Notes on what I've been reading

I've heard many references to Bertrand Russell's In praise of idleness over the years, but I'd never actually read this short article from Harpers magazine until last month. It's a great read, and still stands up 90 years later:

One of the commonest things to do with savings is to lend them to some government. In view of the fact that the bulk of the expenditure of most civilized governments consists in payments for past wars and preparation for future wars, the man who lends his money to a government is in the same position as the bad men in Shakespeare who hire murderers. The net result of the man’s economical habits is to increase the armed forces of the State to which he lends his savings. Obviously it would be better if he spent the money, even if he spent it on drink or gambling. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.

Another subversive author was David Graeber (RIP). On Graeber's sudden death in 2020, CrimethInc republished his essay The Shock of Victory. As CrimethInc noted, Graeber's message in this essay is only more relevant as time goes on. Graeber points out that anarchists and activists are often unprepared for what happens when they win, and don't always register victories when they occur because they don't look like the total and complete replacement of our current socio-political systems that many are hoping for.

Graeber takes us through a series of examples, splitting out campaign goals into short, medium, and long term goals. In each case, whilst the long and short term goals may appear not to have been reached, the medium term goals were. But many of those involved arguably didn't notice, or at least didn't connect those victories to their own work sufficiently. It's an interesting analysis and well worth thinking about.

Psyche has a great piece about Simone de Beauvior's thoughts on friendship.

Later, Beauvoir wrote that ‘for friendship to be authentic, it must first be free.’ Of course, there must be some kind of reciprocity in friendship, but how that reciprocity manifests is often lopsided. We tend to lazily think of friendship as symmetrical, when most of the time it isn’t – and doesn’t need to be, as long as the friendship is based on intersubjectivity.

I thought this was interesting because so many of us fret about whether we're doing friendship right. Do we have enough, too many, not strong enough, not exciting enough friendships? Do they really like us? Are we too clingy, not giving enough of ourselves, too close, too distant...

Beauviour suggests we stop worrying so much.

Intersubjectivity means recognising that the risk of antagonism between people forever lurks, but relationships based on freedom are both possible and compelling. Intersubjectivity beckons us always to be on the lookout for pathways to channel enmity into affinity. When we understand that we are each subjects for ourselves and objects for others – in other words, when we freely and reciprocally recognise that other people’s lives are as real and vital as our own – then authentic friendship can flourish. For Beauvoir, authentic friendship springs from an exalted level of cerebral amity.

Another one from Psyche: How to enjoy running. I'm out of practice, having fallen out of the habit when I got Covid back in June, but this article is a fantastic guide, and describes many of the things that have worked for me.

Finally, one of the fun things that came out of the recent flood of Twitter users onto the Fediverse generally and Mastodon servers in particular. Parker Higgins often makes fun little tools and he's come up with an absolute winner.

Many Mastodon instances are on subdomains, and since the early days weirder new-style TLDs have been de rigueur. (The flagship has always been at a .social!) So I set out to find three-word phrases where the third word is a 4+-letter top-level domain, using as my first source text Moby Dick.

The result are hilarious, and others have used Parker's script on other corpuses to come up with some amazing “mastodon instance domains”. Perhaps soon you can ask “Did you see that post on”

Marginalia is an email and web newsletter about things that made me think over the last month – articles, books, podcasts, and perhaps from time to time some videos. It comes out on the first Monday of every month. You can subscribe by following on any ActivityPub platform (e.g. Mastodon) or via email using the form below.

You might also enjoy my weekly newsletter Libraries & Learning Links of the Week, or my irregular blog Information Flaneur.

What am I doing with this newsletter and its partner website, as we reach edition 32? Publishing, clearly. But to what end? Paul Soulellis quotes Michael Warner's Publics and Counterpublics to make a distinction between “the public”, “a public” and “publics”, and to alert us to the fact that the act of publishing does not simply “make public” some communication, but also serves to “make a public”. This is all in Soulellis's extraordinary intervention Urgentcraft 1.0 – Radical publishing during crisis.

This syllabus focuses in particular on those queer strategies of resistance, refusal, and survival. As an overarching idea, urgentcraft explores the potential for radical publishing to gather and mobilize people around urgent artifacts and messages. As a syllabus, urgentcraft presents a range of artists, projects, texts, and concepts that foreground those strategies in recent history, as well as in contemporary independent publishing. As an expanding set of principles, urgentcraft identifies anti-racist ways of working in crisis, using art and design to fuel emancipatory projects and the movement towards liberation.

It turns out that all these energy-saving LED streetlights municipal governments are using to replace the old ones are not so great for nocturnal animals. Also, not great for humans either, for similar reasons – LEDs tend to be set towards the blue end of the light spectrum, but also lots of light when it's supposed to be dark is problematic. There is some hope, with photoluminescent road markings being trialled in Gippsland where electric lighting is logistically challenging.

The Romans knew of a seemingly “miracle” plant called Silphion which is said to be the origin of the romantic heart shape (alike to Silphion seeds), tasted delicious, and was used widely for birth control. It was impossible for them to grow in cultivation, so they are said to have eaten it to extinction. Only now a scientist thinks he's found a patch growing wild. This is pretty cool, but also a great example of what “degrowth” advocates are on about – endlessly consuming more and more will eventually lead to very bad things indeed. Erin Remblance and Jennifer Harvey Sallin suggest No, let's not call it something else in response to critiques that “degrowth” is a good idea with a branding problem.

The fact that the term ‘degrowth’ isn’t immediately embraced by some people doesn’t mean it’s not effective. We are asking people to abandon a long-held belief, and it will take some getting used to. The word ‘degrowth’ is disruptive to the point of being confrontational and isn’t easily absorbed into the status quo, reflecting the urgent and unequivocal transformational change and paradigm shift that we need.

Drastic change is coming in our lives, and many of us are grieving as we come to acknowledge our own ‘sunk’ investment in our careers, lifestyles or dreams for the future that simply won’t materialise — not because of degrowth, but because we have failed to act on the science of climate change for decades.

...we don’t need to change the name ‘degrowth’. What we need is for more of us in wealthy nations to intuitively associate the term ‘economic growth’ with ‘collapse’.

How do like-minded people get together in healthy self-directed ways to work out how to live better, more connected lives? Richard Bartlett of microsolidarity has as few ideas about that.

Marginalia is an email and web newsletter about things that made me think over the last month – articles, books, podcasts, and perhaps from time to time some videos. It comes out on the first Monday of every month. You can subscribe by following on any ActivityPub platform (e.g. Mastodon) or via email using the form below.

You might also enjoy my weekly newsletter Libraries & Learning Links of the Week, or my irregular blog Information Flaneur.

Welcome to edition 31 of Marginalia. It's a beautifully crisp Spring morning in Melbourne as I write this, and it feels like a lot longer than a month since the last edition. I guess I've been busy? Anyway, here's a month's worth of what I've found most intriguing, fun, or important from the Web over August.

On my favourite Leftist technology podcast, Tech won't save us, Kevin Driscoll was recently interviewed about How the Modem World Shaped the Internet. No, that's not a typo – Driscoll uses the term Modem World to describe the internet that came before the Internet, that piggy-backed on the telephone network to send data not via “packet switching” but rather through raw sound. If you've never seen an acoustic modem before, the setup looked a bit like this:

Acoustic coupler for early modem

This interview is a really fascinating additional history of the Internet — or perhaps more accurately, internets. Driscoll doesn't claim to be debunking the more widely understood history of interconnected computing. Rather he has uncovered a huge part of the story that has largely been untold and unknown to most people. Whilst this is all fascinating in its own right, I found it particularly interesting as a commentary on how archival practices can radically affect the stories societies tell about themselves, and therefore how we understand ourselves and our potential as people and communities. Paris Marx and Driscoll talk about how government funding and institutional backing of academics and military technologists has left a large and (presumed) intact corpus of documentation about how the ARPAnet merged with academic communication networks to become The Internet. But at the same time, a much larger set of people — mostly but certainly not exclusively in the USA — were using local dialup services for all sorts of things, primarily based around bulletin board systems. Because they were distributed, small, private, and independently run by enthusiasts, most of these networks and services didn't leave much or any trace in the “official” histories and archives. There simply are no archives for a local bulletin board run in a small city for 3 years from someone's living room.

Jay Hoffman brings us an Internet history of a different sort but with similar energy, in their article The Long Tail of Uselessness. This piece tells the history of an early Web site called Useless Pages, which was essentially a long list of web pages considered of little or no utility to anyone, sometimes including the author of the page.

Each was tagged with a comment from [Steve] Berlin, using the tone and semiotics that came to define the early web; a blend of sarcastic detachment, pop culture reference, and a genuine interest in the mundane. A slightly later version of Useless Pages featured a link to pictures of kids beating the crap out of a chair with Berlin’s added comment, “I think this is the future Stanley Kubrick had in mind when he directed A Clockwork Orange”. Attached to a link to a site built to always tell you Yes Berlin added, “I know people like this. And they’re as annoying in Real Life”.

There's been a bit of discourse in Australia recently about railways. As is so often the case in this country the mainstream consists almost entirely of hot takes lacking any ambition, acknowledgement of transport economics, or recognition that we are in the midst of a climate emergency brought on by the burning of fossil fuels. So — setting aside the election-influence tantrum the New South Wales government is currently throwing about rail workers not wanting anyone to die on their trains, and the hand-wringing in Victoria about “cost-benefit studies” on the outer suburban loop that is already under construction — it was interesting to see Philip Laird's article in The Conversation, More than ever, it’s time to upgrade the Sydney–Melbourne railway:

It’s 14 years since former NSW rail chief Len Harper described the rail link between Australia’s two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, as “inadequate for current and future needs”. And it’s 31 years since former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam put the problem more bluntly during a TV interview:

there are no cities in the world as close to each other with such large population as Sydney and Melbourne which are linked by so bad a railway.

If policy is a bit too much for you today, why not relax with some Ambient Scotrail Beats? This site came about as a result of a (unrelated, I think) Freedom of Information request for all public message recordings from the Scotrail network.

Now that you're nice and relaxed, your brain will be ready for something a litle heavier. Dismantling the apparatus of domination?: Left critiques of AI is a piece by Claudia Aradau and Mercedes Bunz in Radical Philosophy. Aradau and Bunz take us on a tour of Left critiques of AI, as you might expect from the title, and there is much that you may be familiar with already. One aspect I found particularly intriguing was a comment on the framing of certain activities as 'service':

Describing AI as XaaS blurs the distinctions between productive, unproductive and reproductive labour. The language of ‘service’ has been rehabilitated in public imaginaries of health and welfare services. Situating AI within the service sector rather than the manufacturing sector not only effaces microworkers and crowdworkers, but also obscures the multiplication of labour statuses and the blurring of boundaries between different forms of labour.

This article is about “Artificial Intelligence” and technology companies, but as I read this I couldn't help thinking about how I've always been uncomfortable with public libraries being referred to as “Library services”. It has always seemed to obscure important aspects of library work and libraries as solid objects in space and time. One could easily make the case that for libraries, too, positioning them as services “obscures the multiplication of labour statuses and the blurring of boundaries between different forms of labour”. But my discomfort is a little more than that. Libraries are for use, certainly, but at their best they are fundamentally different to a retail or health 'service' in ways that I perhaps should expand on somewhere other than this newsletter. So let's move on to what I think may be the key point in this whole paper (with my emphasis):

Behind the hype about automation through AI models one finds the much more real politics of datasets deciding what can be detected, and what can remain unseen. Or in Adam Harvey’s words: ‘Becoming training data is political’.

I think about this every time I have to complete one of those stupid CAPTCHAs about traffic lights or bicycles, knowing I'm helping to train Google's self-driving car project. The authors also write a lot about artificial distinctions between humans and others:

Clear lines between humans and machines obscure the distinction between what Sylvia Wynter has called ‘this or that genre of being human’. The separation between production and destruction obfuscates the lines between what counts as productive, non-productive and unproductive.

Which brings us nicely to a totally different critique of what intelligence is and whether it can ever be artificial. Doug Bierand writes in Entangled Intelligence:

Capitalism has always depended on a dualism that upholds the human mind as separate from the crude matter of biological life. As economic anthropologist Jason Hickel notes in a recent episode of the podcast Upstream, that sense of separateness was central to overcoming the “strong moral and cultural barriers that prevent you from damaging and exploiting the ecosystems on which you depend.”

This article is just absolutely amazing, distilling much of the broadening discussion of the last few years around what it means to be human and living in the world.

If our minds are exceptional, it is still only in terms of their relationship to everything else that acts within the world. That is, our minds, like our bodies, aren’t just ours; they are contingent on everything else, which would suggest that the path forward should involve moving with the wider world rather than attempting to escape or surpass it.

Bierand also drops in some excellent book suggestions – check it out!

To round out this month's marginalia, a couple of articles that if I was writing a LinkedIn post I might say are about personal productivity, but since I'm writing instead for my own newsletter I can say more accurately that they are about how to think more deeply and learn to do the things you yearn to accomplish.

Katherine Firth has a wonderfully simple analogy in Research Insiders — Front burner/back burner work. It's positioned as being about academic writing but is a fantastic metaphor for any “information work”, and useful for thinking about how to manage teams of information workers. Some team members really want ot focus on back burner work and resent having to do front burner work. Some team members have trouble getting started with or checking in on the backburner work because they're overwhelmed by the front burner tickets or they need the dopamine hit of seeing regular progress. Sometimes you need to go for a walk, bake a cake and let your brain do some work in the background to solve a problem or turn over ideas. And sometimes you just need to get on with it and smash out some emails or position papers or code or whatever.

Speaking of just smashing things out, our last article is from Simon Sarris, a great piece on his Substack called Start With Creation:

it is an error to wait around for inspiration, or to demand some feeling of readiness for an undertaking, or for a teacher or some other golden opportunity. I think these slouching inclinations come partly from an overly-systematized experience during childhood school years, and partly from a fear of failure. In fact, when you stop waiting for others—for either their permission or instruction—and instead begin on your own, fumbling through, regardless of how ready you are, this could be considered one of the true beginnings of adulthood.

We all know this, but — particularly or those who have had traumatic experiences being punished for real or perceived failures to match up to some arbitrary standard — it's still damn hard to stop being terrified of the blank page, the first step out the door, or the 'Apply now' button.

Failure is something you want to tempt. You should court it the way the bullfighter courts the bull. When I wish to learn something, I begin with this in mind. A meaningful first project should have sufficient difficulty that there is some real chance of failure. It is in approaching the edges of our abilities that we are really learning, and often simple projects feel more like delaying things, including delaying mastery. A chance of failure ensures your hands are firmly touching reality, and not endlessly flipping through the textbook, or forever flirting only with ideas.

We can (and should) talk about how this attitude assumes a certain level of privilege another time. But if you've got that space available ...seems like a waste not to use it.

Marginalia is an email and web newsletter about things that made me think over the last month – articles, books, podcasts, and perhaps from time to time some videos. It comes out on the first Monday of every month. You can subscribe by following on any ActivityPub platform (e.g. Mastodon) or via email using the form below.

You might also enjoy my weekly newsletter Libraries & Learning Links of the Week, or my irregular blog Information Flaneur.

Last week I launched a new newsletter – Libraries & Learning Links of the Week. You can subscribe to that via email, RSS, or Mastodon just like Marginalia! LLLotW will be links relating primarily to library learning services, OER, and library technology, and inevitably that means there will be a bit less of those topics here on Marginalia. Feel free to choose one of the other, or subscribe to both, depending on your interests.

Services run on processes

Anna-Sophia Zingarelli-Sweet

This month's first Marginalia actually features in last week's LLLotW.

That’s it. That’s the punch line and thesis statement of this post. Services run on processes.

Zingarelli-Sweet thinks through her experiences working for a retail store in many roles, and how the front of house services and “customer delight” always rely on robust and well-articulated processes. As a huge fan of documentation and formal process, this brief blog post spoke to me. “YES! THIS IS WHAT I'VE BEEN TRYING TO SAY!” I yelled to nobody in particular, in my head.

...even the best front-end public services talent in the world can’t deliver an excellent customer/patron experience without time and talent dedicated to the back-end. Without excellent processes, services will fail. Without excellent technical services, libraries will fail.

Anyway that's why I put it in two different newsletters, so spread the Good News about good and well-documented processes underpinning all good service.

I would prefer not to

Ellena Savage

Ellena Savage writes for Overland about the ideas of education, “good jobs”, and young people without a future under neoliberal capitalism. Perhaps I was taken by this article because my father, too, was a high school teacher – though it seems my father and I are a decade older.

Savage writes what is in some sense a “coming of age” story. Youthful innocence replaced with the knowledge of what the demand to live a life means under neoliberalism:

The problem was that, like capitalism, the trail of crumbs led nowhere in particular... Failure was in-built. Everyone failed, because there was nothing win.

Savage goes on to identify all the maladies afflicting every generation, more intensively the younger they are.

The pathologies are easy to name, because they're visible, yet the most common symptom has no clinical name, it's just some grim feeling between cynicism and despair.

Nearly everyone I know and take seriously exudes this feeling. It drives Doomerism, yet the desire to reject what seems to be our fate also drives a passion for life – quite a different life, perhaps, to that our parents hoped for.

Design lessons from guitar pedals

Clive Thompson

I was directed to this wonderful piece via Mita Williams' University of Winds

It's a celebration of physicality, clarity, and robustness in design, but also of a deep understanding of context. Guitar pedals are designed to be stepped on, and used in the dark – they have to be ruggedly built, and simple to 'read'.

There’s something existentially thrilling about using a piece of electronics that you’re not worried about breaking. In a world where our digital gear has become increasingly delicate and thin — and increasingly crafted from glass, for god’s sake — a guitar pedal’s ruggedness makes you bold. You want to use it, enthusiastically and aggressively and often.

More tech should be that tough.

Waste not

Tynan Stewart

Here we learn about the “Lomi” – a countertop composting device selling for $499USD, plus subscription.

Stewart uses the Lomi to discuss the strangely sterile culture of Silicon Valley, obsessed with youth and growth, and terrified of anything suggesting death or decay.

Not composting so much as support for a particularly sterile vision of life untouched by decay yet somehow still blessed with renewal.

The aim is not to solve death for everyone but to rework it as a tool to intensify existing hierarchies, even beyond present disparities in human life expectancy.

To Stewart, the Lomi exemplifies the Silicon Valley bros' penchant for misunderstanding the world, its complexity, and what problems need to be solved. Indeed, the Lomi is such a good example of this because the making of compost can, in many ways, be seen as the antithesis of capitalist logics.

The point of composting is not simply that it produces a useful end result; it also forces one to slow down and participate in a cycle of transformation that is not driven by the capitalistic drive for efficiency and economic growth presently consuming the planet. Its pace is set by the organic process of decay, not the demands of profit.

I live in a small apartment so I understand the logistical difficulties of household composting in high-density cities. Those looking for reality-based solutions to this problem look – as my local council has – to communal action via giant municipal compost heaps. Ultimately the key problem with the Lomi is that it's an antiseptic individualistic solution to a communal need for things to rot.

The artisan farmers taking on Victoria's meat regulator

Mahmood Fazal

A bit of a change of pace for my last marginalia note this month. Background Briefing had a really interesting episode recently about how Primesafe's blanket approach to regulation and draconian enforcement has pushed Victoria's small meat producers out of business. I knew about this issue from connections in the organic and small-producer industry (I've visited the Jonai pig farm that features in the show), but hadn't really understood the background to why it is so difficult for small producers to find abattoirs. Mobile abattoirs would be less stressful for animals, make small and regenerative farms more financially viable, and quite likely result in better biosecurity, but as usual money and power politics are getting in the way of sensible food production and distribution practices. Worth a listen.

Until next time...

Marginalia is an email and web newsletter about things that made me think over the last month – articles, books, podcasts, and perhaps from time to time some videos. It comes out on the first Monday of every month. You can subscribe by following on any ActivityPub platform (e.g. Mastodon) or via email using the form below.

You might also enjoy my weekly newsletter Libraries & Learning Links of the Week, or my irregular blog Information Flaneur.

I managed to – perhaps predictably – get Covid at the VALA conference in June. Something more positive thing to come from the conference was Justin Kelly’s paper on using machine learning to describe photographs in the State Library of Victoria’s collections. Kelly resists the whizz bang cheerleading of many discussions of machine learning in library applications to take a sophisticated look at the ethical as well as technical consequences of using this technology.

Recently Craig Murdoch from AUT Library wrote a great short article about the open source tech AUT Library uses, and why. Murdoch makes the key point that the decision has very little to do with money (Open Source is not necessarily cheaper, nor necessarily more expensive), but rather with agency. Open Source and Free software can be bugfixed, extended, connected, or improved without having to wait for someone else to decide it should be done.

Christopher Allen has an interesting piece about intimacy, liminality, and technology. Allen explain the architectural concept of the “intimacy gradient” where more private spaces tend to be at the “back” and more pubic spaces to the “front”, with clearly defined transitions between them. Allen explores how this concept could be applied to online experiences and why it is so hard to create distinctive transitions between intimate and public space online.

In Logic Magazine, Will Luckman defends the irrational. Whilst positioned as an essay on the deficiencies of machine learning, Luckman’s piece goes well beyond that. It’s a commentary on the whole rationalist program – which includes of course things like all the various organisational tools used by librarians, archivists, museum curators, and so on. The point is not that we should stop using these, but rather that they must be constantly re-examined and amended by democratic processes:

When the options for human activity are reduced to a set of “optimal” choices made available through a machine-generated recommendation, other courses of action—and thus other possible future outcomes—are eliminated. We cannot allow this reduction to put limitations on the world in which we live. Instead, if these systems are to be salvaged, we have a responsibility to relentlessly interrogate who and what constitutes “data,” how it is made, what patterns we seek within it, and what we do with the insights that are surfaced. These questions must be put to the widest public forums available, and the decisions about how to respond must be made democratically. Then those questions must be asked again and again.

I can’t help thinking about this in relation to the increasingly loud calls within Librarianship for changes to standard classification systems and vocabularies, and the many people who are saying “nothing about us without us”, desiring to be subjects rather than objects.

Mita Williams shared this hilarious/useful talk by Nicky Case in her weekly email newsletter, and now I’m sharing it with you. Some people just want to see the world learn, so Nicky is here to tell you How to Explain Things Real Good.

Last up for this month is The Pandemic Was Office Culture and Middle Management's “God Is Dead” Moment by Ed Zitron (2021). I’m not a fan of writing about the Covid pandemic in the past tense (especially almost exactly one year ago!!!) and Zitron is very much talking about “information worker” industries. With those caveats, I think he’s pretty well right about modern office management culture. This certainly resonated:

The stigma of middle management is symptomatic of tying management to career progression rather than seeing management as both a skill and an organizational function, which is why so many awful managers exist.

Stay safe, be brave.

Marginalia is an email and web newsletter about things that made me think over the last month – articles, books, podcasts, and perhaps from time to time some videos. It comes out on the first Monday of every month. You can subscribe by following on any ActivityPub platform (e.g. Mastodon) or via email using the form below.

You might also enjoy my weekly newsletter Libraries & Learning Links of the Week, or my irregular blog Information Flaneur.

Sarah Lambert and Habiba Fadel’s final report for their national scoping study, Open Textbooks and Social Justice, has been released! This is a hugely important study that provides some really useful context and data for anyone interested in social justice, open education or – frankly – effective and accessible education. The key thing Lambert and Fadel do that is a little different to previous studies internationally is explicitly look at recognitive and representational justice in relation to OER. This really needs to be read by anyone who goes anywhere near academic liaison or library publishing roles.

Want to know whether that journal is scamming you? Introducing the Retraction Watch Hijacked Journal Checker! From Anna Albakina and Retraction Watch comes a new tool. Currently it’s simply a shared Google spreadsheet, but I can see this becoming part of a standard journal-choosing workflow pretty soon.

Alison Hicks has an interesting piece on the UK-based Information Literacy Group’s blog – A wealth of knowledge? Debt collectors, prison sentences and the implications for how we conceptualise, teach for, and assess information literacy. Hicks writes about the idea of “financial literacy” and how what it means depends to a large extent on the background and worldview of the person defining it:

assessing whether someone is literate or not is often a hugely subjective process that draws upon our own biases and culturally specific understandings related to what constitutes valid or appropriate ways of knowing rather than a broader appreciation of how local practices, tools and beliefs are used to negotiate literacy events and episodes.

The online advertising industry is at the heart of many of the worst aspects of modern society. As is often the case, Real Life has brought together all the pieces, this time to point out how dangerous ad tech has suddenly made the world for American women:

if advertisers could purportedly predict who was pregnant before, they may also be able to predict who is no longer pregnant or who still should be pregnant, and pass that information to whoever wants to pay for it, perhaps under the guise of merely wanting to show them an ad.

The big problem with the ubiquitous, all-pervasive data-sucking apparatus of the modern advertising industry (aka Google, Facebook, and the comet-tail of data companies that circle around them) is that it is impossible to function in most of the modern world without becoming ensnared in their tracking system:

Even Enemy of the State levels of tech paranoia, if they were sustainable and not patently unfair to those being driven to adopt them, would not be enough to stave off all the tentacles of the ad-tech apparatus. Such paranoia would, however, certainly make one a social pariah, which is a part of the predicament we're in.

Almost all our routine social practices and information-gathering methods rely on technology that is infested to the root with the worms and parasites of the ad-tech business, which is already fundamentally premised on deception and privacy violation — it “works” only to the extent that it overrides people's will.

Have I mentioned the Kunstbibliothek before here? It seems surprising that maybe I haven’t. This amazing art library takes library book RFID tagging to its logical conclusion:

The dynamic order of the Kunstbibliothek and the idea of arranging a library in a completely different way in general, namely based on personal research, resulted from Daniel Rohner’s personal approach to collecting books. When setting up his library, the book collector and cofounder of the foundation Daniel Rohner was in the habit of repeatedly distributing his books throughout the space, and grouping and stacking them in unexpected, but fascinating combinations. He always refused to arrange the books based on conventions for organizing libraries.

This approach to identifying the location of books using an RFID reading device facilitates inventory of the library at such frequent intervals that it is possible to speak of a continuous inventory. And it also makes the dynamic order of the books possible: in contrast to conventional libraries arranged based on call numbers labels, the books in the Kunstbibliothek have no fixed location; in principle, everyone may place the books randomly anywhere on the shelves. Thanks to the continuous inventory, every book can nevertheless be found at any time, since the location of the books is regularly updated in the catalogue.

I love this so much. No racist shelf numbering classifications! No book is ever in the wrong place! It also would make a fascinating study to chart how the book arrangement changes over time.

I’ve been a little distracted over the last month, so that’s all for now. Be well. Look after each other.

Marginalia is an email and web newsletter about things that made me think over the last month – articles, books, podcasts, and perhaps from time to time some videos. It comes out on the first Monday of every month. You can subscribe by following on any ActivityPub platform (e.g. Mastodon) or via email using the form below.

You might also enjoy my weekly newsletter Libraries & Learning Links of the Week, or my irregular blog Information Flaneur.

Authenticity and Information networks

One of my weekly joys is reading the latest email from Real Life magazine. Recently they explored (Real Results) the idea of “authenticity” online, and what commercial platforms mean by it.

“Real” is when you are not being intentional, when you are not selling something but are being sold to, when you are not active but passive, reacting rather than acting. Reddit posts are a resource only insofar as the posters aren’t trying to capitalize on them themselves but instead dutifully offer them up with a kind of ignorance or indifference about their commercial value. Only certain people can afford to be indifferent or ignorant like that, which biases the information in a subtler way.

Project Information Literacy interview Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner in Thinking ecologically about our polluted information networks. Phillips and Milner describe what they call an “ecological understanding” of online information, encouraging us to think about what we believe to be misinformation, disinformation or hateful speech as “pollution”, sidestepping any need to determine the original intention of a given message, and thinking about the consequences of sharing:

An ecological understanding helps people shift from asking, “How do I protect myself from the lies and hate coming at me?” to asking, “How can I share in a way that protects others from a whole range of harms?” The shift emphasizes the consequences of our collective information footprint over the individual motivations behind individual posts…

…We want students to get the correlation between feeling better and sharing better; it’s as essential to media literacy as tracing sources and checking facts.


CAUL has published an Open Research Toolkit in the form of a LibGuide (what else?):

The Open Research Toolkit was created by the Open Research Working Group, comprising representatives of the Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS) and the Council of Australian University Librarians (CAUL). The Toolkit supports Australasian institutions to implement or further develop open research policy, strategy and practice.

The Toolkit contains information, resources and good practice examples related to all aspects of open research, including policy, governance, pathways and processes. It also includes resources for individual researchers interested in engaging in open research practices and training materials for support services fostering open research within their organisations.

The always-fascinating Shannon Mattern writes about tool kits in general for Toolshed in Unboxing the toolkit:

Kathryn Shroyer describes how we can “cognitively offload information into the environment through the organization of tools”; kits are a mechanism for distributed cognition.

Mattern writes about the history and meaning of toolkits, why we make them and why sometimes maybe we shouldn’t:

Especially given the proliferation of kits as methodological and political tools in design and development, we need to think about how kits are aesthetic objects that order and arrange things – and how those aesthetics are rhetorical and epistemological: they make an argument about “best practices,” about what matters, and about how we know things.

…A box full of surgical gloves and staplers isn’t going to thwart a persistent plague. In the face of sustained suffering, a kit is no substitute for robust, enduring, local, on-the-ground resources and expertise.

Power in the library

Finally, after decades of pretending that sites of neutral and objective knowledge creation and maintenance can exist, and that libraries are an enaction of this, suddenly everyone is talking about libraries as places of contested power.

It’s not that nobody ever questioned library practices before, but some combination of librarians increasingly disassociating their professional identities from the institutions they work for, and the across-the-board delegitimisation of governments and institutions more broadly, seems to be forcing some reckoning with the reality of power in libraries and librarianship.

In Shhh… What a library’s social character reveals about the logics and politics of source creation, Keiran Hegarty takes a sociologist’s view of libraries and archives and the “hidden work” that happens within them – or more to the point, used to happen within them, but now happens outside of them:

Now that the selection of library material is contingent as much on its accessibility as its content, contemporary library collecting can be used as a site to interrogate who or what exerts control over the cultural record. On a world wide web dominated by large commercial companies, access to web data is often contingent on the terms set by those companies. With this in mind, the lack of Facebook content in library collections can be read not as a gap in the historical record, but rather as evidence of contemporary struggles over data governance and Facebook’s refusal to allow access to data unless it is on the terms it stipulates.

Another kind of power struggle is that between workers and bosses. Last month the American Library Association recovered from their vocational awe and elected the socialist librarian running for President of the American Library Association, as Jacobin referred to Emily Drabinski. You love to see it.

This article is worth a read if you want to understand both why Drabinski won, and what might be in store for the ALA. But its this line that has stuck with me:

Libraries are at once immensely valuable and perhaps equally frivolous, because a life well lived doesn’t limit itself to useful things.

I really can’t think of a better way to describe what modern libraries are all about.

Another source of power in libraries is that of controlling the means of production, expression and use of the catalogue and the collection. With this in mind, Kat Cuttriss’s recent article for the CAUL/CAVAL Digital Dexterity blog about moving Massey University’s library management sytem to FOLIO is worth a read. It sounds like an interesting approach that was focussed more on learning from mistakes and experiments together than trying to perfect everything on the first go. How refreshing.

If you’re a librarian and haven’t yet read OCLC’s Reimagine Descriptive Workflows: A Community-informed Agenda for Reparative and Inclusive Descriptive Practice you really need to rectify that as soon as possible. You might be surprised to see me pushing an OCLC report, but I have no doubt that–despite obviously having gone through a few edits to tone it down a little–this report is destined to be an important trigger for libraries in the UK and the settler-colonial states it produced to start doing something–anything! – to fix our metadata and change how we approach resource description in a systematic way.

“But – what should we DO Hugh?”

I’m not a cataloguer, but Alissa McCulloch is, and she has some typically sensible and considered thoughts already, which she shared in Reimagining Australian descriptive workflows: where should we start? She also has this to say:

‘You all need to do something. You’ll fuck it up, and get it wrong, and need to fix things. But the worst thing you can do is to do nothing.’ I can’t remember where I heard Kirsten Thorpe say this—possibly relayed second-hand from someone else. But I think about it a lot. My well-meaning efforts might be misguided, I’ve undoubtedly made mistakes already, and I definitely don’t have all the answers, but at least I can stand up and say that I’m doing something. What will you do?

Let’s get on with it.

Marginalia is an email and web newsletter about things that made me think over the last month – articles, books, podcasts, and perhaps from time to time some videos. It comes out on the first Monday of every month. You can subscribe by following on any ActivityPub platform (e.g. Mastodon) or via email using the form below.

You might also enjoy my weekly newsletter Libraries & Learning Links of the Week, or my irregular blog Information Flaneur.

In Real Life magazine, M. R. Sauter writes about what we can learn from Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto project, Susan Sontag’s thoughts on photography, and the datafication of everyday life.

Proposed systems like Sidewalk Toronto’s ever-observing KOALA camera risk becoming self-referential and self-sustaining: images and the data derived from images, about images, and for images dominating the social, computational, and global spheres.

Barbara Fister writes for Project Info Lit about how information literacy is taught in US four-year college degrees, and the dangers she sees. In Australia we generally teach 3 year degrees without the ubiquity of the first year curriculum she describes, but many of Fister’s arguments are still relevant outside the States.

When information-seeking is cast as a matter of making personal choices or winning arguments, social responsibility can seem to be in conflict with self-interest (which, in late capitalism, has become the definition of “freedom”). That conflict is ripe for exploitation and in-group/out-group antagonism.

She also has important things to say about how we teach and manage search systems.

Privileging of simplicity and efficiency implies that if your search doesn’t lead to satisfying results quickly, you must be doing it wrong. In reality, authentic and open-ended research is messy and complex.

Meanwhile, Jill Barshay reports on a study that has some bad news for those of us hoping to rely on students’ own assessment of whether they learned anything from our teaching efforts. In short, “College students often don’t know when they’re learning”.

Real learning is hard work and it often doesn’t feel good. When you’re struggling to solve a problem in an active learning classroom, it may feel frustrating.  Making mistakes and getting feedback to correct misunderstandings is where the learning happens…

…“Sports and music instruction make this really clear,” McCarty said. “Watching [Roger] Federer play tennis can get you really excited about tennis, but it’s not going to make you a great tennis player.” 

The final thing I’d like to share this month is Masud Khokhar’s Tips for developing a successful work relationship with your new (Library) Director. Masud has some great advice here for anyone with a boss. My personal picks are “Do your homework”, and “Clarify expectations”.

Look after each other.

Marginalia is an email and web newsletter about things that made me think over the last month – articles, books, podcasts, and perhaps from time to time some videos. It comes out on the first Monday of every month. You can subscribe by following on any ActivityPub platform (e.g. Mastodon) or via email using the form below.

You might also enjoy my weekly newsletter Libraries & Learning Links of the Week, or my irregular blog Information Flaneur.


You may have forgotten about Marginalia. After issue 24, I had a rethink. One of my many personality flaws is a tendency towards snark and too-clever-by-half criticism. I try to suppress or redirect these energies, but when it came to Marginalia, I was failing. Indeed, this was part of the reason I stopped using Twitter, and that decision was partially what led to the newsletter in the first place: as a way to share articles and web tools I found interesting, outside of a Big Social account. So I paused it for a while.

I still think the original idea, however, was sound. So this is a Marginalia reboot. This time around, the intention is to make it a little more like Eleanor Colla’s Little Library(ish) Links – so not as much actual marginalia, but I will generally indicate why I think it’s worth sharing. Happy reading!

Why Three Perspectives? A human centred design approach to supporting digital dexterity: People, Design and Systems Thinking

The University of Wollongong Library geniuses have a really interesting approach to professional development, and a well resourced commitment to design thinking and user-centred design (led by the indomitable Kristy Newton). Here they explain what’s behind it and how it works.

Growing Open Educational Practice with OER grants

Another one from the Digital Dexterity blog, Angie Williamson writes about a trial of writing grants to incentivise academics to publish Open Educational Resources. This is a really important issue because academic incentives are weighted almost exclusively in favour of publishing in “highly ranked” journals, meaning academics are effectively punished for spending time creating high quality teaching materials.

You are not a patron. So act like it.

Mean Laura pointing out the obvious, but frequently forgotten or denied, point that addressing user needs requires listening to actual users.

The power of microinteractions: a guide for galleries, libraries, archives and museums

Artefacto with a really fantastic article about the magic that happens when you sweat the small stuff and focus on making key service moments joyful.

Same Old

In Real Life, Sun-Ha Hong writes about the static conservatism of so much science fiction when it comes to social relations.

Marginalia is an email and web newsletter about things that made me think over the last month – articles, books, podcasts, and perhaps from time to time some videos. It comes out on the first Monday of every month. You can subscribe by following on any ActivityPub platform (e.g. Mastodon) or via email using the form below.

You might also enjoy my weekly newsletter Libraries & Learning Links of the Week, or my irregular blog Information Flaneur.

In Marginalia 23 I mentioned Julia Reda’s GitHub Copilot is not infringing your copyright. Reda noted:

Those who argue that Copilot’s output is a derivative work of the training data may do so because they hope it will place those outputs under the licensing terms of the GPL. But the unpleasant side effect of such an extension of copyright would be that all other AI-generated content would henceforth also be protected by copyright.

Well, the day has already arrived in relation to copyright’s close cousin, the patent. This is a blow against open society and democratic public affairs. In short: the people most likely to control the machine learning power capable of spitting out patentable “discoveries” are already rich. This legal precedent means they can simply buy some compute and further monopolise “innovation”. It’s certainly not going to incentivise any human creativity.

This story gets top billing in today’s Marginalia because it combines two strands that have been on my radar recently: technology monopolies, and machine learning aka “artificial intelligence”.

In The rise of community-owned monopolies, Konrad Hinsen writes “One question I have been thinking about in the context of reproducible research is this: Why is all stable software technology old, and all recent technology fragile?”

One response would be to point Hinsen to selection bias, and the (in)famous second world war “bullet holes in planes that returned to base” diagram. Old technology that is still around is likely to be still around because it is stable. New software could be expected to be unstable in part because it’s new. But this isn’t the whole story and he does have some interesting things to say about how even in an “open” and “free” project, a type of community monopoly can evolve:

While in theory Open Source is good for supporting diversity (“just fork the code and adapt it to your needs”), the reality of today’s major Open Source communities is exactly the opposite: a focus on “let’s all work together”. Combine this with the chronic lack of funding, and thus also a lack of incentives for developing the structured governance that would administrate funding and create activity reports, and you end up with large number of users depending on the work of a small number of inexperienced developers in precarious positions who cannot reasonably be expected to make an effort to even understand the needs of the user base at large.

Another line that caught my eye is “Standards-based markets can only form when there are multiple competing producers right from the start”. This is also true when there may have been competing producers at the start but for whatever reason there are fewer and fewer over time. Clear examples of this at the present are web browsers, where there are essentially three competing browser engines (Blink, WebKit, and Gecko), but Mozilla is so reliant on funding from Google/Alphabet that arguably there are only two independently funded endeavours. Web rendering engines are so complicated that there is no realistic opportunity for competitors, and the computing technology giants control the standards, so that’s not likely to change.

Rich Harris sounds the alarm on where this control has led with his post Stay Alert:

A short while ago, Chrome broke the web by disabling alert(), confirm() and prompt() dialogs from cross-origin iframes. The justification was that “the current UX is confusing, and has previously led to spoofs where sites pretend the message comes from Chrome or a different website”; removing the feature was deemed preferable to fixing the UX.

One may or may not agree with Harris’ stance on alert()but that’s not really the point. Chrome, and more importantly Blink (which also drives Microsoft’s Edge browser), has such a large market share that effectively what they decide determines where web technology goes. Even if you think they’re right this time, it’s extremely dangerous.

We also see this in library “science”, at least in the English speaking world. You’ve read me complaining about this before but why are the extremely weird and particular needs of the United States Congress used as the basis for both classification and controlled vocabularies in libraries across the United States, let alone those in the UK, Australia, and many others? Standards monopolisation.

Graham Lee provides an interesting take on how software develops and who gets left behind and why, in Majoring in versions. He also has some great and funny lines:

“Scripting language” does not actually mean anything. It is said by people who want to imply that a programming language is less worthy somehow because it is easier to use.

But beyond that, Lee provides a really great explanation of what has happened in Python with the migration from Python 2 to Python 3, and more importantly, the incredible complexities of trying to reach consensus in a community-managed software project used by literally millions of people (my emphasis in the below):

The last release of the 2.7 lineage was in April 2020, two decades after the first release, two decades after the discussions of py3k started, 14 years after the migration path was published, and 11 years after the release of version 3.

And people still felt that they had not had enough warning.

In fairness, some of them had not. They were not Pythonistas per se, they were computer users who happened to engage with Python when using a computer. Climate scientists, perhaps, who relied on their library vendors and their site administrators to keep everything ticking over. But they did not realise that their library vendors did not have funding for maintenance, and that their site administrators were relying on the operating system package maintainers.

The operating system package maintainers did not dare upgrade the default Python package, because that would break people’s scripts. Better to ship version 2 tomorrow so that everybody’s programs from yesterday carry on running.

Nobody was responsible for migrating to Python 3, so nobody did. It was not until 2.7, when people were finally told that this was the final release of Python 2, that these Pythonistas noticed the corner that they were painted into.

Ed Summers, in a much shorter post (Opinionated), covers some of the same ground:

Software always takes sides, and expresses opinions–and in fact often embodies multiple opinions in multiple arguments or controversies, rather than just one. The question is, do you understand the opinions it is expressing, and the decisions that are being made to express them? How can these decisions be negotiated as a group that includes the designers and users of the software?

So that was a bunch of reading about monopolies and sameness. My last few links are about splitting things into more discrete focuses – for better or for worse.

First up, two really cool things.

Brigham Young University wanted to analyse their chat logs to spot any issues with how they were responding to student queries or any patterns in terms of problems students were experiencing. The problem was that nine years of chat history was about 90,000 different transcripts. Enter machine learning. What I like about this project is (a) they did the analysis themselves with downloaded logs rather than some cloud service and (b) they shared exactly how they did it in an open access journal.

I have also been meaning to share this interesting podcast episode from What’s new? about The Women Writers Project:

Since the dawn of the printing press, women have written and published works of prose and poetry, and yet these texts have almost always received less attention than books written by men. In the early years of the internet, one project sought to redress this imbalance, and to make women writers not only more visible, but available for students and researchers to study in entirely new ways.

This project is basically the opposite of the chat analysis project – it uses humans to manually code text from nineteenth century women’s novels, allowing researchers to find links between texts, authors, and styles that would otherwise by missed. A fascinating metadata story.

Finally, there’s this garbage from Clarivate earlier in the year. In short, they’ve found a new way to artificially slice knowledge about the world into arbitrary categories. But allegedly it’s “bottom up” (though why this is “bottom up” rather than “top down” or “sideways in” for that matter isn’t really explained). Don’t get confused. There are no “responsible” research metrics. This is not about creating new knowledge or more “natural divisions” or any other marketing rubbish. This is about creating new “specialties” and therefore new journals and therefore new profit streams. In an interview with Emergence Magazine earlier this year Suzanne Simard talked about the way the academia-publishing complex conspires to reduce our understanding of how things are connected:

In academia, you get rewarded for the number of papers that you publish. They still count the number of papers. You get more money, you get more grants, you get more recognition, especially if you’re the lead author. Then you see, in areas like microbiology or even satellite imagery and remote sensing, if you can dissect your paper in these little bits and bites and publish these small ideas and have many, many, many papers, you’re much further ahead than writing that one big, seminal paper that integrates everything together, that’s going to be really hard to publish.

And so academics do. They put them in these little bite-sized pieces. I find myself doing it too. It’s how you can survive in that environment. And so it is a self-fulfilling system of always having these little bits of papers. It’s the antithesis of holistic work.

I’ve given you some bite sized pieces here, but hopefully it’s building a holistic work.

Marginalia is an email and web newsletter about things that made me think over the last month – articles, books, podcasts, and perhaps from time to time some videos. It comes out on the first Monday of every month. You can subscribe by following on any ActivityPub platform (e.g. Mastodon) or via email using the form below.

You might also enjoy my weekly newsletter Libraries & Learning Links of the Week, or my irregular blog Information Flaneur.

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