Passion, truth, and complications

I was up way too late last night reading. That’s okay: I planned for it. You see, Amazon brought me Mira Grant’s latest, Deadline, and I’d set aside time to read it.

I’ve been asked a number of times in interviews about what my favorite book is, or what I like to read. I have a hard time listing a favorite. I have lots of favorites, the books I’m nostalgic about, the books I come back to reread year after year, and the books that grab me, and make me keep thinking, long after I put them down.

But one of the things I often talk about is why I read science fiction and fantasy: in brief, it’s because I love exploring the possibility of “what if”. By their very nature, books set in a different place, a different time, let us ask different questions, or see the answers from a different perspective. And books that do that especially well, give us a way to bring back those ideas, those understandings, those steps towards answers, back into our own lives.

Back to this series.

Mira Grant is the name used by Seanan McGuire for this series, and some other related work – basically, things that fall more in the horror genre than in fantasy or science fiction. And Seanan McGuire is very good at what she does: she’s the winner of 2010 John M. Campbell Award for Best New Author, and Feed was selected as one of Publishers Weekly’s best books of 2010.

She’s also a prolific writer and creator: there are four books currently out in her October Daye series (also awesome), another one coming out in September, she’s released three CDs, and has a couple of other projects I’m avidly awaiting. In between that (and a day job!), she writes a fair amount of short fiction, much of which she shares for free on her journal and website.

For example, as a run-up to the release of Deadline, she did a series of almost 30 short fiction snippets about the world. (They take place about 20 years before the first novel opens, so they won’t spoil any of the actual plot if you read them before you read Feed, and they’re a great way to get a sense of the world and her writing style.) I think this is an awesome way to share a sense of the books, without spoiling the actual content.

I’d been aware of her Tobe Daye series for a bit, but what got me hooked on trying Feed was a post in John Scalzi’s (another SF authors) blog series called The Big Idea, where authors talk about the ideas that got them writing a particular book. This has turned into one of my favorite sources of books, and even more interestingly, the books I find out about here have tended to be widely successful when I’ve suggested them to library patrons. (In part, I think, because the posts give me as a librarian a great way to talk about the book and why someone might find it interesting that goes beyond the cover blurb.)

Anyway, I recommend the Big Idea posts for both Feed and Deadline to get a sense of the series. I’m not usually a huge horror reader (there are times my imagination doesn’t need a lot of help, y’know?) but the Big Idea about Feed immediately made it clear to me that there was a lot more going on there that I’d find fascinating.

And so it is. The book has zombies, yes, and there’s a certain amount of death and blood and misery. But it’s really more about living in a world we don’t understand, and that we don’t always have as much control over as we think we do. It’s about speaking truth, and making connections, and trying to leave the world a little better than we found it – but it’s also about the question of “who decides what’s better?”. It’s about friendship, and love, and collaboration, and it’s about how we decide who to believe. And it’s about how fear changes the world we live in, and whether we ought to let our fears win over our truths and hopes.

And those are all things I find totally awesome in books.

It’s also about something near and dear my heart: the power of writing and technology to bring people together, share information, and create community (because, after all, in a world full of zombies, many people don’t go out much.)

One of the things I love about both books is how the narrative is interspersed with excerpts from blog posts (the main characters are professional bloggers in a world where that’s one of the major news sources.) I love how the reason there are zombies has a reasonable scientific background. (These are science zombies, not magic zombies, in other words.) As something of an epidemiological geek myself (though not to the extent Seanan is), that’s awesome.

Okay. Back to why you should read this book. (Actually, why you should read Feed and then read this book, because you’ll care a lot more about this book if you do.)

I agree with the comments on the Big Idea article that the author makes – Feed is a political thriller, while Deadline is much more psychological. Put another way, Feed is more heavily plot driven (with some awesome characters), while Deadline is much more about the characters (and the inside of their heads), with a good helping of action and plot. (Zombie fights! Daring escapes! Intrigue and espionage! Plenty of action.)

Deadline is also an amazingly strong second book – often the weakness of trilogies. There are some places that’s obvious (especially the end), but the beginning does a great job of easing you back into the world and reminding you how things work before the story accelerates (which it does quite rapidly.) And then there’s a solid plot that both serves this book, but is clearly laying down foundation for a powerful conclusion. Waiting a year for the last book in the series is going to be hard.

What I loved was seeing a wider range of interactions. It was particularly awesome to see more about how After The End Times (the blog/news service that the major characters run or are involved with) staff interact. Learning more about Maggie, and about Mahir was lots of fun, too. They don’t always agree, either,  in a way that’s messy and complicated the way people can be, even when they’re mostly wanting the same basic goal.

But I also loved the way that we got more depth into things going on. What the Rising did in other parts of the world. What that changes. How things we mostly take for granted (grocery shopping, flying, driving) are a whole lot different. And I loved how, in this book, the damage from the first book – the hurts, the pains, the misery – isn’t wiped away. These are human beings, who don’t bounce back from that sort of thing all the time, not idealised symbols.

This is not a book to read if you want to be cheered up. It is not an easy book in places: hard things happen, miserable things, things that will probably make you want to scream at the book. People make choices that may have you doing the equivalent of yelling at the TV screen.This is not the best book to read somewhere if people are going to look at you funny if you start laughing, crying, or talking back to the pages.

But amazing things happen, too. And it’s a book that will almost certainly make you think differently about your world, and what matters, and what to trust, than you did before.

Creating a screencast

A conversation earlier this week made me decide that it was time to pick up a project I’d been meaning to play with for a while – creating a screencast. And since I’m doing that, why not talk about the process.

Below, you’ll find my step-by-step how I went through this, and what I learned.

Continue reading Creating a screencast

Links of interest: May 20, 2011

Welcome back after a hiatus (due to a combination of various things, including not having that many links I wanted to share for a week or two.)

Continue reading Links of interest: May 20, 2011

The power of the ‘Net

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why it’s so important to figure out how to manage our digital lives more thoughtfully – and it’s been highlighted by two different job applications that came up recently (one for a school that’s very thoughtful about screen time, and another where I was talking in my cover letter about how I tie my love of the library and my love of technology together.)

Now, before we go any further, it’s probably obvious that I’m a passionate reader of books. I can count on the finger of both hands the number of times I’ve gone to sleep without reading for at least a few minutes. I read widely and deeply and broadly, in a rainbow of genres.

And I think, the same way, that there are lots of things that are part of our traditional images of libraries and learning that still matter – doing sustained reading, larger research projects, presentations, all those things. But I don’t think that’s enough.

When I’m talking about technology in either an educational or technology setting, I see books as one tool, but not the only one, and maybe not the major one. The larger question is something different: it’s not about simply how to use the tool, but about what the tool can and can’t do for us.

Which brings us to the Internet:

I’ve been online since 1994, when I first got to college. In that time, I’ve made friends, gotten frustrated, planned projects, taught classes (including teaching music theory in a pure-text environment, which was an interesting trick!), learned leadership skills, taught myself about any number of things. And that’s before we get into any of my actual professional or formal educational work – all those things are just the things I did on my own, self-directed, because they were interesting.

Every major news story in the past 15 years, I learned about online before I heard about it from TV or radio news. (There’s one exception: I learned about the 35W bridge collapse while sitting in the computer lab at grad school working on an assignment, as someone walked in having just heard it on the radio before the online stories were up – but I would have seen an online story through my usual haunts inside of five minutes.)

The Internet has kept me in touch with friends – that’s the thing everyone knows it’s good for, especially in our current Facebook era. But it’s more than that: it’s making new connections.

In a job hunt where I’m being very geographically flexible, I’ve found time and time again that if I say “Hey, looking at a job in [wherever]” someone I’m linked to through my personal online accounts will know useful things about the area, or is glad to put me in touch with someone who’s just as glad to share. Or they’ll know someone who graduated from there. Or something else that lets me dig more deeply into what’d be like to live and work in that place. (And it’s been true even for places where I would have sworn it’d be unlikely.)

As someone who did a major cross-country move in 1999, when these tools weren’t nearly so wide spread, I’m delighted by that every time.

And it’s in making other connections – running into someone in a discussion in a forum about our shared religion, and discovering we’ve got academic and professional interests in common. Learning about someone through their hobby, and finding out they write great and passionate and amazing blog posts about another topic that I happen to be helping someone with. And much more.

But it’s also in my professional life.

One of the stories I tell about the power of the Internet goes like this. In the fall of 2009, a student – someone I knew was a brillant, engaged, amazing student – came to me looking for some reference help.

She was taking AP European History, and she wanted to argue, for one of her papers, that you couldn’t consider an era truly ‘modern’ until it had consideration for the role of women and minorities in the culture. (Not that they’d solved the problems – but that they were part of general public conversation and political discourse.) She needed some sources to support her argument.

I looked at that, went “Hey, great topic.” and she and I sat down to do some digging on it. We tried a lot of different approaches, but we kept not finding the right thing. She had to go to class after about 20 minutes so I promised I’d keep working, and I did about another 25 minutes (and brainstormed with my assistant, and tried a few other things) before deciding I needed a different approach.

I posted a request to my personal journal, basically saying “I know various of you have a particular interest in women’s history and diversity studies – any ideas?” and with a few notes about what was accessible in a useful timeframe.

I posted it at 10:55. By 11:15, I had a response with the perfect essay to solve the source problem. (In an older but classic collection that the library owned, even!) Within another hour, I’d had a couple more suggestions, and another reference to the same title’s usefulness.

Now, I could have spent hours poking at that – and likely have found the book, but only after skimming through other titles that might be relevant first (and not having time to spend on other good and useful things that were good for other students, the library, etc.).

With the shared knowledge of my friends, it was a much faster process, and I could get back to a busy and highly engaged student at lunch, and say “Hey, here’s this great book, and here’s some other suggestions, and now that I’ve got those classic articles, here’s a couple more ideas of things to try in JSTOR and other databases.” She thought it was pretty awesome, too.

This is – again – one of those things we’re not really teaching, as technology education professionals.

It’s not just about the tools, and how to use them.

It’s about how we choose to use them, and what we can do in small pieces, now and going forward, that build those connections and create those interactions, so that ‘news’ is not a thing we listen to at 6pm, but a thing that’s flowing around us throughout the day, or that research is not just something we ask a librarian (though there are lots of times that’s a good thing to do) but where we’ve got connections to friends with a wide range of expertise and knowledge in many places.

That’s not easy. For one thing, learning how to sort out all those different sources of information, and figure out which ones are useful or reliable or meaningful gets pretty complicated. But at the same time, can we afford not to have these skills?

And perhaps most importantly, it’s about how we dance with the technology in our lives, in this time of ‘always on’ access. What happens when we turn off the phone, or take a break from the screen? What happens when we want time for focused work, or extended play? How do we recognise our own personal temptations, and find ways to manage them? There are lots of good conversations about these things out there already – but we can use more.

The more I think about this, the more I think that it’s probably the essential question schools need to answer in the next decade or so – and particularly, how to help students for whom various parts of this (creating healthy, balanced connections with others, having access to technology tools but not living under their control,  being comfortable with complexity and issues that don’t have easy answers, and much more) doesn’t come naturally.

My personal set up

Here’s the thing: when you go looking at comments about different tools, you’ll probably find what I did: lots of people talking about the tools, but not as many talking about the meat and bones of how they set things up. (There are a few, but not, in my opinion, enough!)

So, I wanted to do a detailed overview of exactly how my system’s set up. (It got long, but I think having it all in one place is easier than splitting it up.)

Continue reading My personal set up

Links of interest: April 29th, 2011

(As you can guess by the gap, travel last week did mean I didn’t get other things done that I would have liked, including the links post. Onward! This week’s links cover a fascinating case study in information literacy, online communication in several directions, and some other interesting resources.)

Continue reading Links of interest: April 29th, 2011

Links of interest: April 15th, 2011

Living online:

Comments to one of the posts I linked to last week (Denise’s post about why LiveJournal has been such a major free speech tool in Russia) brought up a link to another great post, this one from a 2008 speech from Ethan Zuckerman (formerly of Tripod) about how technology use can shift – the Cute Cat Theory of Activism. It’s well worth a read.

The future of libraries:
Several interesting posts this week about the future of libraries.

Other ways to teach:

Michael Stephens posts comments about what’s working and not working for two different MLIS students in online programs, and solicits ideas from others – some interesting stuff!

Gwyneth posts a great series of library orientation exercises using QR codes that were particularly accessible to ESOL students.

And Cat Valente (author and prolific blogger) shares a really great story from her own education, and about how a week of class time had a lifetime impact on her sense of story and narrative.

Copyright resources update:
I’ve added two new links to the copyright video resources page – one from YouTube about copyright (as you might guess, pretty heavily on the side of content creators, not remixers), and one from Rocketboom about how to dispute a takedown challenge (and what kinds of uses might be fair uses.) More on the copyright videos page. I have some more additions planned, but due to other commitments, it may be about two weeks before I get a chance to both watch the new videos and write them up.

There may or may not be links post next week: I have a day-long interview in a totally different city on Thursday, so it’ll depend on things like travel delays and the amount of focus I have after that.

Task management: tools

Step two in the task management series: figure out which tools are going to work for you. (Part 1: a summary of theories and approaches is a good place to start.)

Starting points:

There are so many things to consider when picking a tool. If you’re like most people, it may take a couple of rounds of trying different ones out, before you find the one that really clicks. Here’s some things you might think about.

Some people really want a satisfying user experience (whether that’s the scratch of a good pen on good paper, or a beautifully designed user interface for the program.) Some people want the bare bones: a plain piece of paper or the blank possibility of a text file. Likewise, some people have a strong preference for specific features or tools, and other people have no need for those same things. So, in this post, we’re going to look at some general questions you might want to think about, and then a couple of different tools, so you can see a range of differences.

There are a ton of free options out there, so if you have trouble figuring out what you like, you can play around with different tools and see which features matter to you, even if you settle on a paid option eventually.

Continue reading Task management: tools

Links of interest: April 8th, 2011

Problematic editorial responses:

There’s been a lot of discussion in the past week or so about Wicked Pretty Things, a young adult anthology focused on ‘dark fairy romance’. Seanan McGuire, originally part of the anthology, posted a very good summary of the problem: namely, that the editor had rejected a story that included a gay romance (in ways that were otherwise tasteful and appropriate to the age group.) As Seanan says:

And here’s the thing. There is absolutely no reason to censor a story that was written to the guidelines (which dictated how much profanity, sexuality, etc. was acceptable, as good guidelines should). If Jessica had written hard-core erotica, then rejecting it would have made perfect sense. Not that kind of book. But she didn’t. She wrote a romance, just like the rest of us, only her romance didn’t include any girls. And she didn’t get a rejection; she got her story accepted, just like the rest of us. Only while we got the usual editorial comments, she got “One of your characters needs to be turned into something he’s not.” And that’s not okay.

She continues to talk powerfully about why she feels the need to stand with the people who resist bullying through exclusion.

But the story doesn’t end there: along with a lot of other online discussion, and statements from the anthology editor (not particularly satisfying) and the publishing house (ditto), the publisher used an opinions essay in Publisher’s Weekly to scold the original author (misrepresenting what she’d done, for people who didn’t know the background, in the process.) That part? Really not cool. Good thing there’s a ‘Net with more information, really.  Dear Author has a post about this, including a link to the essay and additional background.

Cleolinda has been doing a series of posts with far more exhaustive links: part 1, part 1.5, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.

Professional challenges and changes:

Joyce Valenza links to a great project from the librarians at McPherson College, who came up with a short graphic novel called Library of the Living Dead to explain library services to new students. It has me thinking of all kinds of great ideas (and glad that generally libraries are not zombie-infested.)

Doug Johnson has a post on the reality of paraprofessionals taking on roles previously filled by MLS-degreed professionals brought on by an email asking for help. This is one of those painful situations where everyone’s got a point, but I always wonder who we’re serving by pushing people into a role they’re not prepare for. Many paraprofessionals (as I was, when I was one) are great at the day to day stuff, and I suspect everyone reading this knows places that would never work without them.

But where the MLIS degree focuses is on looking at larger issues and how to navigate them over years or decades. As with most things involving learning a new way to look at the world, that’s not an easy thing to pick up on the fly, while trying to do two people’s jobs. Some people will manage – but what happens to those served by the people who don’t? I’m not just talking here about them not offering the kinds of services our students need and deserve – but also about the costs to them in trying to do a complicated job without adequate staffing, support, training, or time for reflection and renewal.

Jessamyn West, Fiona Morgan, and Justin Grimes did a presentation at SXSW 2011 on the digital divide in rural areas. Lots of great notes and resources, too.

Brian Herzog talks about some of the challenges and triumphs of dismantling their reference section – and why they did it.

Social media:

Troy Swanson has a great guest post at Tame The Web about how libraries need to look at how they use social media a bit differently – and how it can bring employees in a library who don’t get to see each other in person into a common community.

Denise, one of the co-founders of Dreamwidth had two great posts recently. One, in her formal managerial hat, is about development decisions there, and specifically how they’ve been spending a lot of time paying down technical debt (that’s the stuff you do because you need to get it done, but knowing it’s going to need to be fixed later). It’s got me thinking a lot about the equivalent in the library world (and I hope that’s going to gel into some writing sooner than later.)

She’s also made, from her personal account, a very powerful post about recent issues with LiveJournal, where she worked for a number of years (and where I volunteered under her direction.) I’ve had a number of online homes over the years, but LiveJournal is one of the longest-lasting: I’ll have had an account there for 10 years in May, during which time I’ve posted thousands of entries that help me follow threads of information and connection through my life. (These days, I focus more on Dreamwidth, because I want to specifically support some of their priorities, but due to cross-posting and other tools, still am around LJ a lot.)

Anyway, LiveJournal became, for various reasons, the pre-eminent free press outlet in Russia, both before being bought by the Russian company SUP, and since. Denise explains some of why this was, how it raised complex issues questions on a practical level, and how the site’s contributed to free expression in Russia in a variety of ways. (The reason this is relevant this week is that LiveJournal’s been under substantial DDOS attacks and other problems that have made use of the site more complicated (like lots of spammers.))

Task management: theories and approaches

I’ve been promising a series of posts about task management for a while now. Welcome to the first one, where I’m going to talk about some of my own background, and then some different basic philosophies. I’ll have links to resources as I talk about different approaches. (Next post will be looking at some different tool options, and then I’ll talk about my actual system.) I’ll also touch on some things we as educators are not really teaching students about these topics in various places.

Many task management systems were originally designed for use by business executives – or at least people with offices (and doors that close), appointment calendars, assistants, and who could plan on at least some chunks of focused time. As a librarian and educator, that’s not reliably a part of my work life (and it isn’t for a bunch of other professions, either), so one thing I’m going to particularly focus on is creating a system that works for those of us who are frequently interrupted, regularly have to switch priorities, or who have variable amounts of energy and focus for whatever reason.

As with other posts in this file and information management series, this series on task management is going to be about half general theory and things to think about, and half “here’s what I do, and why”. I promise screenshots when they’re useful, too!

Continue reading Task management: theories and approaches

Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

More about my job and a day in the life

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