Chantal Hébert and Social Media

Last night (April 15th, 2015 for those future people not paying attention to the blog date) I attended the Tansley lecture hosted by my school the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy with the guest presenter, Chantal Hébert‘s discussion the role of social media in changing politics.

I have to say that I’ve often considered Chantal to be the best no-shit political commentator in Canada today and to have her present at what is for me one of the most important policy-related meetings annually was very gratifying. She was definitely her very brightest with just enough aloofness to make sure you knew she was giving you the honest goods. A good amount of her talk relied on her experience as a political journalist and she openly admitted that she would not have everything tied up in a nice box for the audience. She couldn’t possibly.

She began by describing political campaign reporting in the past as high-jacked by political actors. Media relied on the telephone to find out information and ask important questions. To keep media in the dark, you just had to keep them away from a telephone. According to Hébert, you’d think that 24 hour access to information online would mean a more informed society that is more connected to the issues.

But not so. Instead, she argued, politicians have come to understand that in a world of constant information, the only time a journalist will call is when they have some controversy to get a reaction to. That means that the person who takes the call is no longer the person who actually knows what’s going on, but instead someone who is used to communicating in a crisis.

Hébert sees this as a serious problem (as do I). Social media to her mind means that the chattering classes and government are increasingly disconnected from the voters, who, more often than not, are too busy working their 3 jobs to get excited about the latest Gawker report on some offensive thing a comedian said on Facebook.

I will be presenting on something similar in Arizona in May for the Digital Government conference. Although a lot of it will be a bit too technical for a blog post, one thing I will note comes from the protests on Elsipogtog First Nations against some hydraulic fracturing tests occurring near their lands. The eventual government response went in their favor – a moratorium was called on all fracturing in the province. While the anti-fracturing protests were all over social media, there was almost no mention of support for the government’s decision. Not even an “it’s about time.”

This theme of public interest in drama, but disinterest in solutions is something that bears scrutiny in our society. Hébert cites the example of young Quebec anti-austerity protestors who could not name the Premier who called for those measures. Too much of the social movements we see are caught up in ideas about social problems and less involved in the institutions they expect to do something about those problems. I don’t know if this is too new, but it’s a lost opportunity that all this political action has little to no connection to the people with the legitimate authority to act on the citizens behalf.

My dissertation will be looking at this problem with the hopes that the research I provide can suggest some recommendations around what could be done to connect those engaged in social movements to the legitimate political power. Given big issues like climate change, economic disparity, depleting resources, lack of productivity, a growing yet marginalized First Nations population etc., it is essential that we get as many bodies interested in developing policy solutions as we can.

Six Ways to Do a Presentation

People get anxious about making presentations. There are ways to manage this anxiety, but part of the reason people have this anxiety is that they think there is a formula for a “good” presentation and that they have to somehow fit the mold of that formula. It’s kind of like trying to be a rock diva without the sequins or a tech guru without the black turtleneck and jeans.

Too bad for these people that they watch too much mainstream news.

The reality is that the “good” presentation format is only “good” because a whole bunch of people have packaged it into a brand of sorts. People who are not part of that club have to think of other ways to get their message across. If you are doing a presentation for the first time, chances are your audience is not everyone in the world. More likely, you have a smaller niche audience with more specific needs. That means you have to think about your presentations a little bit differently. While I can’t give you a strict idea about how to reach  your audience in the right way, I can offer ten ways you could do a presentation and see if this gives you an idea about how you might approach yours. Here they are:

Lecture with Script

When you have done a lot of research, it is easy to get nervous about the details. Do not try to explain a mathematical algorithm in the middle of a presentation. You will draw a blank. Instead look to a script. You do not need to follow it 100%, but scripting it can help you get through the details without making a mistake. Tanya Boza has some interesting things to say about being a good lecturer, but advises against using a script. Well, I say scripts have their place depending on the situation. Although Tanya is right – it is much better if you can use your script without looking as if that’s what you are doing.

ADVANTAGES: You can script the details. Will go off very well if you are a good writer. Tends to be formal, and usually rhetorical. Great if you are a politician or have to explain things in a very specific way so not to offend people.

DISADVANTAGES: Can be boring and/or un-engaging. You can lose personal contact with the audience if not rehearsed well. Can be over-prepared. Difficult to do ad hoc presenting within a script.

Lecture with Notes

If you are teaching a big picture concept without getting into the details, it may be better to go without a script. Instead, just quick notes will do you well. This is especially good if you have props to show, are teaching English, expect questions about the material. Johnathan Fields gives a great overview of how Martin Luther King used improvisation in his speech and changed the world.

ADVANTAGES: Great for an overview topic. People may feel more comfortable to ask questions. Good for abstract concepts that are hard to display visually. Excellent for people who like to perform and/or do improv. Can be especially good for a dramatic topic.

DISADVANTAGES: Tends to cover topics too generally. Information can be hard to retain if the lecture goes on too long. Can appear disorganized or unprepared, especially if people ask for details.

Power Point Presentation

Like it or not, the Power Point is a mainstay for presentations. I wish generally that we would not rely on it so much, but so be it. The key to remember is that power point should be a support and not a crutch. However, if you are so nervous about presenting that power point is your crutch, I have a few tips to offer you on the issue.

ADVANTAGES: Great for people with an eye for design. Visuals can really help support the topic if done properly. Easily shared on the Internet. Best option for sharing graphs and charts.

DISADVANTAGES: Waaaay over done. Gets tedious if the visuals are uninteresting; gets distracting if the visuals are overpowering. Appears “salesy” at times due to its prominence in the field of marketing. People ask you for your notes so they don’t have to watch the lecture.

Present Over Sound

It’s not often thought of, but it can be very effective to use sound to illustrate a point. This is the essence of podcasting, in fact, although sound does not have to be digital. If you have your own instrument, that can be even more fun. Take a look at Anna Russell explain Wagner’s Ring using music, for instance:

ADVANTAGES: It is not using powerpoint. Sound is a great way to describe emotions, tension etc. Obviously it is excellent for showing music. It’s an excellent way for musicians to show their talents while making an argument. Very effective with visuals, perhaps removing the need for a script or notes.

DISADVANTAGES: Requires a lot of preparation. Can be distracting to try and speak over a music set. Queues can be missed, causing awkward breaks in the performance.

Q&A

I once did a presentation by simply asking the same question in three different ways. This may seem lazy (and it is) but the reality is that the audience collectively often has much more information and knowledge than the person speaking.

ADVANTAGES: Almost no preparation required. You need an eye for facilitation to ensure as many voices as possible are heard. Crowd wisdom often brings amazing insights.

DISADVANTAGES: Need excellent questions. Always the threat of no one having any thoughts (although this is rare if you are patient). People looking for something unique will often be disappointed. Can come off as overly “new age” or maudlin. You need to be comfortable with a bit of awkward silence.

Structured Alternatives (AKA “Large Group Methods”)

There are a variety of presentation structures that can open the door to more audience participation. Fish Bowls, Talking Circles and World Cafe are some examples, although there can be many more.  These can range from very easy to facilitate (talking circle pretty much just needs a stick or other object to make happen) to very challenging (World Cafe is pretty complex to organize). Either way, they all represent different ways of providing something a little different from lecture-style.

ADVANTAGES: Can be very inspiring. Can open up some voices who otherwise would not want to speak out. Self-coordinating while happening.

DISADVANTAGES: The structures can be a little difficult to explain. Not everyone is free to be honest and open, so these styles can leave them vulnerable. There can be a “musical chairs” kind of effect, so you need to be comfortable with moments of chaos.

So here are six examples of alternative styles of presentations that you can offer your audience. Not everything has to be a power point! What kinds of presentations have you encountered that seemed just a little outside the box?

Philosophy Cafe by Anna Mudde

On Monday, I attended the Philosophy Cafe at the Artesian Gallery. My son and I went there religiously last year, but in the fall our schedules meant that we couldn’t attend unfortunately. Monday’s talk was by Dr. Anna Mudde and titled “What’s it Like to Be You?” I don’t want to share all of her thoughts on the subject, but it had to do with the idea of metaphysics – namely, what do we see and what is it like to experience “red” for instance?

Except a little bit more than that, because how we experience the world, Mudde argues, has implications on our moral and ethical behavior. For example, how the racist experiences people of colour will influence their moral and ethical decisions such that they are quite different from the person who is non-racist. How this process happens is a focal point for the metaphysical discussion on “what’s it like to be you?” This then becomes a discussion of ontology or roughly, the study of being, especially in terms of categorizing things. In the case of the racism example, the ontological question may be about categorizing people in terms of equal, inferior or superior.

I offered a challenge to this view, namely how would we tell the difference between a difference in ontology and a heuristic (a short cut or general rule to help us make choices). In theory, heuristics work most of the time, but fail some of the time, but in the end they help us get to decisions quickly so we can save time. For instance, our racist may not be a racist, but instead has a shortcut in her head that she should not trust strangers. As it turns out, the person of colour is noticeably a stranger (still an ontological concern) but the moral element of racism in this case is not an ontological concern, but one of an error that can be corrected with new heuristics.

But there is a counter-challenge. The heuristics very likely also come from ontology. What is a stranger except a category of person that exists outside one’s circle of friends. There’s something a little bit dark about our “non-racist” who would build a heuristic in her head that causes her to distrust strangers, and especially visible strangers when in fact there are invisible strangers that could be just as dangerous.

All the while, it was an interesting discussion as the Philosophy Cafes usually are. If you are interested, the next one is titled “The mind and the natural world: a brief history of thinking about thinking” by Dylan Ludwig and will happen on February 23rd at 7:30pm at the Artesian. If you come, be sure to say hello!

Eleven Things that Turned Podcamp Halifax 2015 Into Fabulous Clickbait

Ever since that summer time Third Wednesday meeting with Jon McGinley, Craig Moore and Ben Boudreau I’ve been calling Podcamp Halifax “my baby.” This is only true in the sense that I care a lot about the event and the many people who put the effort into making it great. In reality, Podcamp Halifax belongs to a large number of organizers, presenters, sponsors, and participants and they will continue to make it great long after I start to forget about it.

Nonetheless, I thought I’d share eleven things that I noticed about Podcamp Halifax that made it so great this year. Here is the list.

  1. Podcamp Halifax is not just click-bait.  Yes, my headline title is total baloney. Click-bait is a term used to describe a media story that has a catchy or controversial headline, forcing fans, trolls, and raging mad flamers to click on the article only to find that the story itself is a poorly researched and purposely antagonistic piece of glurge surrounded by ads for building your abs in 20 easy steps. By contrast, Podcamp Halifax has always been a sincere attempt at helping people understand the world of social media just that little bit better. The speakers are volunteers and you get out of it pretty much what you give, which is often quite a bit.
  2. It has been a sell-out  every time it happens. Sell-out is not really the right term for it, but every time Podcamp Halifax issues free tickets, those tickets get snatched up right away. It’s always been a challenge because for free events not everyone is bound to show up (the rule of thumb is about 60% attend), but we always overbook knowing this.
  3. The Speakers Rock. While there’s definitely room for improvement on the diversity front (more on this later), the speakers who sign up to present at Podcamp Halifax very generously take time away from their busy schedules (including quite successful businesses at times) to share what they’ve learned and the truth is that people walk away loving it. While sometimes you do have presentations that are little more about sales than sharing, the spirit really revolves around sharing first, and I appreciate people’s work for that.
  4. My Audience Rocked. Sometimes I try to put out a presentation with slidedeck. Other times I just crowdsource. Two years ago it was slide deck – that’s because I was a PhD student doing all kinds of theory I was excited about. This year, I crowd-sourced.  I spent about about 5 minutes describing people like Pierre Bourdieu, Elinor Ostrom and Robert Putnam and then just asked “so – how does Twitter make you want to change your behavior?” The answers were multifaceted, brilliant and at times conflicting. I tried to offer a few things here and there from my research, but overall the audience drove my presentation and I was all the more proud for it. Bonus: my personal goal was not to finish my slides and that happened — IN SPADES. 🙂
  5. The Organizers Rocked. Tracy, Joanne, Kelli, Carmen, Ian, Ben, Kendra, Kula Partners, Verb, Michelle Doucette, The Halifax Hub, Mindsea, Halifax Public Libraries and a whole whack of other sponsors (if you are not in here now, wait for it – I’ll add you soon enough!). Organizing Podcamp in a new space probably came with new unique challenges and everything continued to go off without so much as a (noticeable to me) hitch.
  6. A Conversation Happened. One of the great things for me is that @AtomBombshell raised the issue of privilege and inclusion at podcamp. I’ve thought about this a lot, ever since the first Podcamp. The reality is that Podcamp has behaved in a laissez-faire way for a long time now. The intention has always been to be as inclusive as possible, and perhaps we just assumed that an open forum would be at least more inclusive than a closed one. The reality is not so much. We’ve tried a bunch of things before, including a presentation in Arabic that included precisely zero attendees. This cost me a colleague and friend, as, for whatever reason, I failed to convince the people I invited to show up in Dartmouth on a cold winter’s day in January. It was horrendously embarrassing for the presenter in particular and for me as an extension. If you follow the #podcamphfx twitter tag, you can see a lot more in the discussion. I do have a few thoughts on this though.
    1. Inclusion is a tricky and complex thing, and takes more than theory to make it happen in the real world. For reasons I cannot always understand, communities develop a shape and colour of their own and not everyone is going to feel comfortable even when they are invited. This is the story of libraries for pretty much forever, which tend to attract middle-class white women more than men. ≈
    2. If we broaden the idea of inclusiveity just a bit, there are some things we can celebrate. From a library perspective, Podcamp Halifax was an opportunity to show that libraries had something for men too. While I am aware of privilege in broad terms, I ask that you suspend that line of thinking just for a bit. I remember asking some teens to help volunteer for us at one podcamp and seeing this young awkward highschooler who generally felt excluded from society because he liked html and javascript say that he felt like he belonged for a change. He could see people doing jobs with that html and javascript and he became really excited about his future.
    3. Another story I have is of a man telling us that a library was his worst nightmare because he had dyslexia. Podcamp for him meant that he could belong to a library again. While it’s not really the same thing as inclusion, there is really a great element that connects people that otherwise would not be connected. Not all diversity is visible and we shouldn’t always assume that white means homogenous.
    4. In terms of attendees, Podcamp Halifax has always had a strong contingent of women compared to other technology conferences I’ve been involved in. I am not sure why this is the case, although perhaps the library has a little bit to do with it.
    5. None of these things excuse in the least bit our lack of success in bringing new voices into the Podcamp speaking circuit. Things that tend to work imho are 1) inviting people to co-present, especially citing that as individuals they bring value to Podcamp and should share what they know, 2) starting with the people who attend – something about Podcamp attracted them to the space, it is great to ask people what else they can bring into it so other people can benefit, 3) emphasizing the “un” in unconference. I’ve seen entire presentations based on crowd-sourcing ideas from the audience. If you get people opening up about their experiences with social media, they become more aware that they know much more than they think they do.
    6. Humility is a good thing, and the team at Podcamp right now understands that very well. I asked a person of colour to present once, and even though it wasn’t my intention, he did give me a little jab about being a token for our Podcamp. He proved conclusively that this was not the case, if it was ever the case. The presentation was amazing – one of the highlights of that day. Nonetheless, inclusion sometimes means you will take jabs, not always deserved (not always not deserved either), but at the end of the day, those jabs will mean a better event. Accept them and don’t always try and make excuses.
    7. All things said, Podcamp Halifax is a community, not an organization. If you see a gap, expect to be asked to come with ideas on how to fill it. Frankly, the people at the heart of organizing Podcamp are already putting plenty of work into just getting peoples names on the tags, forget trying to solve Global inequality. There are no end of problems to notice. What is in low supply are solutions to those problems. There is also a privilege inherent in knowing that you can complain about something and leave it to someone else to try and fix it. Except you won’t always get away with that at Podcamp.  🙂
  7. The Library is Fabulous. This was the dream realized. Part of the pitch for Podcamp Halifax was that it was the sort of thing that could show how a library can play a community building role and that a Central Library would only knock that out of the park even further. It was a fabulous space.
  8. There is a Future for Podcamp. It’s hard to say how this will transpire, but there are many directions that Podcamp can go in the future. For instance, perhaps there is a way to reach out to other communities like music, theatre, dance and so on. Maybe something like South by Southwest? Other options have included adding another day, bringing back Battle decks and having a keynote speaker again.
  9. Podcamp is More than Just One Day. The most rewarding thing I’ve seen over the years is how much community building podcampers usually end up providing in the long run. Businesses have grown, social groups have started and thrived, blogs and podcasts have launched, friends have become partners and so on. The real value of Podcamp is what happens afterwards. I look forward to seeing what else comes up. That’s why I try to remind presenters that “whoever comes are the right people.” If you only get one or two people to come to your presentation, then you present to those people and they may have the exact ideas to get you going further.
  10. What the heck is a podcamp? I used to spend a lot of time trying to explain this to people. I’m not sure I should bother that much any more. It’s just a thing about social media that a lot of people love. The reason people love it (I think) is because they are invested in it. So they care about what you need and want to try and give it to you whatever that is. It’s about sharing and learning and eating and playing and friending and following and a bunch of other things. Godspeed to all of you!
  11. More video! We could use more people dedicated to recording and streaming podcamp presentations.  This takes a large amount of work, but would be more than worth it. Unfortunately, I think we need to reach out again to the podcasting community to help make this happen!

SCIENCE! YouTube, the Keystone XL Pipeline, & Not-for-profit Social Media use

Amid promises of, well, nothing, I’ve been thinking about restarting this blog. There are a few problems with this idea. 1) This blog is called The Other Librarian and, well, I am not really a librarian right now in the employment sense. Of course I will always be a librarian because … well, just because. On the other hand, I am more pretending to be a data scientist and researcher instead.

That brings me to some great news. I have two peer reviewed publications that have been released this month. I am excited about both, because finally I have been able to conduct some research about the value of social media to our daily lives.

The first is What Potential for YouTube as a Policy Deliberation Tool? Commenter Reactions to Videos About the Keystone XL Oil Pipeline where I look at comments on YouTube and evaluate the consequences of engaging citizens on social media. The answer is complex of course, but in general, if you use social media to engage the public, you will find 1) people will ignore governmenty videos, 2) topics related to minority groups (eg. First Nations Rights) will tend to be overlooked, 3) the most popular videos will be the ones where the topic is related to some form of identity (libertarianism, environmentalism etc.) 4) on the whole, the aggregated content will be somewhat “wise” in the sense that it generally covers the main issues that researchers pay attention to (with the caveat of #2). Overall, I am really proud of this paper because it was great fun to produce.

The second paper I wrote with Kathleen McNutt and it looks at social media use by not-for-profits. Using Mark Granovetter’s classic paper,  we argue that strong social media engagement requires attention to “strong” (emotionally intense) and “weak” (interest-based) connection strategies.

Beyond this, I have been doing a heck of a lot of writing for my dissertation which is about policy agenda setting and online engagement. I am also *very* excited about Podcamp Halifax coming up in January which will happen at the new and AMAZING Halifax Central Library. If you ever chatting to me about Podcamp, you’d know that my evil master plan was that the meeting could happen in the new library where it could expand to a much grander audience. That’s happened thanks to the lovely people who’ve taken the baton and improved on it year after year. Hopefully there will be a facilitated program about the future of Podcamp: whether it will keep going the way it is, or changing to something new given that the opportunity for growth is now quite grandiose. With the right partners, perhaps there could be a South by Southwest sort of program or a Winter arts & business somethingorother? I don’t know – the great thing about Podcamp is that it uses the wisdom of the crowd in such a way that whatever gets decided, it is likely to be smart. Obviously, we wouldn’t want to use the free aspect to put other conferences out of business – but on the other hand, there is plenty of room for community-based learning and sharing which helps everyone in the end!

Anyway, what are you excited about with social media?

Part I: Is There a Such Thing as Real World Haskell?

Part II:   How not to Start Your Haskell Program >

Here’s a bit of sardonic code, that I’d like to propose to any Haskell advocate out there.

data Works = Works | Does_not
computerApp a ::  Maybe a -> Works
computerApp a
     | isJust a = Works
     | otherwise = Does_not

I have been playing around with functional programming in Haskell.    I have to say that it has more than certainly improved my ability to code in other languages, and probably has reduced the number of bugs I have to fix after the fact.    On the other hand, it has driven me absolutely batty.

To be fair, I need to say that I am not a computer engineer.    I have a BA in English.    My Masters are in Public Administration and Information Management.      I engaged in Haskell code simply as a curiosity and a challenge.    I love math, and became curious about Monads and Lambda calculus.    I am probably not smart enough to be a great Haskell programmer.   However, I do understand two things.    1)  Not-smart-enough people can and want to participate in application development   2)  Coders, while making apps that do what they expect them to do, do not always understand (or care) about the sustainability and/or scalability of their code.

Web Development is an important test case.      Just about anyone, with a reasonable amount of time and effort, can learn to develop a website in PHP, probably supported by some content management system as Drupal or ModX.    Somewhere, their development goes overboard, the system does an upgrade to support some security risk or vulnerability, and ‘pop’ –>  all that likely un-documented and messy code goes nowhere and wheels need to be reinvented.

That’s why learning Haskell is probably a good idea.    Without getting into the code itself, it insists that a function always causes the same result to happen with any given input(s).    Once developed, the documentation pretty much always exists in a minimal form (via Type declarations).    So many bad habits would disappear if only people were forced into developing this way.

The problem, unfortunately, is that Haskell coding is confusing.     There is no popular development framework to use it.     Once you try to apply the examples provided in text books to real world development, things go wonky.    I won’t go into the many reasons why, but I do have an observation based on what I’ve seen in responses from various gurus to newbies like me.

It’s this ->   Users think computers do things.    Computer engineers think computers solve problems.     In Haskell terms, any interaction between users and engineers results in a type error.    Somewhere along the line, an IO() monad needs to be created to turn what engineers like about Haskell into something that users will like about it.

I would like to propose a management framework, similar to extreme programming, to manage the development of functional code for regular people.   While Programming it in Haskell is not a bad start, it uses a problem solving model, rather than a ‘how do you make the software do x’ model.    It focuses on mathematical abstractions rather than simple actions.     For instance, I would like to see a book that uses the development of a rogue-like rpg game in Haskell as an example.    Instead of worrying about efficient computation, abstractions about ‘laziness’ and recursive factorial examples, the writer would have to focus on managing complex (a tuple of a lists of tuples) types, worrying about random numbers and IO issues that are inherent to Haskell.   In approaching such a game, should I worry about creating newtypes first, or work from what I want main to do and fill in the gaps?

But while I make this suggestion, I really have no idea of what kind of advice I can offer your typical new-to-haskell coder.     But I have some hypotheses:

  • work from the main :: IO() first and build a framework of functions to develop your outputs.
  • possibly create type variables for each of your functions, making it equal in Type to a typical output you would like to see.    Then work backwards from there to create a lazy output, then involve possible recursion and so on.
  • use generic types (eg. Int, String, Char etc.) with comments first, then develop types to make your code more clear.
  • unit tests should include the System.IO.Unsafe module (cheating should be allowed when you are testing your code – let the learning happen when you are developing real code)

I’ll add what I can as I continue to learn more about coding in Haskell.    The bottom line is that I think more people should be coding in a language like Haskell, but they are unlikely to work with it if they end up spending a bajillion hours just to get it to choose randomly from a list of monsters (for example).   Especially when they can learn how to do the same in three minutes using an imperative language like Python.

For the greater good and more sustainable code overall, what high-level tips or approaches can you offer any newbie coders of Haskell, so they can develop without becoming absolutely bogged down in failure with their Haskell programs?

UPDATE:   After writing this, I found a great powerpoint tutorial by Graham Hutton that uses Hangman as an example of interactive Haskell code development.

My Big Day Downtown

On July 31st, 2010 I took Mr. 6 out with me on my Big Day Downtown.   Needless to say that was an Adventure we would remember for a long time.   It was great to explore many of the nicks and crannies that the downtown has to offer while trying to find some of the geekiest objects known to humans.

Mr. 6 was a great moderator on my geekiness.   I guess he’ll have to grow into his Dad’s obsessions.   But, by way of intro – here is us going into Strange Adventures:

I wanted superheros, zombies, weird star trek stuff.   Mr. 6 wanted Calvin and Hobbes.   I think our final purchase is a testament to the level of flexibility both of us had to display during this trip.

The next stop we made was to The Loop Craft Café on Barrington Street where I was kindly helped to find a nice baby alpaca light-blue wool for a scarf idea I have (I will share it when it’s done.   Clue:  it will be of interest to people who use Twitter.)    The product they offer is very high quality, and great for very special projects – like the stuff you might find on Etsy.  We chatted about yarn bombing, knit-ins and that sort of thing.   I also took a look at some drop spindles and raw wool.   I have carders to help me spin my own yarn – i’d love to try it sometime.   Mr. 6 was also impressed with their balling machine.

Our next stop was to share a root beer at Just Us Coffee on Barrington Street very close to a few other community-minded businesses that I love very much:  The Halifax Hub and Splice Training.     I realize that business is ultimately about making a profit, but the community does alot also to help make that profit happen (everything from roads, police, education, social services and so on), so I always appreciate a business that gives back.   Just Us serves fair trade coffee, helping to decrease the impact my caffeine addiction has on the third world.   Mr. 6 loved the ‘South at the Top’ map they have there – it’s a great reminder to me that ‘up’ is relative to where you are standing.   Splice training helped me out with some USB drives when I put on a ‘geek guys’ program last year.   In the end, about 8 young men (don’t know where the young women went) learned a whole lot about coding in Python and were able to keep their copy of Python so they could continue learning on the library computers!   Maybe in a few years they’ll be able to up their learning to some Objective-C coding with the help of Splice’s iPod/iPad development courses.

Splice also supported this year’s iphone Hackathon hosted at the Hub Halifax via Apps4Good.   The Hub, if you didn’t know, is a great co-working space in the middle of downtown.   They are always helping to support groups with their whatever-camp and know a heckofalot more than I do about such things.

Now back to my spending.    The next stop was Rock Candy – where there were all kinds of crazy Hard-rock and Punk periphernalia for sale.

Sculpture Outside Rock Candy shop

Mr. 6 is a great fan of the Ramones (as am I) – his favorite song by them is “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” – although he says he likes the original version by Tom Waits a bit more.

Doin' the Blitzkrieg Shop!

I have to say that I was really impressed with the selection and quality of Rock Candy’s offerings.    My hat is excellent and fits really nicely.   I’ve had a hard time keeping it off my head this summer.

The last part of our trip was food – Lunch at The Bluenose II Restaurant, Candy at Freak Lunch Box and ice cream at Cows.    The fun is probably best told in pictures:

Chicken Fingers FTW!
HULK WANT CANDY!!!!111111!!
Our Last Visit was Ice Cream

Neither Libraries Nor Information is Free

Oh The Future of the Library is still in question.   This time it’s Seth Godin weighing in.   I actually agree with most of what he has to say.   I think alot of what he thinks is shaped by an aged or narrow sample of libraries.   I find it kind of like saying ‘It’s over for Restaurants’ after getting poor service from an old-style greasy spoon that’s been around for 50 years.   It’s the future of ‘restaurant’.   Not ‘restaurants’.

Librarians have weighed in as well.   One of them is Sarah Glassmeyer.    I have to say I am disappointed in her response.    When it is fairly obvious that Seth is talking about Public Libraries, her response is to refute by reminding that we also have academic, legal and special libraries.   That’s pretty weak.   The latter libraries serve a specific purpose and are available for a specific audience.   I would not expect Seth to have a beef with Academic libraries, unless he had a beef with academics in general (which might be the case, but it’s kind of a different story).    Public Libraries have to stand on their own two feet, thank you.     We need to comfortably explain what we do in very specific terms.   We have to envision a future of service that meshes with reality.

For instance, Seth speak in particular about offering DVDs for rental and how this is a fairly uninspiring use for public libraries.    It’s a bit of a sham argument, actually because it offers flawed anecdotal evidence.   DVDs may circulate more often than other items, true, but they also have shorter borrowing times (they used to have 1/7 the allowed borrowing time at MPOW;  we just changed that to 1/3.) and tend to have larger fines when they are late.    In short, by nature every DVD we circulate will have the opportunity to be borrowed 7 times before a book gets returned.   Not to mention that DVDs tend to be on hold, so they are un-renewable, and so-on.

DVDs also act as a catalyst for other library uses.   It’s plain good old fashion solid business practice, like offering a coupon for Prime Rib Roast knowing that people will also pay full price for the horseradish, potatoes and string beans to go with it.   And, well, some of those DVDs are the popular renditions of Pride and Prejudice, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy and encourage reading (re-reading, even) just as well.

But enough about DVDs – we need to talk about the future of libraries.

Part of the problem is that a public library is not specifically about individuals, but a learning community.   Take, for example, the idea that we could just buy everyone a Kindle and be done with libraries.   At this time, the Kindle offers a selection of about 336,000 books.   As an individual, that is a huge collection of books to choose from, and almost certainly bound to improve my learning.   On a community level, 336,000 books is dismal.   We do not want or need a community that reads the same 336,000 books, and probably the same 336,000 books that will be yammered on about in the usual channels.    Maybe Amazon will fulfill this important community knowledge diversification need in the future, but I would suggest that they have no incentive to do so.   On some scale, for a good 25 years at least IMHO, communities will need to share their resources in an organized way for the interest of the community.   Some libraries will fulfill this need very well.   Others will not.   The former will succeed and flourish; the latter will die a slow and painful death (until another model emerges from the ashes).

(Notice that I haven’t brought up the many other issues with things Kindle-ish, like Jessamyn West has previously.)

In other words, this one idea about libraries (which covers about 50% of library work, I would say), while admittedly declining, still has a fairly good shelf-life on it.   I would also remind that no librarian in the 21st century is advocating for a faster horse here.   Public libraries are dropping those reference books like they were no tomorrow.   They’re also getting rid of those old books that no one is borrowing too.   Public Libraries are no archives.    We don’t keep artifacts on any large scale (although it’s a bit of a political thing to admit that we do actually throw books away when they’ve had their time.)

I haven’t brought up the plethora of other things that libraries can, have and continue to do.   For one (shameless self promotion) MPOW is hosting Podcamp Halifax, which (i think) strives to do precisely what Seth suggests is the right thing:  Train People to Take Intellectual Initiative.    Except it’s not really training.   It’s better.  It’s providing space, moments-in-time and opportunities for people to gather and train themselves.   Actually, training is not even the right word.    When a space is designed right, the learning is self-organized.   Learning is a natural human behavior, provided that barriers don’t get in the way.   Oh hell – Angela Mombourquette explains it all much better than I do.   In short, we need more unconferences in communities and public libraries are one avenue to help make sure these happen.

And you know what?   I’ve been talking about this for years.    My very first post (July 2006) is an interesting look at how to help people take intellectual initiative.    Not too long after that, I was talking about Open Space and The Law of Two Feet.   The way I see the future of public libraries then and now is still the same and Seth pretty much hits the nail on the [side of the] head.   It’s not about training.   The public, as a rule, doesn’t want training per se.   They would go to school for that stuff.   What they want are places to learn.    Places that have, among other things, DVDs to borrow.   (It’s always nice to bring a little bit of library home with you. )  Places with a little bit of friendly nudging to keep you motivated about learning.   Sometimes with a bit of facilitation.   Sometimes with a bit of structure.   Other times but just leaving them the heck alone to read in a nice quiet spot.   No one is filling this niche right now on any grand scale.    It’s a market failure.    That’s why we need public funds to fill it.   For now and into the future.

Finally, this article needs a shout out because Erin Downey speaks my mind about information and learning as well.