle of Higher Education's "Strategies for Campus Leadership" Technology Forum caught my eye today. Not that wee wonks like me have much voice at such things, but a sentence from the description of closing keynote speaker Peter Nicholson's (president and chief executive officer, Council of Canadian Academies) session disturbed me. It states,
Academics are accustomed to being regarded as the experts on any given topic. But with the arrival of blogs and Wikipedia, the Internet may be tearing down traditional structures of authority. Now everyone is an "expert." A prominent Canadian academic will discuss what this means for higher education.
Sentence one is fine, and I can even understand how sentence two may be valid, but sentence three strikes me as flat-out wrong. Information technology does not create new experts, rather, it merely changes the scale of interaction among existing participants. It increases access. So really, it just forces us to notice and acknowledge other experts who previously didn't have access to us, our classrooms, or our published conversations. And I think acknowledging that "other" experts existed prior to digital technology has important implications for "what this means for higher education".

My "scale of interaction" idea comes from McLuhen and my "different kinds of expertise" idea come from Robert Johnson (no, not that one). Which you, dear reader, now have easier access to because of the miracle hyperlinking.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Academic peer-review moves online

"Get Wiki With It; Peer review – the unsung hero and convenient villain of science – gets an online makeover."

This interesting article in the current issue of Wired discusses a few recent examples of online peer-review for academic articles (article gets posted online and opened to comments from anyone) that differ from the traditional peer-review model (article gets sent out to review by a handful of peers).

The article points to a few examples of online peer review:
  1. Nature is currently experimenting with online review.
  2. arXiv (x = chi, thus archive) hosted by Cornell University Library, allows "Open access to 383,063 e-prints in Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science and Quantitative Biology" and includes a nice statement of rationale.
  3. Biology Direct, which according to Wired, "publishes any article for which the author can find three members of its editorial board to write reviews." [Biology Direct's self-description.]
  4. PLoS ONE which describes itself as an "inclusive, peer-reviewed, open-access resource from the Public Library of Science"
As an example, the article states that in the Nature experiment, "While the work goes through the usual peer review drill, a preprint version gets posted on the Web. Anyone – even you – can comment, as long as you attach your name, affiliation, and email address."

The Wired article does a decent job glossing a few of the pros and cons of each model, including some interesting related issues ("Nature is an elite journal that accepts few submissions, a kind of exclusivity that lets universities use publication as a proxy for worth in hiring and promotion decisions"). But Nature's examination of the issues is more thorough.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Technology of the Mundane

I think that after we use a technology for quite some time, we begin to take it for granted. (Though a broken washing machine, dishwasher, etc. is quick to change that situation.) But with mundane, everyday, "little" technologies, it's easy to forget what life was like before that technology existed and possibly even what situation or problem it was invented to overcome.

Thus my fascination with this post on the Modernmechanix blog about the "new" spiral bound notebook from the September 1934 Popular Science. A flexible memorandum book was an innovation, presumably because rigid notebooks were disadvantageous in some way. (Uncomfortable in the pocket? Can anyone think of other possible disadvantages to rigidity?)

So the next time you pick up a spiral-bound notebook, pause a moment to ponder what innovative soul wouldn't stand for the rigid ones. No, they introduced the innovation of spiral binding for flexibility. This goes for other mundane technologies: paper clips, office "binder" clips, ball point pens, etc., etc. Thank you noble innovators everywhere.

[via BoingBoing, image from]

Friday, September 01, 2006

Slightly interesting video display

I bookmarked this video a while ago because it caught my eye but needed further consideration. The Helio Display "mid-air projector" (video below) from io2Technologies projects images from a variety of possible sources onto a condensed plane of air created by a blower. One can interact with the image (click, rotate) as you would any computer with a pointing device. (I was curious how this works, but the product literature and FAQ don't say much.)

Once I moved past the "gee whiz" factor and seductive analogy to the Princess Leia projection scene in Star Wars, I'm less impressed. In terms of real-world utility, the system offers no real advantage over screens. The fact that the display must be projected means it's a two (three if you count the video source) part system that actually requires quite a bit of space. Rather, I most expect to find this display as foot-traffic bait at trade shows and Sharper Image. (This has trade show written all over it.)

Or maybe it's the utter awfulness of the local-news "technology segment" coverage of the invention that really soured me, beginning with "Check this out!" and going downhill from there ("how cool is this?" and "man!"). From me, the Helio Display gets a well-earned, "Huh!"

Oh and Google has additional video.