Category Archives: Web/Tech

Where’d the web go?

I had a minor bowl-of-petunias moments a while back. I was looking at another project compiling a list of works by women in an attempt to make them visible, when a quiet voice said in the back of my mind, “Oh no, not again.”

Because the list didn’t tell me why I should care about these books. It didn’t tell me why I should read them. It didn’t tell me where to start. It didn’t capture what was in them, how they were like and unlike each other, how they spoke to each other, to their moment, to the history and conventions of genre, which were romps and which were sober, which were controversial, which broke new ground, which refreshed the old, and which did neither but were still fun to read. It didn’t contain any indicators of if-you-liked-this-then-you’ll-probably-like-that or if-you-loathe-hate-and-despise-this-then-touch-not-that-book-with-tongs (so the reader doesn’t get ticked off and fire off one of those “SF/F is all _____” denunciations) . . . for which covers are a dismal guide [1].

All of that is already out there. People — many much more incisive and more knowledgable than I — have already said a great deal about these books, spanning several decades. We have reviews, articles, commentaries, forum-posts, critiques and commentaries and defences and controversies of decades, and they might as well be invisible to such lists. There wasn’t even an indication of such discussions even having happened.

Collective forgetting is a significant problem with women’s writing. We keep having to start at the beginning again, remaking the lists, rediscovering the books, rediscovering that other people knew about the books, and we all have to do it one at a time.

Back when I first learned HTML, several epochs and browser extinction events ago (I think it was the Mosaic-Navigator boundary), I made lists, too. I’d open my editor and a page, write out “a href=”, paste in the link, remember to close the quotes. These days, I’m still doing pretty much the same thing, though I get to click a button with an icon of a link and fill in form fields, and I only have to hack HTML if something breaks.

What I’d like to be able to do is, for example, directly connect someone else’s mention of Vonda McIntyre’s (terrific) Starfarers Quartet (1989-1994) to the ebook that’s available on Bookview Café, to the article McIntyre wrote about its inception (“It started out as a hoax”), to the article on “Changing regimes: Vonda N. McIntyre’s parodic astrofuturism” that DeWitt Douglas Kilgore published in Science Fiction Studies. Directly. So that if someone finds one, it will lead them straight to the others. Without having to do what I’ve just done, which is having to create an entirely redundant new web-page and stick myself in the middle where I don’t need to be when I’ve nothing new to say. (Although yes, it would be essential to flag the source of the new connections, in the interests of transparency, disclosure, and attribution).

It’s a challenging programming problem; although I am not a librarian or an information scientist, much less a programmer [2], I know that much. Not only to do it, but to get the interface not only straightforward but appealing enough that it could be widely adopted. It might not even be possible. But I also have the feeling that we could be further along than this, and I wonder if one reason might be the influence of commercial interests shaping development of the web over the past decade.

In its beginning, Google search was a significant advance, returning results that reflected links made by humans who were informed and interested on a topic, so that the substantial material would rise to the top, and the first page of a Google search was a valuable snapshot of the good material on any subject – or book. Google became the go-to aggregator of information.

Then the web went dot-com, and Google got into the advertising business. SEO became an industry, and now what floats to the top of a Google search for a title is Amazon et al, and Goodreads, and Wikipedia if there’s an entry, but where the citation quality is extremely variable, and assorted high volume review blogs which are so spoiler-fixated that they don’t even get past the skin, never mind anywhere near the bones of the book. Meanwhile the 3000 word (“tl;dr”) thoughtful consideration published 8 years ago in plain-vanilla HTML — which once would have been at the top of the search rankings — might show up around about page 7, and the three richly detailed articles published in scholarly publications and archived in JSTOR might not show up at all and even as they did, would be inaccessible to most people [3].

And now there’s social networking, and everything’s still lists, and everything’s still linear, and moreover, links vanish into the silos of Facebook or Google or Delicious or Goodreads, although with RSS (however long that lasts) or IFTTT, at information can be propagated across silos.

With the result that we’re still making new lists, we still struggle to be aware of previous work, and we still have the perpetual first steps phenomenon.

… Wanders off grumbling to brood on this more.

—-

[1] Something I remember realizing when picked up early Joanna Trollope on the basis of the very similar cover design to Mary Wesley‘s novels. Trollope is a fine writer, but (at least in her early novels) was the antithesis of the very thing I most liked in Mary Wesley – Trollope’s characters who defied convention were always punished.

[2] I have been known to describe myself as a geriatric script-kiddie, although such facetiousness is begging to be misunderstood. I am law abiding (except when cycling the streets of Montréal, which is an exercise in getting in touch with one’s inner anarchist) and I can usually figure out what’s going on in several programming languages.

[3] And as someone who has been an supporter of open access academic publishing since the days of the first Harold Varmus proposal in 1999, all I can say is have we lived and fought in vain.

Feeding Zotero

Zotero is where I keep an eclectic library of background to works in progress, works in incubation, and topics of interest. Zotero 2.0, which is still in beta, allows registered users to synchronize citations between computers and a page on the Zotero server itself. The citations are stored as a library with collections in subfolders, with feeds available at both levels, and can be made public. I liked the idea of pulling feeds from my collections into relevant pages, like my Women scientists in fiction page. It’s a work in progress, but figured I’d make notes before I forgot the convolutions and the useful links found along the way.

Currently there is no option to sync or make public just part of a library. That’s coming, but at the moment it is all or nothing. It is possible, using a Zotero-generated API key, to access a feed from an individual collection (folder) within a private library, but (naturally) click-through is not allowed so the full citation is not accessible. The Lifestream plugin gave a certificate error, when I attempted to add the Zotero feed as a generic blog, but the ZoteroFeedWidgit worked handily out of the box, installing a compact  Zotero feed in the sidebar. It’s not there now; in the sidebar was not where I wanted it, but it is an option for those wishing a sidebar feed. There’s an attached CSS file which grants the user some latitude in styling. The recommended syntax for calling the feed is:

http://feedaddress/top?key=APIkey

To get the feed address, bring up the page of the individual collection (ie, folder or subfolder). At the bottom of the page, there is a standard RSS symbol with a link to subscribe to this feed. Right click and copy the link; it will be different for each collection.

An offered workaround was to create a separate public collection with a separate registration. To enable me to use both my larger private collection and smaller public collection simultaneously, I have the first in Firefox and the second in Flock – otherwise I would have to relaunch Firefox to switch collections. The feed from the public collection (no https) works in Lifestream (in fact, it has taken over my Lifestream for the moment, with a great bolus of migrated articles). Still no in-page feeds, which will require use of a plugin that enables the execution of php in a page. So as I said, a work in progress. I might look at a more generic means of mashing together a Delicious feed and a Zotero feed – the first is very useful for links, the second obligatory for properly formed citations.

For more discussion on Zotero feeds and websites, there’s this thread on the forum.

Updates over at SFF net

Oh shame, shame, when a website update is worthy of a blog post. It’s been far too long. But the forbearing people at SFF.net have reinstated my SFF.net page after I let my payment method expire, so I took the opportunity to update, do a minor restyling, clean up some CSS and dust off a couple of older pages. More to be done, later. I am again convinced that some twisted minds are behind CSS positioning.

Northern Voice: 50+ ways to tell a story

Ask and ye shall receive. Just after I posted that last, I wandered into the next session "There are 50 Web 2.0 Ways to Tell a Story", by Alan Levine, wherein he managed to give the highlights of about 12 of his list of 50+

. The ones that went whisking by as I huddled in the back over the dimming ember of my ASUS were -

Xtimeline, Photoshare, VoiceThread, Comicsketch, Scrapblog, Googlemap, Comiq, Flickr, Blabberize, Toofee, Vasmo, Zentation (?), MyPlick.

Northern Voice 2008

Drifting around the UBC forestry center like a wistful cyberhobo, with my backpack – including pillow-roll, since I’m heading straight for the ferry after the final session – on my back and my ASUS in my hand, in perpetual search for a power-outlet. Perhaps that it my ghostly destiny: long after civilization has either become battery-independent or has collapsed completely from want of energy, my shade will wander with ancient spectral laptop in hand, looking for a recharge.

Just come out of a session with direction by Chris Lott and art by Nancy White, plus contributions by various people whose names and links I will add, on "The Blog is Dead! Long live bloggers!" which was the first to strike a deep chord in me because it touched upon blogging as a means of creative expression as well as a means of self-expression and social networking. This was late in the session; it started with an exploration of the definition of a blog, CLs attempt to liberate the form from the tool – as he said, nobody calls a book or a magazine ‘publishing’. Then it explored how the tools had evolved and expanded, how other tools had arisen to let people do what they had done with their blogs do in other modalities, or let them do what they had not been able to do with a blog – the blog, as a predominately written form, was not appealing to people who did not like to write, but they have adopted audio blogging, Flickr, videoblogging, YouTube. The discussants explored the difference between their use of the blog as a permanent archive, versus their use of other more ephemeral forms (eg Twitter). They compared relationships maintained in virtual space as well as in person, and those maintained purely in person – more in-person catch-up time in the former – as well as the peculiar asymmetry of an encounter with a stranger who knows them through their on-line presence. That is not, I thought, something new to the modern age; writers have always encountered people who knew their writing and thought that they thus knew the person behind the writing. Then CL stood up for the blog as a creative medium ("nobody would have said Picasso was creating content") and I pricked up my ears at a distinct glimmering of possibility. I used to experiment with form in story a lot, particularly in my early years, but then settled into conventional narrative forms of the novel and – occasionally – short story. Might be time for some experimentation again …

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