Monthly Archives: March 2005

Schiavo, Lakoff and my wishes

When i first learned of Schiavo’s case, my first instinct was to document my desires. For the record, i don’t want to be on life support. Period. If i’m in a lot of pain, i want enough morphine to kill me. I want to be cremated. Nothing horrifies me more than living by machine, being kept alive to meet someone’s whacked ass selfish values justified through abusive uses of religion. I want to face god when the time comes, not be kept alive just because it’s possible. There is beauty in life and beauty in death – they go hand in hand and i have no fear.

So, Schiavo died today which gives me great relief. It is her turn to meet god and she should’ve been given that opportunity 15 years ago. What horrifies me is how her life has been manipulated and used by the most conservative forces for some pretty selfish gains. Of course, everything about it is horribly conflicting. The same agendas who are against universal health care are for keeping people on machines infinitely rather than letting them die in peace. Once again, we’re back to Lakoff. Yeah, it makes sense on that level, but it sure as hell pisses me off. And i’m really cranky for how much the media has taken the conservative side.

A friend of mine, Sascha Becker does a really good job of reading the Schiavo case from Lakoff’s perspective. She highlights an aspect that has been forgotten lately: Schiavo’s eating disorder and how her battle with bulimia resulted in her severe brain damage. It makes the whole situation all the more ridiculous as we’re still incapable of talking about the issues at hand – control and domination. ::sigh::

liquidate: the end of 43 Norfolk

When i moved to San Francisco, i quickly got involved with False Profit because of friends from college. FP consists of a lot of overeducated, workaholic party kids. The community had a homebase, a warehouse at 43 Norfolk. After the death of the landlord, it was sold and the new people want to move in. Thus, we are losing our space in 2 days.

As can be expected, we threw our final party this weekend. Friends flew in from around the country. 850 people showed up before we locked the doors (probably another 300 came to try to get in but we were at capacity). It was a miracle that the cops did not shut us down – perhaps they knew it was our final party… or perhaps it was our security people. For me, the party started Friday when a bunch of us got together to prep the house and just hang out. Jeff Heer helped me put together a network exhibit using his Prefuse to visualize the Friendster-based social network of my crew and their friends. We started dancing at 10. By 8AM there were still 250 people on the dance floor. When the music ended around 11AMish, there were still 60+ people dancing their asses off. As it soaked in that it was the end of an era, we gathered in a circle… there were tears. And then there was hottubbing to ease the sore muscles.

I love that warehouse to bits and i’m really sad to see it go away. I’m still not sure what it will mean for our crew. Of course, many are splintering off to go back to school. And there is a new smaller live-only warehouse (no party space).

At least we went out with style… A full-on crazy liquidation.

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paying to get it, or why people charge $10K

A few years back, i got utterly irate with a friend when he came back from a cult-esque finding yourself seminar. He was convinced he understood the root of all his problems – he had acquired true insight in this program. “Oh really?” i asked, “tell me what you learned.” He then proceeded to tell me things that i had been telling him for years. I wanted to stomp up and down screaming. He hadn’t listened to a damn word i’d said for years but when he paid money to listen to some experts, he suddenly got it. This was the same story with all of my friends and their shrinks – they’d listen to the shrinks tell them exactly what their friends have been saying for years. Only they paid their shrinks (or their insurance did).

Now, a few years later, i have more appreciation for how he got it. Yes, it was about being in a situation where he could hear it, being open to being vulnerable. It was about having “experts” guide him through. But, still, i’ve never gotten over the fact that it took paying a self-help expert to finally hear things that he’d known and his friends had known for years. Why on earth is that revolutionary?

Lately, i’ve been watching this happen again, only in the work sphere. People come back from this obscenely expensive conferences with revelations. My eyebrows get all furrowed and i’m like, yes, i’ve been telling you this for a while now. And i’ve even been writing it down. Publicly. Still, there’s nothing like going to an event where you’re expected to learn and learning, simply by being open. But why on earth can’t people be more open to all forms of knowledge that come to them, not just the ones that they pay dearly for to hear the “experts”?

Part of why this bugs me is that i think that the “experts” (self-included) are overrated. Even when i take on that foolish role, i’m usually exaggerating to make a point, to be heard. And how does one get declared an expert anyhow? I know plenty of people more knowledgeable about a lot of topics than the purported or wheeled around experts. Ah, social networks.

My mentors are always telling me that i need to charge a ridiculous dayrate to be seen as an expert, to be listened to. As much as i would like to make more than student wages, i find this absolutely absurd. I used to make $4.85 an hour and i lived on that – the idea of making $100 an hour seems absurd, yet my friends tell me this is far too low to charge. I almost choked when i found out that one of my mentors charges $10K a day. What on earth can we say that’s worth $10K??

But i think that my frustration is the answer… it’s worth $10K because that’s enough to make the business people wake up and listen, to make them actually pay attention. And that’s why certain conferences cost $5K – people take them seriously at that rate – they actually want to make something out of it. (What does that say about conferences that i go to where people throw a hissy fit when the cost raises from $60 to $75? Ah, academics, how i do love thee.)

Still, as much as i can recognize that this is how the system works, it feels so ludicrous. Sometimes, i’m convinced that i truly do lack the balls to play this game. How on earth do i overcome that if i want to be heard? How do i actually transmit knowledge without having to be an expert ::cough:: pundit? Or is this a system that i really want to support and encourage? What does it mean to walk away from it?

initial impression of Yahoo 360

Today, Yahoo invited a handful of “influencers” to have early access to their new product 360 degrees. Apparently, i’m one of them so i got to sit around a table at Yahoo, learn about the product and speak my mind. I have to say that i’m impressed that Yahoo folks wanted to hear all of our crankiness head-on rather than waiting for it to appear in our random ramblings online. Even better: they didn’t make us sign any NDAs so we can blog all we want. I lurve that.

So, the tool comes out in like a week. I don’t know how final the version that we saw today is, but i thought i’d offer some impressions based on what i saw since i know folks out there are curious.

360 will be invite-only but they are not seeding through employees, rather, they are seeding through active Yahoo users. This is actually very important because frankly, 360 isn’t meant for people like me (or like you). It’s meant for your average not-technically inclined individual who is scared of blogging but wants to share their thoughts, photos, and recommendations with their friends. Thus, before we all get into a blogizzy, it’s important to remember the target.

The feature set that i saw included integrated YIM, a blogging tool, a recommendations engine (linked to local), photos (linked to Y photos, not Flickr) and a social network. It’s all very integrated and emphasizes Yahoo products (although they were talking about connecting it with other products and they are doing some RSS stuff). Throughout all of this are heavy controls for privacy/publication, although it is all strict categorization schemes where you can make things available to groups (think: LJ).

Of course, it has all of the social problems of bi-directional, articulated social networks (nothing solved there). And the controls are really overwhelming. In fact, a lot of the product is overwhelming for the not-technically-savvy and i think that this will be their major problem unless they figure out how to slowly expose things (one of our strongest recommendations). For the techgeek, it will feel like they didn’t go far enough, didn’t have enough features, etc. That’s actually a lot easier to solve than the overwhelming problem and i expect they’ll build new features soon so i think that the techgeeks should wait. But i’m really worried about the novice user because it has many of the problems of blogging, privacy and social networks rolled into one big problem. Plus, you really need to be heavily integrated into the Yahoo network for it to really make sense.

Frankly, i think that they should take the word “blog” out of the picture entirely. While the service allows you to share your materials with layered groups of friends, the term ‘blog’ is intimidating to the mainstream who see it as publishing or otherwise uber-public. Since Yahoo isn’t requiring uber-public, i think that they should get rid of the term. We’ll see what happens.

I also think that it makes much much more sense connected with photosharing and i really wish that they would wait on this product until Flickr is connected with them – there’s going to be so much overlap and confusion 🙁 Plus, while there are huge problems with Flickr’s system of privacy management, there’s a lot that they have going for them interface wise. For example, you don’t have to click stupid edit buttons – you can edit while consuming. This is soooo cool. I wish more folks would have fun with javascript.

Anyhow, my general impression is that i’m wary, but i don’t think that this is for me and i think it will be nice for the heavily integrated Yahoo user.

guantanamo: honor bound to defend freedom

“Guantanamo: ‘Honor Bound to Defend Freedom'” is a British play that originally opened in London to protest the US’s abuse of human rights in citizens who were taken to Guits Guantanamo Bay prisons. The play tells the stories of 9 British antanamo under questionable pretenses, never told why and kept there for over two years. Seven were released without trials, still with no explanation. The play uses testimonials of the prisoners, their letters to their families and the testimonials of their families. Rumsfeld’s speeches are also included. Every word in the play (except the meta-commenter) comes directly from those involved in this nightmare.

The play recently opened in New York and tonite was the first preview in San Francisco (at Brava Theater running until April 17). While they still have some theatrical kinks to work out, the play was definitely a good reality check, a good reminder of how easy it is as an American to tune out to the human rights abuses that the government is executing in our names. The play is clearly written for a British audience, yet it is so essential as Americans to wake up and listen, listen to the actual people abused by our systems. This is especially critical as Abu Ghraib trials continue. If you’re in SF, make sure you go out and support this play and use it to think about what’s going on.

That said, i wish i knew the next step. I certainly would’ve loved it if Brava would’ve given out more information, action items, etc. Political plays need to give you a direction otherwise it’s just heart wrenching. Still, heart wrenching for a good cause.

(A story of one detainee is in the NYTimes today.)

HICSS: Persistent Conversations

HICSS may look like a boondoggle (it is, afterall, in Hawaii) but one of the reasons that i keep applying to it is because the Persistent Conversation track has amazing researchers interested in visualization, social technologies and privacy. The track is meant to bring together people interested in the implications of persistent, archivable, searchable data surrounding communication. What do you do with it? How do you study it?

Anyhow, the abstract deadline is March 31 (abstract – 250 words). If you have research that you need to write up, consider applying to HICSS: Persistent Conversations Minitrack. In addition to good research, there is still a beautiful beach.

SIMS career fair

Do you work for a company that is interested in hiring information school students (think: hybrid between tech, social, business) either full-time or for internships. My department is throwing a career fair on April 1. They asked me to suggest companies but i figured it might be useful to ask y’all if you want to hire folks.

For those who don’t know, SIMS has a Master’s program and a PhD program. The Master’s folks tend to be more interested in actually building products and working in tech companies than us pie-in-the-sky PhD folks who just critique the shit out of everything. At the same time, they have a variety of different useful skills – development, business management, ethnography, usability, information organization, etc.

Anyhow, if you want to participate on April 1, let me know and i’ll recommend you to my department. This is a low-key event (i.e. folks interacting not scary huge recruitment kiosks) and is particularly useful for Bay Area local companies.

SXSW, why i attended and marginalized populations

(updated 03/17/05)

OK, SXSW was awesome. I’m sure the Flickr photos show the amount of ridiculousness that went on. There was more. I could pretend to discuss the panels but, let’s be honest, i didn’t attend many. I did however miraculously make it to mine. I spent a lot of time talking with people, hearing people’s stories. I got to meet lots of bloggers i didn’t know, got to hear about what other people loved about certain technologies and learn about a few new ones.

Malcolm Gladwell made the entire trip worth it for me. OMG… to have a speaker who was able to speak to the issues of marginalization at a tech conference in a way that people listened by focusing on the experiments took my breath away. I hope at least a fraction of the packed room heard the implications of what he said, of what Blink says. Take his key example: orchestras thought that they were judging men and women equally and that women were just not as good. When they started putting up a curtain at the auditions, suddenly, the ratios changed. Drastically. We have biases in every interaction, unconsciously. And in order to level the playing field, we have to actively work to deal with those biases because we have to change the social structure in order to rid ourselves of the biases.

Speaking of which, i feel the need to address the why sxsw post by Liz and David’s why etech post. I chose to go to SXSW. I was actually part of the 5% who applied to etech, only my application was rejected because it wasn’t emerging. That’s fair. But as an academic, i can only go to conferences that i present at. I wasn’t even thinking about SXSW until Tantek approached me to speak on a panel there. At first, i hesitated at his puppy dog eyes. And then i started talking to the gals and realized that it would be a great opportunity to meet up with folks. And then when i saw the program, i got ecstatic to see that issues of identity and other risque topics were going to be actively dealt with, all in the topical structure of SXSW. And there were going to be diverse keynotes, not all of which were technically focused, but applicable to the tech crowd. This made me very very very excited.

David argues that the reason that Etech should be forgiven is because their applicant pool was dismally lacking diversity. I think he’s wrong. Of course it is dismal and not due to a lack of talent out there but due to social networks. Lots of people don’t even know that they can submit proposals. Almost all of the speakers at this year’s Etech were floating around Etech last year. They’re already part of the in-crowd. What percentage of Etech applicants attended Etech in a previous year? Given that a small number of women attend the conference, there’s going to be a poor representation in applicants. And there were even fewer people of color.

More importantly, marginalized populations often don’t think that their voice matters as much as the dominant voices. If we’re not part of the social network, we’re going to think that even less. I didn’t know you could apply to be at Etech until after i was invited to go – i never would’ve even considered applying. And i didn’t know how SXSW panels magically appeared until two days ago.

It’s socially and culturally not an equal playing field. You can’t build a meritocracy on top of that and one doesn’t exist. There are biases at every level. And if you want diversity, you need to actively go after it. Conference organizers – reach out to the women and people of color you know and ask them to brainstorm with you. Actively invite marginalized groups who you know are doing great stuff (or get your friends who are women, POC to do so). Make sure you have diversity on your board. Put together identity-driven BOFs. Invite diverse groups to the low-key events where they’re underrepresented so that they can meet and greet (because not all get-togethers are conferences). Do *NOT* expect them to come to you. When you do so, you perpetuate hegemonic forces – you become part of the problem. Meritocracy doesn’t emerge by just pretending it exists and without equal grounding, it is not possible.

Update: After a conversation last night, i wanted to clarify a few things. In conferences like SXSW and Etech, there’s no clear delineation of what is an acceptable topic or not (as opposed to say CHI). I mean – what is interactive or emerging? Additionally, the review panel consists of a very small number of people (all of who are pretty much guaranteed a slot). At CHI, there are hundreds and hundreds of blind reviewers. At SXSW and Etech, the metric is “interesting” – this is where we get ourselves into trouble. Interesting to whom? To the un-diverse review committee?

At CHI, everyone who is working in the field of HCI knows about it and gets to decide whether or not they appreciate the scope. Many of us in the margins grumble regularly, but still submit our work there. Not everyone working on emergent or interactive knows about Etech and SXSW. A few small percentage of people in each field go. Who goes is very very driven by social networks. Given the homophilous nature of social networks, the longer you go without diversifying, the less diverse it will get and you will have to work harder and more explicitly because you will not get random diverse applications when it’s seen as non-diverse. Thus, you have to be explicit to counter that process. People who apply to these conferences have mostly gone to it before or been recruited. If your audience is not diverse, you won’t have a diverse application pool.

One concern that was raised regards the % of women working in these fields. We’re not talking computer science – not everyone at Etech/SXSW is a CS person. We’re talking technology-related. And there are lots of folks who can inform emergent and interactive that aren’t CS folks, especially when you have huge tracks that are supposedly on social. I know so many women working in the social tech field – they just aren’t part of that network. Most of the social tech events that i go to and throw are more like 40/60 – just not the ones that are part of the “social software” network.

Additionally, i don’t believe that the % in the field is a good metric for a conference – i believe you have to surpass that through explicit effort in order to affect the field as a whole. Conferences are networking events and need to be treated as explicit social activities meant to diversify the field. I’d bet most people who attended Etech or SXSW came home with a lot more contacts and relationships, even if only built on beer. Those are people that we’ll all run into again, we might even work with simply because we had contact to personalities (not just resumes) at a conference. And if that group isn’t diverse, it will affect our work environment as well as our social and general professional.

This is why i’m so invested in this. I’m not an idiot – i know that i get invited to talk partially because i’m a woman. But i believe in opening up the tech field, i believe in diversifying it. And to do so requires more than motions towards meritocracy. If i can be a tool to aid in that activity, fine, but it also doesn’t have to be me. It just has to be someone.