The Quiet Season

I was thinking about writing today, and for the first time in my life, I longed for winter — the long, dark quiet of the night. All sounds are muffled, there is no smell but cold, and you can be utterly alone in a wide, wide world.

The summer night is full of sound, crickets chirping, locusts buzzing, traffic flying by even in the small hours. There are the smells of plants and dirt and barbecue and rainstorms. But in the winter night comes early, and with it the eerie silence made by a blanket of snow. Summer is all around you, there are living things everywhere, but in winter, you can look out upon the darkness and feel the world collapse in upon yourself. It is both lonely and freeing. I love the silence and the darkness, being alone with my thoughts that way. I have to answer to no one but the questions and doubts in my own mind. I can have endless conversations with myself, working out my desires and conflicts and the meanings the universe holds within me. It is a time of creation.

That seems odd, that winter should create. Fall heralds the oncoming onslaught of darkness and cold in which I can create within, while without it signals the destruction of the life of summer. Spring melts away the aloneness and freedom of winter and brings out summer’s stifling closeness. This, then, is finally the reason to love the winter, to always look to the north, to orient life toward the snows that are coming. Summer is easy to love, and it gives its love easily away, but winter is less kind and accommodating. You can love it on its own terms, for what it has to give, but its love is not the warm love of summer, and no fires and Christmas carols can make it anything but what it is. Winter is the state of suspension in which the soul is free to seek itself.

Best book I read last year

I read quite a few books in 2008. Not as many as some years (way back when in junior high when I read so voraciously) and not as few as others (when I was in grad school — only counting books for pleasure, here, not for classes).

Far and away, the best thing I read this year was Little, Big by John Crowley. It’s not new; it was written in 1981 and won a World Fantasy Award in 1982. I don’t recall now how I stumbled across it, but I’m glad I did.

It’s a remarkable story, and really kind of indescribable. It feels something like an E.M. Forster novel with some inexplicable, mysterious magic about it. I could say it’s about fairies, but that doesn’t do it justice, and it’s not really about fairies at all. It’s about people, who are at once ordinary and utterly wondrous. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s happy, it’s hopeful, it’s sad. I laughed and cried. Reading it feels like listening to a vast symphony of notes that conjures up your emotions and leaves you deliciously spent. I highly recommend it.

“The farther in you go, the bigger it gets.”

Changes

It’s been a looooong time since I’ve blogged, and I’m finally dusting this thing off and getting back to it.

Lots of changes have happened. Most notably, I’ve changed jobs. Also ive started a new blog at All beauty reviews for make up reviews. Formerly doing information architecture and content management consulting, I’ve sidestepped fields slightly into web analytics at another consulting firm, LunaMetrics, also here in Pittsburgh.

Web analytics is all about measuring what people are actually doing on websites. You can’t create a good site without relying on information architecture best practices (my old role), but you also don’t really know a site is working as well as it could or should without measurement and experimentation (my new one). My role is again a mix of technical and business knowledge. I have to be able to tweak JavaScript tracking code, but I also need to be able to elicit the goals of a website and interpret the analytics to understand what that means to the business behind it. And, I get to play with numbers, which is fun (I was a math major, after all).

So far, I’m very excited. I like learning new stuff, so I’ve been immersed in web analytics blogs and books, and learning Google Analytics (GA), since we’re a GA Authorized Consultant. Last week we did a one-day training in NYC for about 70 people, where I got to speak about creating a data-driven culture at your company. (The challenges of changing company cultures I am all too familiar with from my previous work.)

So I’m sure you’ll hear more on this blog about web analytics. I also am far, far behind on a post I started writing ages ago about mashups, which I’ll be finishing soon, and I have a handful of other things I’m itching to write about too. It’s been a long dry spell of blogging, but I’m back. Hmm… this place could probably use a redesign, too…

The stupid 5 things

Jessamyn tagged me with the (seemingly totally unavoidable) “5 things you don’t know about me” meme. I really hate bloggy, email-y, chain-letter-y things… but who can say no to Jessamyn? So, with no further delay:

  1. I am familiar with more than half the seasons of the Real World, though I’m not watching The Real World: Denver (this season) because I don’t have MTV any more. I have also had other guilty addictions to reality TV, although currently there’s only Wife Swap. (Watch it. It’s about developing understanding across classes and cultures. Or something. Really.)
  2. Someday, I want to design and build my own house. Other things I would like to build: a boat. A big wooden one, with sails.
  3. I have never broken a bone. (None of mine, and no one else’s either. Except turkey wishbones at Thanksgiving.)
  4. I sometimes burst into song when I’m home alone. Loudly, and with feeling. This time of year, mostly Bing Crosby tunes. The cat thinks I’m a little nuts, but I don’t mind.
  5. If I had been a girl, my parents were going to name me Amanda.

I hate to pass this on, but I’m sure if I don’t a tree will fall on my car or I will be forced to surrender my firstborn child to a mysterious dwarf. Or something. So, in honor of Time magazine’s person of the year, I tag… YOU. Enjoy.

What I Do

I realized I’ve never really talked much about what I do and where I work on this blog.

I’m an Information Architect* at a consulting firm in Pittsburgh that employs about 20 people. Our specialty is streamlining business processes that involve information, including things like policies and procedures, product documentation, and portal design. The company has been around since 1989, when it started as a technical writing firm. In the 90’s with the advent of knowledge management, the company got involved with wider issues around organizing information, such as portals and intranets.

I’ve worked here since 2003, and my job duties involve all parts of the information life cycle. On some projects, I’m essentially a technical writer: I gather source materials, interview subject matter experts, and write documents like procedures or user manuals. I’m also the “techie guy”, and much of my work involves designing efficient publishing processes that can take advantage of reusable information and publish it in many formats. Much of our documentation is based on XML formats that can be flexibly repurposed into, e.g., a print manual, online help, training slides, web-based interactive training, and so on. And finally, we help businesses organize and manage all this information as well, helping them understand their needs for content management systems, portals, intranets, etc., and how to integrate those tools into their ways of doing business.

So that’s what I do. It takes a broad range of skills, from technical writing, to indexing and classification, to thinking about usability and accessibility, to markup and scripting, to systems administration. I can’t say I’m especially good at many of those, but I muddle through somehow. :)

*I’m still not sure I really know what that means, but it looks pretty on my business card.

Stupid career quizzes and the existential angst exposed thereby

I just took a stupid career quiz on MSN: Do you love your job? In the tradition of all stupid quizzes, it doesn’t really tell you anything you don’t already know, or couldn’t figure out on your own with a little consideration.

I was a mixture of D’s and C’s, with a B or two thrown in (the “Answer Key” is at the bottom). Basically, if Goldilocks is an A, she likes her job too much; a B, she doesn’t like it at all; a C, she likes it just right. D… well, D is what I’m most interested in, because it’s where I identify most closely. Here’s a little of what it says:

D: It’s the first letter in “dilettante,” which is what you tend to be when it comes to your professional life. You are most likely ambitious and multitalented, but have trouble settling down because it means foregoing other choices. This isn’t necessarily a bad quality — many people change careers several times throughout their lives — but you should try to make sure these switches in direction are based on careful thought and consideration rather than impulse.

This is so me. I was a scientist who got burned out on grad school, so I quit and completely reinvented my resume and started a career as a technical writer. (File this under: Benefits of a liberal arts education.) Now I feel like I’ve pretty much mastered all the things I do in my job, and I’m ready for something new, so I’ve applied to go to library school.

I start to have a problem with what the rest of the description says, however:

Perhaps you’re reluctant to commit to one job or career because you haven’t prioritized your goals. Since it’s impossible to do everything, try narrowing your options by assessing your talents and preferences. Ask basic questions � do I like to work with people or am I happier with solitary pursuits? Do I have a knack for mathematics, science, languages, music, art or sales? Could my interest in a particular field lead to a career or merely a hobby? Can I make money at this? Do I want to do this work 40 or more hours a week? Finding the answers to these questions is the first step toward committing to a career choice.

Well thank you, MSN content-creation monkey, for so neatly mapping things out for me. Now my life is complete.

Seriously, who says I have to “commit to a career choice”? I just don’t really think there’s any single career that’s for me. I know it’s normal for people to change careers once or twice (and change jobs many times), but my life is shaping into changing my career every couple of years or so. And that’s OK with me. (For K folks, see the article in the last Lux Esto about alumni changing careers. I swear that K’s quarters ruined me for anything lasting longer than 10 weeks, and apparently I’m not alone in this feeling.) I think an MLS is also a super idea at this point, because (1) I’d love to go back to school about now, and (2) it’s the handyman equivalent of the academic world, a sort of jack-of-all-trades with information, which I feel will serve me well in lots of careers down the road, whatever they may be.

Yeah, I like this career-changing-every-so-often track. I imagine by the time I “retire” I will have been a climate scientist, a technical writer, a librarian, a car mechanic, an artist, and a fry-cook on Venus, and eight other things. All of which sound like a lot of fun, at least for a couple of years. “[I]t’s impossible to do everything”? My ass.

Being a Consultant

Everything I know about consulting can be summed up in the following:

  1. Listen to your customers.
  2. Understand your customers.
  3. Be their trusted advisor.

Listen to your customers. A consultant’s #1 skill is listening. If you can’t listen to your customers explain their problems and needs, you won’t get anywhere. I’ve worked with others who, because they’re consultants, think they already know what the customer needs before the customer has a chance to describe it. It is, after all, the consultant’s job to know what to do; that’s why people hire us in the first place. But this approach is wrong-headed for a couple of reasons. First, “what to do” is highly dependent on what the problem is. Without listening to what makes this customer special, it’s hard to say off the bat what’s right for their situation. Second, listening to the customer gives them confidence in you. They see that you take them and their problems seriously. And finally, often people just really like to get their problems off their chest. When you give them a friendly ear, they unload, and they feel relieved already just because somebody is listening to them, even if you haven’t done anything yet.

Understand your customers. So you have to be a great listener. But the next step is taking what you hear and figuring out what to do about it. This is where the “consultant” part comes into play — your special expertise, the reason people hire you instead of doing it themselves. You need to understand their problems as if they were your own and apply your expertise to give them workable solutions. And by “solution”, I mean the whole deal — not just a tool that fixes their problem or a process sketched out on a piece of paper. You have to consider the whole kit and kaboodle, including the hurdles your customer may need to overcome with their bosses or colleages to actually do something with the tools and processes you’re suggestion. The “solution” should be a way to actually solve their problem, taking into account everything you’ve learned about their situation.

Then, when you have solutions, you have to deliver them in a way that your customer understands. You need to be patient, because they do not have your expertise (remember, that’s why they hired you). You need to be diplomatic, because often your solution will involve telling them they weren’t doing something in the best possible way before, and they could do better. Of course they do want to do better, but they don’t want to be embarassed or feel scolded in the process. This is what we used to refer to as the “your baby is ugly” problem. If someone’s put a lot of time and work into a project — their “baby” — and then the consultant comes along and tells them how awful it is, they’re really put off. You have to be gentle and work with them, and focus on the improvements they can make rather than the mistakes they already did.

Be their trusted advisor. Through this process, your customer comes to trust you. They rely on you. They call you up or have you sit in meetings to get your opinion about this thing and that thing, and they bring you in because they’re starting Phase II and they want your input. This is the kind of relationship you have to strive for — being your customer’s trusted advisor. (I’ve never read The Trusted Advisor, but it’s come to me with high recommendations. I’m adding it to my reading list.) This kind of relationship smoothes over the sales process, because you don’t have to prove yourself to the customer. They know you and they like working with you, and they trust your abilities in guiding them to do the right things. Moreover, they trust you to treat them with regard, to handle their problems delicately, and to not embarrass them with their boss.

That’s it; that’s all there is. Consulting is all about relationships, and if you have good ones, you almost can’t fail. You can be a top expert in your field, but if you can’t do these three things, clients won’t like working with you because even though you’re smart, you don’t feel very helpful. I’ve seen consultants who were really good at listening to customers, understanding them, and being trusted advisors — and even though not all of them necessarily had top-notch expertise on tools or technologies or whatever the client actually needed help with — those people get repeat business, because clients actually feel that they are getting helped.

Of course, to be the best consultant, you really do have to have the knowledge that the client needs. That’s the second part of what I said.

JW’s Philosophy of Learning

Some people are constantly amazed at what I know about various subjects, especially technology and how various pieces of software work. I am going to let you in on a little secret: there is no secret to amassing this knowledge.

(With credit to Dorothea for the phrasing): The way to learn is to beat on things with rocks.

That’s it. Just keep trying until it does what you want it to do. When you get there (or even if you don’t), I guarantee you will have learned something.

OK, I can recognize that this is a statement of philosophy, but as an actual game plan, it may not be all that helpful. So here are five tips on how to be a more effective rock-beater:

  1. Define the problem well
  2. RTFM
  3. Change one thing at a time
  4. Someone else already knows
  5. Don’t believe it until you see it

Define the problem well. This may seem like a no-brainer, but if you don’t know what it is you’re trying to do, it’s hard to come up with something effective to do about it. Before you start hammering away willy-nilly, take a step back and say, “What do I need to accomplish here? What’s vital in what I’m trying to do, and what’s just nice-to-have? Is this really a problem, or is it caused by something upstream that’s really what I need to be working on?”

RTFM. Read the *#$%^@ manual. (This is especially dear to me because I used to be a technical writer.) Now, I know, not everything has a lovely manual like the kind I used to write. But by gosh and by golly, you won’t know until you take a look, will you? I can’t count the number of times someone has asked me a question that’s perfectly good, but also perfectly easy to answer if they’d spend 5 minutes taking a look at the documentation.

Change one thing at a time. If you’re trying to suss out how something works, you must think of yourself as a scientist performing a little experiment. You must change just one thing at a time to see what happens. If you change two or three or twenty-seven things at a time, how will you know which one is the one that actually worked?

Somebody else already knows. The chances are high that there is someone out there who can answer your questions. Maybe it’s your colleague in the cubicle next door, or maybe it’s somebody with a blog or a book or on a forum or mailing list. (Part of the trick is knowing where to look; do some research. The Internet is your friend, and so is your library.)

If you ask, these people are often eager to teach you what they know. However, a word of warning — there’s a reason this is the fourth tip and not the first one. “Define your problem” and “RTFM” first, or people are likely to be a little peeved at you for dumping your ill-defined problem on them, or asking things you could easily have found out yourself. Get as far as you can on your own, then ask for help.

Don’t believe it until you see it. This is the flipside of “RTFM” and “Somebody already knows”. Some document or person can describe how something is supposed to work, but you should still try it out. (This is especially true when the document happens to be a piece of marketing literature for software.) By trying it yourself, you make it yours. You really understand how and why (or even if) it works.

Good luck

So that’s all I know, and it works for me. I can’t promise any more than that, but I do hope it helped my former coworker, and I hope it helps somebody out there in the blogosphere, too.

Too busy to blog?

My last post was an email I’d just written to a friend. As I was writing the email, I thought, “I should blog this”, largely because I’d read this just an hour before:

When people tell me they’re too busy to blog, I ask them to count up their output of keystrokes. How many of those keystrokes flow into email messages? Most. How many people receive those email messages? Few. How many people could usefully benefit from those messages, now or later? More than a few, maybe a lot more. (Jon Udell, “Too busy to blog? Count your keystrokes, more info here”)

The whole post is definitely worth a read.

I’ve been pretty absent from blogging lately, but I think I’ll take this to heart, both for this blog and for work-related emails that might be better served by an internally-facing blog. My company is reasonably compact (certainly in comparison to Microsoft, anyway!) but we still have a lot of challenges spreading information around when people aren’t all in the office together and communicating face-to-face. We’ve reached a size now where, even when we are all in the office, some people are still out of the loop on X, Y, or Z because they weren’t present at the conversation in so-and-so’s office, or over the lunchroom table, or wherever.

And speaking of not blogging in a while, it reminds me that I also have a post on Yahoo Pipes and Dapp and many related issues that I started ages ago — like when Yahoo Pipes debuted — that I still haven’t finished… Too busy… ;)

Open Library architecture

You’ve no doubt already heard about the Open Library demo site from the Internet Archive, brainchild of Brewster Kahle and Aaron Swartz. I think it’s a really exciting project, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it soon.

One thing that struck me as interesting is a technical detail. On the “About the technology” page, there’s this tidbit:

We wanted a database that could hold tens of millions of records, that would allow random users to modify its entries and keep a full history of their changes, and that would hold arbitrary semi-structured data as users added it. Each of these problems had been solved on its own, but nobody had yet built a technology that solved all three together.

So we created ThingDB (tdb), a new database framework that gives us this flexibility. ThingDB stores a collection of objects, called “things”. For example, on the Open Library site, each page, book, author, and user is a thing in the database. Each thing then has a series of arbitrary key-value pairs as properties. […] Each collection of key-value pairs is stored as a version, along with the time it was saved and the person who saved it. This allows us to store full semi-structured data, as well as travel back thru time to retrieve old versions of it.

This sounds really interesting. It also reminds me very much of Maya’su-forms (pdf), aside from the fact that the identifiers aren’t UUIDs. Although I’m not really database-savvy enough to know much about the underlying infrastructure that makes any of this happen, so my interest is something like an ape staring at a power drill, but still, I thought it worth noting.

Karen Schneider, hip “old lady”

The biblioblogosphere is fluttering with talk about the fluffy librarian-image piece in the New York Times style section. On one hand, it’s one of those “Librarians: we’re cooler than you think we are” articles, and as those go, it’s not a half bad one. I mean, Jessamyn gets mentioned, so that’s one thing going for it right there.

But Karen Schneider calls out what’s lacking. It is, after all, the style section, and there’s a lot of concentration on cocktails, clothes, and tattoos. There’s also a glossing-over of some stereotyping that deserves examining and lack of attention to the things that truly make librarians “hip”. Karen writes,

Jessamyn is of the hippest of the hip not because she routinely uses instant messaging, but because she is such a tireless advocate for small libraries and poor communities — the unserved, often voiceless communities many of us (including me) forget about when we get hopped up about some new new thing.

Right on. And she goes on to say,

I am cool in my subversive old-lady tech-loving the-user-is-not-broken way, and getting cooler all the time, and I count among my friends and colleagues librarians of all ages, dress codes, and evening habits.

Karen, if you want to identify as “old lady”, I’ll support you on whatever you want to be. ;) But I have to say, also one of the coolest librarians I know of. Thanks for blogging.

When thinking about bibliographic data (for example) and social applications using taggings, it’s pretty easy to think that the data (title, author, and so on) is highly structured and therefore very different from tags, which are freeform and all that jazz. In many ways, that’s true, and it’s especially important for the purposes of bibliographic control. But in social applications where users are contributing data, the line can get a lot fuzzier. LibraryThing is an example: users contribute various structured and unstructured data about books. Some of the data comes from libraries or Amazon, some is put in by hand, and some of the library- or publisher-supplied data is cleaned up by users, because it’s not always right. Users can enter structured information in fields—information about the item in general like title and author, but also personal information, like ratings and the date it was read. They can also enter tags and search and sort books by those tags. Rating are important, and another example would be Swift Runners, a running shoe website that uses categories and silo-type structure to separate it’s information. The website has great information that you can learn about by visiting Swift Runners. Look to the site structure and you will learn more.

Flickr has just introduced “machine tags” (or “triple tags”). These build on existing geotags, which encode locations like this: geo:long=123.456. They’re three-part tags, with a namespace and a key-value pair, and you could use them to express all manner of things—like, for example dc:title=Othello. (There are also some semi-official uses of namespaces on tags in del.icio.us, like system:unfiledand :mp3, and various users have used namespaces and triple tags on services like these without official support.) You might think of them as a kind of really lightweight RDF.

Triple tags really blow away the distinction between structured fields and freeform tags like KE Fishing. This is important, because it’s a step along a road in which it’s easier for Joe and Jane User to make sense of complicated sets of data by sorting and filtering. Once you’ve become comfortable searching and sorting your tags, it’s not too much of a stretch to apply the same tools to more structured data. Sure, maybe it’s the same data that’s always been there, but now maybe Jane User could be better at manipulating it because she doesn’t have to understand “databases”, she just has grok “tags”, along with a little lightweight syntax. It’s just a different way of looking at the data, one that might prove more friendly. I know not all the tools are there yet, and I’m certainly not saying that everybody’s grandma is going to be putting machine tags on Flickr tomorrow, but I think this is a step in the right direction.

On clever solutions…

When people come to the library, that’s a good thing. But, sometimes lots of people at the library can mean the library gets noisy with people working together or just chatting. People who’ve come to the library for some peace and quiet to get work done can be disturbed.

The solutions to this problem are usually to have quiet study rooms that can be closed off, and/or to formally designate or subtly design for group spaces where it’s OK to talk a little bit separate from quiet spaces. Today, I saw a pretty clever additional idea from my undergraduate alma mater: noise-canceling headphones you can check out to use while you’re in the library. Cool!

What is venture capital, and is library automation getting any?

I’ve seen the phrase “venture capital” bandied about in reference to Vista Equity Partners’ recent acquisition of SirsiDynix (pdf), and the earlier acquisition of Ex Libris/Endeavor by Francisco Partners. Venture capital is a somewhat nebulous term, meaning different things to different people. Since the rise and fall of the dot-com era, however, it’s most often applied to capital offered to start-ups, anticipating large returns for the relatively high risk of investment. It provides an infusion of cash to a new or small company, enabling innovation. Sometimes “venture capital” is also applied to an investment in a beleaguered company in order to turn it around, which can be similarly high risk/high reward.

Though I can appreciate the hopes of library automation customers that the recent acquisitions may signal an infusion of cash that will fuel innovation, that’s not exactly what’s going on here. These are buyouts by private equity firms of large, established companies. Although we sometimes talk about the state of library automation software in terms that might be described as “beleaguered”, I’m not really sure that describes these companies’ financial situations.

It may indeed be the case that Vista Equity Partners and Francisco Partners intend to invest resources into these companies to make them better and more profitable, and if so, I think that’s great. (I, for one, welcome our new private equity firm overlords.) On the other hand, these acquisitions could be an example of what’s known as leveraged buyout, a strategy by which private equity firms acquire companies by borrowing against the assets they acquire. Often this involves paying themselves a big cash dividend, and then doing just enough to keep the company afloat under the sometimes excessive debt burdens they have inflicted during the acquisition, and attempting to sell it off again in a year or two.

I’m not saying I know which will happen, or even which is more likely. I didn’t do much research about Vista and Francisco’s previous acquisitions and what’s happened to them. I just wanted to make the point that we ought not look at acquisition of large companies like these the same way we look at VCs financing a startup. In these sorts of deals, there’s often a lot of fancy accounting going on that obscures the motives.

Tags and Subject Headings in LibraryThing

When I finished library school in August, I put all of my papers in some boxes and haven’t looked at them since, because I really needed to recover. Happily, yesterday’s post about folksonomy finally forced me to dredge them out and bring to light a paper I did for my indexing and abstracting class on the use of a folksonomy alongside a controlled vocabulary in LibraryThing.

The first part is a sort of “literature review” on folksonomy (such as it is) and an overview of the concepts involved. The second part takes a look at LibraryThing and compares tags and subject headings.

The full text of the paper follows, or you can download a pdf for printing(warning: it’s in ugly, formatted-to-turn-in-for-class format; one of these days I’ll get it prettied up). Some discussion of the features of LibraryThing are slightly out of date (Tim & co. move fast!), and the statistics about popular tags and subject headings certainly are, but I think the main points are still relevant. I’d like to do some more in-depth analysis, especially of the statistical data, at some point in the future.