gifter again & atwater

Austin & Ben have relaunched gifter.org with a shinier interface. Idea is to get people talking about giving. Sponsor a wish (by donating to the charity of your choice), or make a wish on the site.

On that note, the Atwater Digital Literacy Project could really use your help. $25? $100? $1000? Any of those would be much appreciated:

donate to atwater

The Atwater Digital Literacy Project gets at-risk kids and community groups using creative web technologies (blogging, audio, video, digital photos) to find new ways to talk about things important to them, and to help them build their own communities.

[more info …]

Oh, and by the way, as a result of this post, as promised, I donated $23 (in addition to the regular chritable donations I made last year). I chose Amis de la Montagne, because I feel that the physical spaces like Mount Royal are spiritual mirrors to the open public (non-commercial) spaces on the net, like this-here blog, and other projects I like: wikipedia, librivox, gutenberg etc.


Categories: personal

one mouse down

i heard the poor bastard rattling around in the trap at around 6am…but I fell back asleep. woke up at 6:45. more rattling. ugh. so I came down to finish the poor guy off. but either we feed our mice well or the poor guy was a poor gal, and preggers to boot. so if you take a strict utilitarian view of things, maybe the suffering that one mouse had to endure will result in less suffering overall. still, pangs of guilt for the ordeal of my fellow-mammal.


conservative vs progressive, and openness

I’ve been thinking lately about evolution and politics. All this comes out of a revelation I had in the early days of LibriVox, that as an open project, the whole thing – the system – evolved like an organism, getting more complex in response to environmental challenges. More readers, more books, more languages, more projects required a slow evolution of a management from “Hugh collects the files and then uploads” to something very different. We currently have 338 active projects, representing probably 5,000 or more individual audio files – all of which must be collected, checked, named, assigned metadata, and eventually uploaded, and cataloged. That’s a lot of work. Point is that the management system, is very complex, and it evolved in a way that I expect looks a lot (on a small/sped-up scale) like how political systems evolve.

On the conservative/progressive split, there’s an old saw in US politics that the left thinks the right is evil, and the right thinks the left is stupid. Neither is true, of course, or not entirely true, and I think there’s an unwillingness, and sometimes just an inability to understand where the other side comes from. Maybe evolution is useful model to explain things.

Conservatives, generally, appeal to how things have been and claim that we shouldn’t change what’s worked in the past. There’s a sense to that, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.

Progressives, on the other hand, appeal to how things ought to be and claim we should change things to make it work better or differently. There’s a sense to that, that changing environments call for changed response.

By this nomenclature the Bush White House was filled with Progressives, in the sense that they decided to junk the past 50 years of diplomatic standards and wisdom – rule of law, international agreement, importance of history and understanding of the enemy, experience of occupying forces etc – in exchange for a bold new vision of transforming democracy. They thought the purity of the ideal would be enough to carry the day. While the liberals [what was left of them] argued for, essentially, a realist foreign policy approach, more cautionary, and more tied to past experience. The Bush Progressives were shown to be naive at best. And many other things at worst.

I am a temperamental conservative, and an intellectual progressive. Even within LibriVox (a progressive project, I guess), now that we have a system that works pretty well, I am always loathe to change many things substantially, since I worry about the unforeseen impacts changes might have. Because the system evolved through an unknowable cocktail of influences and reactions, I don’t like tinkering with certain of the intangibles, especially the ones whose influence is uncalculable. For instance, there has been a movement to change the disclaimer that comes at the start of our recordings (This is a LibriVox recording, all LibriVox recordings are in the public domain, to find out more or to volunteer, visit LibriVox.org); I have resisted in part because I have an intuition that this disclaimer has had some kind of impact on the creation of the community that makes LibriVox succeed. Reciting it, in some sense, joins us all into a common cause, and that makes for a tighter-kint group – actually, some call us a cult!).

Slipping back to the evolutionary model: as the environment changes radically (say, political, economic, or ecological) there is tension between the conservatives and progressives. Conservatives look back and say: it worked before, it’ll keep working. While the progressives look forward and say, we must change! Without having much idea if it will work.

So I’d argue that a healthy society will allow for strong interplay between the two tendencies, the stabilizing force of conservatism, and the evolving force of progressivism. Balanced against the uncertainty of progressive solutions and the rigid inability of conservatives to change with changing circumstances.

Which is one of the reasons I think we need to find new ways to make democracy work. We need to open the process more, to put more of the decision-making process (and the data behind it) into the hands of the people. Our democratic system is very rigid, and does not change easily. One way to change that is to get the data out, to let people find solutions that might be better than the ones the paid beurocrats dream up.

Because I have a feeling – with peak oil, climate change, population growth, the rising power of china and india, political instability in the Middle East, and the newish digital universe – that we are in for a rocky road in the coming decades, and we’ll need to marshall new tools for addressing those problems. Open democracy, open data, is one way to spread the decision-making ability to a bigger, more complex, and more nimble system.


Atwater Digital Literacy Project – needs your help

Moons ago, Sylvain & I were talking about building a digital media school for kids-at-risk at the Atwater Library. Well, a couple of years later, we’ve got some funding from Heritage Canada, a fantastic project co-ordinator, a bunch of very keen partner groups; and a gaggle of great volunteers and organizers. The plan in this pilot phase is a series workshops, tailored for each partner group, from late February to April 2007.

Here is the project blurb:

The Atwater Digital Literacy Project, a project of the Atwater Library, gets at-risk kids and community groups using creative web technologies (blogging, audio, video, digital photos) to help them express themselves, find new ways to talk about things important to them, and to help them build their communities.

We need some more cash for digital equipment (about $5000). Here’s how you can donate some money (can you spare $25? $100?), or some working equipment:

SUPPORT THE ATWATER DIGITAL LITERACY PROJECT.

You can also help by blogging about this, by sending out some emails, or by volunteering. If you work for a company, especially a tech or media company, maybe you can ask them to sponsor the project? If you want more info, shoot me an email.

And thanks to all who have helped with this project, of course Mir who has done the lions share of the work, the organizers, coordinators, and volunteers, and the great Advisory Committee: Julien Smith, Jen Schultes, Austin Hill, Brett Gaylor, Anuradha Dugal, Sylvain Carle, Paul Shore.


Categories: art, montreal, personal

ben’s is no more

Ben’s the once-great Montreal smoked meat resto, is no more. I took some photos there late one night a couple of years ago.

one last look

See the rest here.


language, quebec and the web

I was at the Montreal web entreprenneurs breakfast, and was talking with Robin, Alex Eberts, Sylvain, and a couple of others about language, the web, Montreal, and politics. It’s funny, though I am an Anglo born and bred, a Westmounter if you can believe it, it’s been a long time since I’ve been a typical Anglo when it comes to Quebec/Canada politics (not sure if typical Anglos exist anymore, at least not this side of the city). Maybe part of that grew out of my stint at university in Kingston. I enjoyed my time there, more or less, but I never quite felt at home in the Anglo Canada of Ontario. My allegiance was always more with the world of Montreal (the French, the English, the everything else) than it was for some idea of Canada. Of course when push comes to shove I’ve voted federalist in referendums, but given the choice of talking to a random Canadian stranger in Tokyo, I’ll feel more at home talking with a Franco-Quebecker than a Torontonian most times (not that I have anything against Torontonians). I’ve long had a certain intellectual sympathy for the separatist movement, partly because I have great respect for Rene Levesque and much of the social democratic vision the PQ had in the early days. (They have abandoned that vision, mostly, and I am not very interested in them as a result – though the rest of the clowns don’t do anything to inspire me either). Certainly as Canada moves more to the right, I am less and less interested in tying myself to the country of Canada as an idea, especially as the elements of the idea I do believe in are fast disappearing.

In the world of web that I live in now, though, the idea of national boundaries are mostly irrelevant. LibriVox, for instance, is populated by people from all over the world, a huge number of Americans, a tiny number of Canadians, and almost no Quebecers (that I can think of). In my commercial web life, I have a British partner in Sydney, and an American partner in Tokyo, and a billingual Franco-Quebecker partner here at home. On another brand new proto-project, LibriLinks, the one guy who has contributed so far is, I think, in England, but I’m not even sure. It doesn’t matter where he’s from.

The only relevant borders for me – at least online – are borders of interest. This is old news, but it’s interesting in the context of Quebec, and especially with the the explosion of new Web projects these days and the increased interaction at events. The ones I’ve been to tilt slightly to English, but the mix is pretty liberal. The money, love it or leave it, is in the US market, so the tendency will be for English. We’re peanuts in Canada, and 1/10 of a peanut in Quebec. As a for instance, 1.2% of the traffic for LibriVox (about 12k visitors a day) is from Canada; vs 32% from the US (the balance being mostly unresloved/unknown @ 26% and network (?) 32%).

English is (so to speak) the lingua franca of the net. No news there either, but the web world that I inhabit in Montreal is pretty bilingual on both sides of the table, and it has to be. Working together on various projects tends to erase the political misconceptions we might have had about each other. There’s not much choice about working together: Anglos have an in because English is our native tongue, and so we’re immediately comfortable in the space where much web action is happening; and it turns out that many of the people doing cool things are Francos.

Not sure what I am getting at, but it was inspired by this discussion chez Martine, and the idea that when you work together on a web project (really any project) with people, just about everything except for the work gets erased from your evaluation, and in the end political barriers break down. In the case of LibriVox something interesting happened. I came to trust and like people not for who they were, what they were (I had no idea of either thing), but for the concrete things they did in that open project. My friendships with those people was built entirely on their actions, and nothing else…And that, it seems to me is the best possible basis for a friendship – accross thousands of kilometers, across language, political, and national divides. There is an interesting web project in there – getting people from different sides of some heated politics to work together on a project with a common cause.


wikipedia & bad writing

I love wikipedia, but there’s a glaring problem, something I’ve noticed more of late: the writing is often terrible. If you wanted to learn how to write good clear prose, Britannica is as good a model as any. Wikipedia is … not. Or, usually not. On the surface that doesn’t matter, since the primary objective of both Wikipedia and Britannica is to deliver information. As an information-delivery system, wikipedia wins out for me, because it is free and accessible. Britannica loses because it is not free, and therefore inaccessible. And for my purposes, Wikipedia is usually a good place to get what I want, or at least to find out where to get what I want.

But as a model for good clear writing it is a miss, with the occasional hit. To some degree this is true on the net in general. I am certainly more sloppy in a blog post, a forum post, an email than I would be with a document that will be printed. I let mistakes go that I would never consider letting go in physical writing.

I wonder if this matters? Does “writing well” matter? Yes, I think that it does. In my life experience, in engineering, in corporate policy, in finance, in fund-raising, in project management, and of course in writing, one skill I think I have is the ability to express ideas clearly and well. That still has great value, and that, I think, is why good writing is important, even if it is not really valued as such by our market society. Most writers, for instance, get paid pennies. But probably people who can express ideas clearly often move beyond “mere” writing, to use that skill for other things.

So this is one area where Wikipedia might cause harm: it is a bad model for how to write.

Still, the blogs I read – the very few professional ones, and the handful of blogs by friends of mine – tend to be well-written and clear. Mistakes are rare. Is that because their writers are products of a time when books were important? Or is the value of good writing inherent in the net where, despite the technology used, we’re still mostly writing words for people to read? Will the grown-up MySpace & Wikipedia generation pay as much attention to grammar and (yikes) spelling, as us older folk? (Even if we are often, like me, more careless on the net than we would be elsewhere? especially with spelling).

These thoughts were spurred on by some bad writing in wikipedia, not sure what, but there is much to choose froml; and by this curious video, which I loved, and which was in response to the now famous: the machine is us/ing us.