rambling thoughts on blogging and silos

Alec Couros posted a quick throwaway on Facebook (I’d link to it, but Facebook doesn’t work that way)

couros-facebook

It got a lot of likes, and then the comment thread kind of exploded. I posted several comments and replies, and realized that was a silly way to post that particular discussion because it’s exactly the kind of thing we are talking about as killing blogging and personal publishing.

I’ve pulled my comments together below. They’re from various bits in the conversation, so don’t necessarily flow as a single post. Whatever.

I’ve been thinking about the web we lost a LOT lately, but keep having a nagging feeling that some of it is nostalgia and romanticizing the good parts while overlooking the less good. I think we should learn from what was good (and so, so much was very good), learn from what wasn’t as good, and move forward to build new goodness on modern tech.

I don’t miss Reader. There are alternatives. I miss interesting people publishing coherent posts on diverse topics, rather than scattered like birdshot splattered across disconnected algorithmic streams on corporate silos.

I’ve been digging Medium. Haven’t posted anything there, but it seems like a great mix of people and ideas (if a little heavy on the entrepreneur-fu articles). But I wonder what will happen to all of the posts after Verizon/Nokia/Facebook/Google buy it (eventually. It’s the exit strategy of every web company on the planet now). Will it be shuttered? Improved? Stagnate and die?

Reader isn’t the problem. People just stopped owning their words, publishing on their own websites. The internet archive for the last 5 years or so will largely be a gaping hole of dark matter where corporate silos like Facebook used to be.

And if someone didn’t have tech skills, they didn’t have a voice. And if they didn’t want to put their thoughts out on the open web (where they could be used out of context, doxxed, harassed, etc) they weren’t part of the conversation. There were reasons why the blogosphere (even the edublogosphere and openblogosphere) was dominated by white male professionals.

Readership is down by a few orders of magnitude as well. Back in the olden days, I often had thousands of people reading posts. Now, maybe 100 on a really busy day. Not sure what that means – I cross-post to Facebook and twitter, so I assume people just read the snippets there and don’t click through to read the full thing. Summary blurbs, short attention span, moving on…

Anil Dash – The lost infrastructure of social media

A great summary of various bits of tech that made the early blogosphere1 so alive and vibrant in ways that hasn’t been captured or reproduced since. How can tools give individuals control over what they create, where they publish, who they follow, what they read, and how they share? These are currently controlled almost exclusively by one of two companies for the majority people on the modern internet. Something amazing, powerful, and enabling was lost in that transition.

More than a decade ago, the earliest era of blogging provided a set of separate but related technologies that helped the nascent form thrive. Today, most have faded away and been forgotten, but new incarnations of these features could still be valuable.As social networks grew in popularity and influence, the old decentralized blogosphere fell apart and those early services consolidated, leaving all the power in the hands of a few private companies. That’s left publishers and independent voices even more vulnerable to the control points of a few social networks and search engines.

Source: Anil Dash – The lost infrastructure of social media. — Medium

Much of what I’ve been trying to do has been fumbling around trying to shift back to many of these bits of tech for my own use. RSS is still king because it lets me control what I read without opaque algorithms shaping and pushing. Blogs are still king because I can publish and archive whatever I want, without worrying or even thinking about where it goes or who gets to modify or transform it.

obi-blogosphere

And, yes, I get that I saw Anil’s post on Medium rather than via RSS. Whatever.

  1. man, that’s something I haven’t said in ages… it used to be a thing. I desperately want for it to be a thing again. []

Kin Lane: Working To Avoid The Drowning Effects Of Real Time

A million times, this:

You hear a lot of talk about information overload, but I don’t feel the amount of information is the problem. For me, the problem comes in with the emotional investment demanded by real-time, and the ultimate toll it can take on your productivity, or just general happiness and well-being. You can see this play out in everything from expectations that you should respond to emails, all the way to social network memes getting your attention when it comes to the election, or for me personally, the concerns around security and privacy using technology.

Source: Working To Avoid The Drowning Effects Of Real Time ·

I’ve definitely been feeling this fatigue more lately. Describing it as a “real-time toll” is a good way to look at it. It’s definitely not information overload – it’s sensory and emotional overload as a result of a flood of realtime demands on attention and connection.

I am actively reducing the number of real-time platforms/connections/whatevers that I pay attention to, and am actively trying to do as much as I can on my own schedule. RSS is on my schedule. Checking and responding to email is on my schedule. Twitter/Facebook/etc are more real-time environments, so I’m reducing the amount of time I spend there.

Update: the Related Posts feature pulled up this post from 2008. “Real-time toll” is a perfect way to describe what I was getting at back then:

Every time I read an update by someone that I care about, I think about that person – if only for a second – and my sense of connection is strengthened.

Updating my WordPress plugins

I’ve cobbled a few WordPress plugins together, primarily to do stuff on UCalgaryBlogs by exposing built-in WordPress functionality through shortcodes so that people don’t have to manually edit themes.

And then I basically ignored the plugins for a few years, because they don’t actually do anything, so there’s not much to update or fix. But it looks bad if a plugin hasn’t been tested with recent versions of WordPress, so I just did some testing of them all. They all work on WP 4.4.2, and I’ll re-test after 4.5 drops. I did find some funkiness in one of the plugins, and that’s been taken care of (and I made it a bit more generalizable, so yay progress). I’m hoping to give the plugins some more love – I definitely need to spend more time actually building things instead of just talking about the stuff that people do with the things I made a few years ago…

Post Revision Display may become more active – a new developer was just added to the project, which means some new energy and ideas…

wordpress-plugins-update

Source: WordPress › Profiles » D’Arcy Norman

On starting a PhD

Last night, I officially accepted an offer to enter a PhD program at the University of Calgary. So, it’s a thing, now. Starting in Fall 2016, I will be a PhD student in the Computational Media Design program. CMD is an absolutely amazing interdisciplinary program. From the About blurb:

At the University of Calgary, we formed the Computational Media Design Program to enable students to conduct research at the intersection of art, music, dance, drama, design and computer science.
The Computational Media Design (CMD) graduate program is composed of the Faculty of Science: Department of Computer Science, the Faculty of Environmental Design and the Faculty of Arts: School of Creative and Performing Arts and Department of Art. Students can earn graduate degrees, both Master of Science and PhD. The research-based graduate degrees explore the relationships between and among art, design, science and technology.

Basically, put a bunch of people from radically different fields together in one program and let them play. Computer scientists. Hardware designers. Artists. Performers. And let them explore issues in an intentionally inter- and cross-disciplinary way. Things like the Giant Walkthrough Brain came out of this program. And they do things like designing and building robots to explore telepresence – but not just in a Silicon Valley “I bet we could sell this crap” way – this is “what does this stuff really mean? what does it change about how we think/work/play/communicate/etc.?” There are a few of their major projects listed on the program website, but many others under development that aren’t listed yet.

I’m extremely fortunate to be working with 2 amazing supervisors – Dr. Ehud Sharlin and Dr. Patrick Finn.

Dr. Sharlin works on human-computer interaction through the utouch research group. Robots. Tangible computer interfaces. Virtual and mixed reality.

Dr. Finn works on technology and artistic performance – “creative and collaborative exploration and the use of performance studies in everyday life” through the School of Creative and Performing Arts.

Many people have asked me questions at various stages of the application process (I’ve been extremely fortunate to have the support of amazing people, both personally and professionally). In no particular order:

Are you INSANE? Why would you DO this to yourself?

Maybe? I don’t think I’m necessarily insane to be doing this. I know it’s a huge commitment, and I’m already in way over my head, but that’s the point. I need to push myself so I don’t just hunker down and become complacent.

Why do this? Not sure there’s a simple answer to that. Basically:

  1. When I finished my MSc, I didn’t feel like I was done. I still wanted to keep going. I’m fortunate to be in a position where that could have easily meant just doing my job and exploring with others through that role, but I felt like I needed to be doing my own research. So, I’ll get to do both – working with researchers on campus through The Day Job, and working on my own research as well. Hopefully, I’ll make a tiny dent somewhere.
  2. Through the Day Job, we’ll be working closely on research projects from many disciplines. While I could learn much through just paying attention as we work on those projects, I think I need to have a firmer grounding in research – designing, implementing, analyzing and disseminating findings. The best way to do that is to jump in and be a researcher.
  3. I don’t want to be a faculty member. I don’t think the prof thing is for me. But, I want to make sure doors aren’t closed to me because I don’t have a piece of paper. I’m not looking for career advancement or anything like that – I have the best job I’ve ever had – but who knows what opportunities might pop up a decade or 2 down the road. I wouldn’t have my current job if I hadn’t finished my MSc (which happened literally months before I needed it to apply for this job).

I know that I’m going to have to work extremely hard to maintain a sense of balance between my family/work/research lives. Normally, a PhD student is working on their program full time. I won’t be quitting my day job to do this, which means it will take me a little longer to complete, but also means that I will have access to some pretty incredible resources through the Taylor Institute. Kind of an ideal scenario.

What is your PhD going to be on?

Hey. Slow down. I just got into the program. I don’t actually start until Fall 2016. Waaaay too early to be locking down what I’ll be researching. I have some ideas, but want to stay open because that’s the whole point (to me). I have a few broad areas that interest me. Maybe some way to connect them?

  1. Making sense of an individual’s context in (learning) communities. Much of the data about a person’s connections, and the things their friends/colleagues/neighbours are doing, is already out there. But only Big Companies get access to it. What if individuals could access and make use of their own data? What would that look like? What could they do with it?
  2. Exploring physical learning spaces. How does the design of a space change the learning (or teaching) experience? What kinds of activities are possible in a flexible/adaptive/technology-rich learning space? (This is where the Day Job kicks in, since we’re now less than 2 weeks away from moving into a pretty amazing technology-rich facility with incredible learning spaces designed to explore this…)
  3. Exploring how physical and digital learning spaces blend and overlap. How does the design and implementation of technology (from physical architecture to online environments) allow people to stretch and distort space and time? And what does that mean for the learning (and teaching) experience? And, how do individuals (students and instructors) maintain a sense of self and autonomy in such an environment?
  4. Lots of other ideas bouncing around. So, maybe something tangentially related. Or completely separate.

Do you realize how much work a PhD will be?

I think so. Maybe not. I know it’s going to suck up basically every second of free time for the next few years. I already feel like I’m in way over my head – being accepted into a program with people 10-20 years younger than myself, who are literally the best in their fields. I haven’t written actual code in many years (aside from hacking some PHP for WordPress plugins and themes – not exactly Computer Science). I have so much to learn before even getting started. And, because I’m doing this at the UofC, there is some pretty spectacular pressure (from myself) to do well. This is home turf. This is where my professional life is. Failure at this PhD thing would kind of suck, so that’s basically not an option. I can’t just withdraw and pretend it never happened. Colleagues have vouched for me, and I need to nail this. No pressure.

So, there it is. I’ll be easing into the program this summer, meeting with my supervisors to design the course portion of my program, and meeting the other students and researchers in the CMD program.

EdTech Speculative Fiction anthology

I’ve been reading the awesome “Pwning Tomorrow” speculative fiction anthology published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Fantastic stories written by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling and many others, exploring the implications of technology policies. They look at biology (hacking genomes etc.), privacy (internet-of-things writ large), communications, surveillance, and many others. Some are subtle. Some, less so. But every story has made me think.

It hit me – we need something like this, to explore issues in educational technology. We have scholarly publications, we have critique and commentary, but we need future-looking explorations of the implications of what this stuff may mean for teaching, learning, and society.

So. I have absolutely no idea how to do this, or what it might look like. But I’d be interesting in compiling an anthology of speculative fiction on educational technology – the tech itself, policies, funding, or any other area that an author wants to explore.

If you’re interested in contributing to an anthology (or know someone who would be able to make a contribution), let me know, and I’ll try to put something together.

Thoughts on the iPad Pro

I cringe at how this post will likely be read – as a fanboy OMG DIS AWESUM! post. Whatever. I promised several people that I’d write up something about my early experiences with the iPad Pro and pencil. 

As part of my role in helping to refine the learning technologies platforms and support on campus, I force myself to use as many different devices as I can in order to make sure I understand what people will be bringing to campus. I used a Surface Pro 3 for about 6 months last year – and while the hardware was OK, it felt comically big. The digital ink, though, was fantastic. In the end, I couldn’t get past how horribly the software was (not) designed for touch interaction. I wanted something that size (but not as thick – Surface Pro 3 felt like carrying around a 12″ picture frame), but with digital ink that was as good as the Surface pen. But I went back to a combination of iPad Air 2 and MacBook Air as my non-desk computers.

And, I’ve been on the hunt for a good digital ink experience for the iPad. I’ve bought probably 10 different styluses. Stylii. Nothing was good. I tried the 53 Things Pencil. The Wacom Bamboo Finepoint. Rubber-tipped styluses. Bluetooth-enabled styluses with pressure sensitivity (but none of them worked well in more than their demo apps). Even the Wacom Cintiq desktop display (which is nice, but weighs about 100 pounds, and makes a godawful SCRATCH SCRATCH noise when writing with it). I gave up, and went back to using our 99-cent Taylor Institute conference swag giveaway pens with cheap rubber nub.

Then, Apple announced the iPad Pro. My initial reaction to the announcement was something like “looks cool. Kind of huge. And holy crap is that expensive! I don’t think so.” It does seem rather expensive, at about $1500 Canadian (probably more now, since the Canadian dollar is diving quickly…), once the keyboard cover and pencil stylus are added. I read some reviews from people who had been seeded with pre-release units, and they all raved about the pencil. And early adopters consistently backed that up. The specs listed the screen as being basically the same size as a MacBook Air, or the Surface Pro 3, while being much lighter than either. So I figured it was worth a shot. Worst case, I’d add it to our Technology Lending Library for people to try out. I ordered one in early December, and it arrived about a day before I headed out of town to present at McMasters’ MIIETL conference. Well, the iPad itself arrived. The keyboard and pencil would be strangely delayed until January. No worries. I figured I’d travel with the iPad and just treat it like a big iPad until the rest of it arrived.

It worked great – at the conference, I presented using the iPad (with HDMI lightning dongle), controlling Keynote from my phone. Worked perfectly, and seemed to be a much smoother presentation process than many other conference presenters had with laptops and USB remotes etc.

I kept using the Pro just as a big iPad, and it was pretty solid. Then, the keyboard arrived. It’s actually a really nice mobile keyboard- it’s quieter than the Anker Bluetooth keyboard I had been using on the iPad Air. It feels like a cross between the membrane Atari 400 keyboard and the IBM PC Jr chicklet keyboard. But more solid than either. It’s quieter than the keyboard on my MacBook Air, meaning I don’t worry as much when typing when in meetings or consultations.

I’ve been using the iPad Pro as my non-desk computer since it arrived, and with the keyboard it handles probably 95% of what I would do with a MacBook Air. The iPad can’t run Gephi. And some of the finer layout in Pages and Word documents is just too clumsy to do on the iPad. But for everything else, I’m more… what. At home? Productive? No. It’s not just about productivity. Happier? Some combination of these things. It’s hard to quantify. It just feels right, to me.

ipad pro and macbook air

Then, the pencil arrived. It looks like a pencil. It feels like a pencil, with good weight and balance. I plugged it into the Lightning port on the iPad and it paired automatically. And then I fired up OneNote to try it out. Holy. After using squishy rubber nub styluses and hard tap-tap Bluetooth ones, it felt completely natural to be writing with the pencil. It felt better than the Surface Pro pen. It is the nicest digital ink I’ve ever used.

  
In the 2 weeks since the pencil arrived, I have found myself taking notes and planning with ink instead of typed text. To me, that’s a huge deal. I think by writing and doodling. I have a stack of full Moleskine notebooks, sketchpads, etc. on a shelf at home. There’s something about drawing a sketch for an idea, filling in notes in 2 dimensions, as opposed to serially entering ascii characters via keyboard. Using a pen is tactile. Drawings and printing have dimensionality. They exist in relation to other ideas that share a page, rather than just being further down the textfile.

I’ve been thinking more visually. I’ve been sketching. Planning. I had been doing less sketching over the last couple of years, as I moved everything into Evernote, and now into OneNote. It had become more important to have everything in one place, rather than having some things in OneNote and some in a Moleskine (and yes, I can take photos of notebook pages to add to OneNote etc… but it’s just not the same. It’s cumbersome. It doesn’t get done, and then I’m missing stuff). Now, everything is in one place, available on any device I use, and is searchable. Even my printing and sketches. Combine that with Procreate for making complex sketches and art with layers and insane flexibility? The pencil has amazing pressure sensitivity, and you can shade as you would with a real pencil. Perfect.

sketching

I had to dig through my old notes that I had taken on the Surface Pro 3, to compare with the Pencil. Here is a comparison of a short snippet, with the same text printed using the Pencil, with the el cheapo rubber nub stylus, and with the Surface pen. My penmanship is horrible, but that’s part of it. It’s mine. My notes feel like they belong to me.

So. For me, the iPad Pro is the perfect size. The battery easily lasts all day. The keyboard is actually pretty good. And the pencil is the best digital ink I’ve ever used. It does seem a little expensive, but if it replaces a laptop that’s not too bad. And, I’m guessing the pencil will be compatible with other non-Pro devices from now on. Add on a cheap sleeve case, and it’s a pretty ideal mobile system.

Update: I forgot to add a bit about how Microsoft Office apps require an active Office 365 license in order to edit files. So. Yeah. They do. All files in Office apps are read-only. Even though the iOS apps are free on smaller devices, the Pro crossed an imaginary line in Microsoft’s licensing department, meaning an additional subscription is necessary. So, even though my campus has a site license for Microsoft Office on all platforms, iOS > 9″ is handled differently.

 
Nothing that a (thankfully discounted) $80 university O365 license didn’t solve (I’m not included in our campus O365 license because I’m not a student – faculty and staff aren’t included – which causes some issues for sharing things with students etc.) 
I had tried shifting to Pages/Numbers, which can open and export Office files, but it was just too awkward to use on a daily basis. Office files are just a fact of life at a university (and, I’m guessing, most places with more than a few people on staff).

Community Detection on Twitter

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to visualize online presence and community. There are lots of great tools to do post-hoc analysis, but I’m thinking about something more realtime. It doesn’t exist yet, though. In the meantime, I’m playing around with the current tools to get a feel for what stories they can pull from the social graph data.

Yesterday, I followed the howto from Caleb Jones, to pull the social graph data from my Twitter account. The process took about 15 hours, because of Twitter’s helpful throttling of API calls. Thankfully, the twecoll python tool takes that into account and gracefully pauses when Twitter API tells it to cool it.

Once twecoll pulled out the raw data, I fed it into Gephi, and then followed Caleb’s howto for community detection.

I tweaked the layout a bit, played with the rendering settings, and came up with this:

dlnorman Twitter Graph 2015-01-05 v2
Community detection on @dlnorman, showing clusters of “edtech”, “LMS”, UCalgary” and “Calgary” network members.

There are a few main concentrations of people. The blue-ish one on the right is loosely “edtech folks” – but it’s strongly biased by “BC Edtech Folks”. The red patch at the top is “LMS-ish folks”, strongly represented by D2Lers. The far left is “UCalgary” – and it was able to pull out a cluster of official-ish accounts, student union accounts, and various other subclusters from UCalgary. The bottom left is loosely “Calgary” – and includes subclusters for politics, media, design, and cycling. Lots of overlap between design and cycling subclusters. Go figure.

Lessons learned from this exercise:

  1. It takes waaaay too long to do anything with this kind of community analysis on the fly. Post-hoc after-the-fact analysis is where things are now.
  2. Even with super-helpful scripts, the process is not something most people will do. And the new Gephi 0.9 is fantastic – but, again,It’s an excellent tool for researchers, and most people aren’t going to use it. The user experience for personal-social-network-analysis needs to come a long way before it can be used by everyone.
  3. Even with the pretty picture and community detection – so what? What can you actually do with this information. I have some ideas about that, but need to do some exploration first.

Update: I tweaked the layout. Here’s a better version of my twitter network graph with community detection:

dlnorman 2