Notes on what I've been reading

I started Marginalia five years ago as a way to satisfy my desire to share links to articles and cool web things whilst also satisfying my desire to stop using Twitter. At that time, I was exploring Mastodon more, but it was a pretty quiet space and, I guess I still wanted an audience.

I'm five years and one global pandemic older now, Mastodon has become a lot busier, I started a weekly library link newsletter, signed up to Bookwyrm and I rarely post on my blog. Marginalia has increasingly felt like a chore to perform rather than something fun to share. So it's time for it to end.

I hope you enjoyed it. You should get a blog.

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.

Hi there

Not too many readings this month. I spent some of today reading Emergent Tokyo : designing the spontaneous city and already know I'm going to love it. Perfect for those who've been enthralled by Tokyo and urbanists regardless of whether they've been there or not.

I was reading by myself today, but perhaps I should have read with a friend: Emma Specter has a lovely piece in Vogue of all places, last year, called Words With Friends: On the Joys of Tandem Reading:

I don’t know exactly what it is about reading with friends that I treasure so much, but I think it has something to do with comfort, with a tacit closeness that nobody feels the need to name. When you’re getting a drink with a brand-new casual friend (as I often am these days, while I adjust to life in a new city), you’re as “on” as you might be for a first date, peppering the person across the table from you with questions about work and siblings and dreading the crashing thump of an awkward silence. With old friends, though, you’re free to check out, to stare into space, to—okay, fine—be a little rude, and nobody thinks you love them any less just because you’re deeply engrossed, in, say, Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies, and absolutely need to know how it turns out.

Something about this seems connected to why Bookwyrm (and similar apps) are attractive to many people. Initially I thought the functionality to share “quotes” seemed unnecessarily performative, but this article helped me to think about it in a different way as an act of generosity and, potentially, intimacy–especially given Bookwyrm's ability to share a quote with only a select group, or even an individual.

Modern humans are surrounded by extremely complex systems – though I suppose the main difference compared to our ancient ancestors is that now far more of those systems were created by us. Richard I. Cook wrote about How Complex Systems Fail in 1998 and it's as clear and accurate now as it was then. In short, complex system failure is as complex as the systems themselves.

David Finnigan writes about the complexity of a system that evolved without us but is now evolving with human behaviour: the global weather and ocean systems. Finnigan reminds us that whilst it's right to be alarmed, such times are not entirely without precedent in human memory: We've been here before

The scale and speed of climate change we're facing now is something new. We can't go back to the past, and we shouldn't try. These Indigenous stories of sea level rise are not a template for our future, and they don't tell us how we should live today. But they are a part of our toolkit, and we need to learn what they teach us, and build on it.

Of course, sometimes whether a system is failing is in the eye of the beholder. Mike Lynch has broken his own filters to bring us a short meditation on what it means to think:

the question “can machines think?”, like a great deal of philosophy, implies a tacit model of what it is like to be a thinking subject, and the answer an individual human gives to it will be very dependent on what they think their own thinking is like.

Bryan Braun has a little all-CSS surprise for retro Microsoft Windows fans. If you were ever a fan of Flying Toasters, check it out.

All of this leaving you exhausted? Maybe you should learn how to take a nap.

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.

Well, a lot sure has happened since my last edition of Marginalia. This month I've collected some of the more thoughtful pieces about what it seems the real “Web 3” might become, plus some odds and ends. Let's dive in.

Socialising on the Wwweb

Ian Bogost had a fantastic piece in The Atlantic titled The age of social media is ending, where he makes a distinction between social networks and social media. It's a smart analysis:

As I’ve written before on this subject, people just aren’t meant to talk to one another this much. They shouldn’t have that much to say, they shouldn’t expect to receive such a large audience for that expression, and they shouldn’t suppose a right to comment or rejoinder for every thought or notion either. From being asked to review every product you buy to believing that every tweet or Instagram image warrants likes or comments or follows, social media produced a positively unhinged, sociopathic rendition of human sociality. That’s no surprise, I guess, given that the model was forged in the fires of Big Tech companies such as Facebook, where sociopathy is a design philosophy.

CrimethInc looked not so much to the past for answers, as to the future for actions. They'd already published a fascinating reminder that the origin of Twitter was, in fact, a tool for street protesters called TXTmob:

If the unrelenting urgency of social media in general and Twitter in particular can be exhausting, that’s to be expected—the infrastructure of Twitter was originally designed for street communications during high-stakes mass mobilizations in which information must go out immediately, boiled down to its bare essentials.

In their later piece, Canary in the Coal Mine: Twitter and the End of Social Media, CrimethInc reminded us that there's a big world out there full of analogue opportunities to communicate, converse, and collaborate. Instead of mourning, activists and radicals should free their minds:

When the canary dies, it’s time to get out of the mine. Now, we’re not necessarily urging you to quit Twitter; it would be better to get permanently suspended for raising a fuss. The point is that it’s not good to have to be in a coal mine in the first place. Even if it doesn’t kill you outright, it diminishes your quality of life. Corporate social media and the social relations it fosters cut us off from other ways of understanding and experiencing the world—and if we maintain the coal mine metaphor, the target of extraction is our sociality itself.

The reactionary takeover of social media, which culminated with Elon Musk buying Twitter, will force us to renew other forms of connection. Otherwise, what we can create together will indeed be limited by the algorithms of the ruling class.

This situation is an opportunity as well as a setback. It reminds us to root our relationships in deep connection, to build affinity offline.

So once you got yourself suspended from the bad website, what were you to do? It seems to me that a lot of people are suddenly thinking about what they actually want to do online, as if waking from a fever dream. Many joined Mastodon, though most also seemed to struggle with the concept that it's not an exact Twitter clone. Anil Dash is one of those Silicon Valley personalities who seems to have been around forever but somehow not actually be awful. He had a pretty good take on how one might build a Fediverse search tool that wouldn't be instantly rejected by most of the fediverse. But apart from a bunch of frankly fairly boring wandering around in circles about various technical features Mastodon should or shouldn't have, there's been lively discussion about publishing to and reading from the web outside of The Same Five Websites. Marc Brooker thinks that you should write more because it helps clarify ones thinking and hone an idea or argument before communicating it to others. I agree. Matt Gemmell, on the other hand, thinks you should write less – which I also agree with 😉 Matt's observation is that one of the things that has led to blogs atrophying in recent years is the idea that many of us have (I'm guilty) that since we're able to write lots of short texts on social media platforms, we must write only long, weighty things on our blogs. Matt is having none of that:

Write less, and be at peace with it. It’s your site, and your rules. Blogs were originally a kind of diary, and they were mostly repositories of short pieces, not huge articles. It’s an absolute fallacy that longer works are better, or more valuable; indeed, shorter pieces are more likely to be read and digested, which intrinsically increases their value.

Fewer words are fine. Social-length posts are fine. Link blogs are fine. You get to keep your own output, where you want it, and the form it takes is entirely up to you.

You only need to give yourself permission.

Ploum wants to change how we use computers in a different way. Ploum is interesting in the hardware we're using, and looking into ways it can be imagined more like an heirloom clock than a cheap flatpack cupboard.

We currently own a screen with very minimal input to allow us to consume content and access our own data which are on some company servers. The only thing we own, the only thing we pay for is a screen. Sometimes with a bad keyboard.

What I call the Forever Computer is exactly the opposite. You own your input (your favourite keyboard and trackball). You own your data (stored with the computer itself in the keyboard housing). The screen is only a commodity. You can share the screen, you can use someone else screen, you can plug to the one in your hotel room.

Hallucinating plagiarism machines

Of course, over the last month all talk has been of chatGPT and “artificial intelligence”. The ever reliable Librarian Shipwreck reminds us in a long piece that we've been here before and didn't listen to the warnings.

Central to Weizenbaum’s analysis of computing technologies was his clear sense (as far back as the 1960s) that the computer exists in society, that the computer impacts society, and that therefore those who will be impacted by the computer (all of us) should have some say in the matter. After all, the question of what tasks “ought not” be done by computers is clearly not one that can be left to the “computer enthusiasts.”

Back in December, Melissa Heikkilä wrote a piece for MIT Technology Review about the hot new AI tool before chatGPT appeared – Lensa. In a surprise to exactly nobody, turns out it was incredibly mysogenistic and racist! Wonderful.

it’s not just the training data that is to blame. The companies developing these models and apps make active choices about how they use the data, says Ryan Steed, a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University, who has studied biases in image-generation algorithms.

“Someone has to choose the training data, decide to build the model, decide to take certain steps to mitigate those biases or not,” he says.

The app’s developers have made a choice that male avatars get to appear in space suits, while female avatars get cosmic G-strings and fairy wings.

Ugh, surely there's somebody trying to do the right thing here? Maybe training their machine learning models to be less awful? Turns out a crew from Los Alamos National Laboratory are! Teaching AI when to care about gender is a really interesting article from Code4Lib Journal, back in August 2022.

Mita Williams has a really smart take on what the world needs in 2023, and what librarians really need to be thinking about in the increasingly bullshittified online environment: Authentic human results:

the real danger of AI-generated text [is that] these systems can and will impersonate expertise enough to fool those who don’t know what are the differences that make a difference in a subject.

I found that I have lost so much trust already in the information I that I find online… I wonder Who can I ask who would know the answer to this question? I am looking for Authentic Human Results. And I want to be seen as a person that people can turn to for Authentic Human Results.

Transport maps and vigilante urbanism

I found out about a couple of wonderful public transport maps recently. The first is the Australian national rail map, which is a slighly conservative name because it also includes regional bus routes and even the Spirit of Tasmania ferry. Meanwhile Willem Klumpenhouwer has created an extraordinary isochronic map of Melbourne public transport, re-creating a map from a century ago. Even cooler, he made it all with open source software and explains how he did it! Finally, an article from the New York Times that was shared by The War on Cars. I have mixed feelings about this because it's ...a little odd. A group of vigilante license-plate repairers are trying to ensure that drivers in New York are able to be automatically fined for traffic infringements and toll payments. The city police force seems uninterested in the problem of drivers obscuring their plates, and I'm a fan of any war on cars, but the tactic here is to make people more visible to the state so ...I'm conflicted. Anyway, have a read and judge for yourself.

See you in a month – happy reading!

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'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.

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