Saturday, December 22, 2007

If babies were all considered disabled

This morning I woke up thinking, "What if babies were treated as the disabled are treated?"

What if infancy was medicalized the way that old age is medicalized?

Pregnancy would be an embarrassing, extended disaster. It would mean a person was about to go down to the very bottom of our economic system. You'd be quarantined in your home by governmental order. In order to go out in public, you'd have to prove you don't have a dangerous infectious disease that makes your stomach swell up. You'd get doctor's signatures send in forms to your insurance company and the government to declare you were pregnant, and every couple of weeks you'd have to renew those forms.

Glossing over labor and delivery, let's consider what happens when you've got a baby. It can't walk! It can't eat food! It's disabled, poor thing. It needs special nutritional supplements that can only be prescribed by a doctor. It also needs a special device called a stroller which costs maybe five or ten thousand dollars. You'd apply through Medicare to get one. Maybe they won't approve one for use outside the home! There's stroller stores, especially online, but wow, would you buy a Bugaboo stroller that cost $5000 without getting to see it first and whether it would be good for your situation, or would fit in your car or whether you could lift it up? By the time your prescription for the "stroller" had been approved by doctors and you'd proved through several insurance company and social worker home visits that you indeed had a baby, and by the time the stroller arrived, your baby could walk. Oh, you could rent a basic stroller from a medical supply store for 10 bucks a day, but it would be MADE OF LEAD.

In some ways you feel that the doctors and social service agencies have a bit of an attitude that if they delay long enough, the problem will shift, and disappear. Just as they act like older people or people with disabilities are going to die soon anyway, so why are they fussing so much about having this wheelchair, or ventilator, or home health care? If they wait long enough, the problem will disappear.

Instead of this medicalized model of the distribution of goods and services, we have Babies R Us, giant stores full of shelves where you can try and buy all manner of highly specialized products for babies. In fact this industry is fairly new. It was created when companies realized that babies change their requirements and abilities every couple of months and that there were people who would buy all new junk for them. Instead of carrying babies in slings or on our hips and requiring that cars have seatbelts, we have 3 different sizes of car seat and a million varieties of strollers good for differerent ages. We have cribs and playpens and Pack-n-Play and Exersaucers and those bouncy things that go in doorways.

Disabled people, and older people, are a similarly lucrative market. The way the market is utterly sucks. There is no Crips R Us or Spazzmart where I can go browse the shelves of fascinating bright colored crap. INstead, I was at a sort of auto body shop warehouse wheelchair store, with a couple of mechanics who order stuff off the internet for me and who guard the knowledge of how to fix wheelchairs jealously.

You can order wheelchairs off the Internet these days but wheelchair stores haven't change their model of trying to make a profit. And from what I can tell they are failing to make much of a profit. Or if they are it's at the top and the store doesn't reflect it.

Seriously, it's as if we all bought our cars from the skankiest auto repair shops, and there weren't really any sorts of customizations or accessories we could put on them. There wouldn't be any auto parts stores. Right now, I can think of at least 3 big auto parts stores within a mile of my house, and every hardware store, Target, and drugstore has an aisle of junk to bling out your car.

I put my hope in the baby boomers; as they all age, they will expect to be able to cruise the aisles of the CripMart and get flowered cane tips and colostomy bags to coordinate with their power suits.

26 million Americans have a severe disability. 1.6 million people use wheelchairs, and I'd bet my boots that many more people would if they could: if using a wheelchair was shown as useful, cool, empowering, for real, and if old people didn't have to jump through 20 million hoops to get decent ones that don't weight a hundred pounds. Instead, older people limit their activities and hide their struggles, ashamed, and scared to let anyone see that they might need help, because our system of "help" is so demeaning, dehumanizing, and awful that they'll rot in an armchair in front of their televisions for 10 years till they die rather than admit that they might need a walker. It's not stupid pride. It's a reasonable fear that they will lose whatever independence and autonomy they still have.

I was talking with people about this who argue that maybe the market is limited, so companies don't think they can make a profit. But it's not all that limited. There's something like 5 million babies born every year, and look at that market in baby stuff. If you look at who's elderly in the U.S. Census the numbers are completely crazy. And in fact... even if you assume that disabled and elderly people are not going to be able to afford to buy this stuff, they'll have relatives who might be able to.

Having there be real competition to build and sell this junk will help bring the prices down. In 1984, there was no market for "mountain bikes". Now there's shops with them everywhere. Though I couldn't find how many are sold in the U.S. in a year, I wonder how those numbers compare to the potential wheelchair market? My point is, someone is missing a giant capitalist opportunity.

How hard it was for me in the 90s to get my first wheelchair! On the advice of a social worker, I stole one from the hospital, the one I was in as I sat in her office crying and she told me she couldn't help me because my diagnosis wasn't solid. My second wheelchair, that I got from a fellow student: one with good insurance. The way that if you have a nice chair, other disabled people look you up and down and guess, "Car Accident?" because only people with good insurance can have nice wheelchairs, and good medical insurance is so very, very rare, while car insurance companies for some reason are likely to be more decent and pay up for wheelchairs promptly, covering the entire cost. The few decent wheelchairs that exist are passed from hand to hand, often through charitable foundations.

Ruth, at A Different Light writes very well about civil rights, human rights, and disability, for example in A Matter of Life and Death.

Then we have people who say they want to die because they cannot get out of their homes because there have been In Home medical equipment restrictions or they can’t afford medical equipment. Their wheelchair breaks and they can’t get another one so they are immobile. This leads to depression. Perhaps their caregiver is an aging parent who can no longer care for them - or dies. All of these changes make disabled peoples’ lives unmanageable and can make suicide look like a way out.

In the last week or so I read through all of Ruth's archives on this blog, and through some of them on her other blogs. She makes many good points about the consumer model vs. the medical model: try here in Seeing advocacy as a tool and in On distancing from the disabled. I realized over this past week how the medical and charity models are related -- and how wrong they are.

Let people choose for themselves what they want and need!

If you would like to do a useful thought exercise, extend my stroller model to thinking about chairs and cars. People sit in regular chairs: office chairs, kitchen chairs, armchairs. There is no reason that they have to. You might argue if you were from another culture that it would be healthier if we sat on the floor or learned how to squat on our heels. (And they'd generally be right). Likewise, if we just walked places, or ran, or biked, we wouldn't need cars to get to work. Yet... wanting to sit on a chair or ride in a car does not make a person "disabled". But even people in dire poverty are often able to scrape up enough money to have a car and certainly to have chairs. If those things were only available to people who have the health insurance of the insanely privileged, our entire societal structure would weaken. I'd extrapolate this to say that if we made it easier for the disabled and elderly to get assistive technology and mobility devices, it would strengthen our entire society.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Down with keyboards, down with pants!

I was thinking today about my silly invention of "smart pants" so that people could just type on their pants. Then I realized something crucial:

Who needs pants!

Seriously, to hell with pants! Down with pants!

Not to mention down with keyboards.

Instead maybe we'll have little motion detecting rings on our fingers and will just make the barest hints of typing motions. The micro-intent to move will be sensed by the set of rings with tiny wireless transmitters. Or for the prototype, you could have the rings wire up like flexible brass knuckles to a bracelet with the transmitter.

So if I end up like this eventually, I won't have to type 15 words a minute, and I hope also not to talk like a Dalek.

Why have typing motions at all, then? It might be important to have some kind of physical motion and body memory.

And as I contemplate this Ankle-Foot Orthosis that will soon be mine, I wonder why the thing, cool as it looks (yay for rehab equipment with style!) doesn't have all kinds of electronic sensors in it. I don't ask for it to move my foot around, or walk for me like a real exoskeleton would. But I WANT ITS DATA. Data, goddamn it! Think of all the cool data it could be collecting on my gait, on the strength of my hamstrings as my back toe is pushing off. Instead of whining that as the day goes on my leg gets weaker, I could just have a handy graph on my blog so that anyone who cared to know would see how well I'm walking. I noticed at BlogHer that there were exercise pedometer sorts of things that upload and track your workouts on a website and even on social sites. How about for rehab too?

I hope to see some of these mad inventions in the next few years.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

Folk logic computing for every gadget

Midnight blogging! I was thinking of all the science fiction about smart houses, like Smart House (Kate Wilhelm) or Remains (Mark Tiedemann). I don't want to talk to my house, and I don't want it to be a master controller of Everything in my living environment. Instead I want all my household gadgets to be more like my Chumby. I don't want to freaking "program" my VCR or my coffeemaker. I want to swipe the widgets that my friends hack up. A couple of years ago I talked at the first Barcamp about social networks and trusting small areas of expertise. But now I think that idea will be played out better through folk logic. My co-housing mate obsesses on automatic control of our houses' heating and so I bought a fairly cheap gadget with the most annoying user interface ever and now can never control the damned heat level of my house without consulting a 10 page user manual and going bleep bleep bleep oh whoops hell beep beep beep damn oh I give up, and then it reverts to how it was 12 hours later anyway. Screw that. The damn thing should run linux, like everything else should, and then I could log in to it and tell it to use Max's program which he had the patience to set up. Likewise, I don't care enough about TV to even mess with Tivo. (Count the number of media players in the world that right now are flashing 12:00, 12:00, 12:00, 12:00.) I would rather just copy my friend Laura's setup because I am likely to like anything she likes; we have the same taste in many areas, as you can see from our LibraryThing profiles. There are areas where I put in a lot of time and have tons of expertise, so my friends or fans would rip whatever widgety things I hacked up.

I can't quite imagine how or why we would program our fridges or bread machines or coffee makers but they sure as hell have oddly sophisticated computer chips in them already, and someone will think of something good. So why not -- my coffee maker should be truly "programmable" and have some kind of open source layer so that people can write stuff for it.

Everything computery should be hackable. I'm not going to have the time to hack everything, but someone in my social network will.

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Wear your fandom

Two things that got me thinking today:

A bracelet flash drive in pink and blue rubber. Like jelly bracelets but with 512 MB of space! If I were a teenager I would be wearing my chat program and archives here, and my private diaries, and maybe a little music. Making it a bracelet is a great idea - who doesn't hate the usual drive design with the little caps that come off and get lost?

To this thought I will add the lovely illustration of Moore's Law: 512 MB drives for 99 cents.

I realize I'm jaded now and expect to carry around a month's worth of music with no repeats in an Altoids tin. Very soon we'll have nice jewelry for our hard drives, and not just cheap jelly bracelets.

If I were a computer manufacturer or a media conglomerate I'd be doing stuff like putting Buffy DVD collections onto fancy Buffy themed bracelets. We aren't quite to the point of carrying all human-generated information on a tiny holocube crystal earring. But the DVD bracelets will be great - have your stuff around handy to watch any time. There's all sorts of stuff to put onto wearable computers, but probably videos will be the killer. Spiffing up the jewelry with visible identifiers or particular styles means you'll be able to wear your fandom.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Hacktastic Wiki Wednesdays coming up

I've been organizing Wiki Wednesdays for 7 months now! It's really fun.

We're meeting in Palo Alto this month, in fact, tomorrow night, and as we have several Socialtext developers here from out of town, they'll be our featured speakers. The always entertaining Ingy döt Net will be talking about his new love of Javascript and his "Stax" hacks for Socialtext. Melissa Ness, our product manager, designer, and cat herder, will be speaking about wiki UI design. Fantastic Perl and wiki fiends Casey West and Kevin Jones will also speak up about their work and wiki projects in development.

Meanwhile, the pre-party continues to happen at my house tonight with dinner and drinks and hot tubbing. Ingy and our other co-worker Lyssa had to lift me in and out of the hot tub last night and then they hung out in bed with me while I blogged and they hacked. We egged Ingy and fed him whiskey on as he started putting all his Javascript hacks into their own Socialtext workspace on our server, and then transcluding them across different wikis. Um! Does that count as work time?

So you see that this month's Wiki Wednesday will be especially awesome. We have that team synergy thing going.

Or did I scare you?

Do show up, tomorrow night, at Socialtext's co-working office in Palo Alto, 695 High Street, 6:30pm. If you want to give a lightning talk or demo, let me know.

In other wiki event news:

Wikipedia meetup for November
There will be a Wikimedia meetup in San Francisco, Saturday, Nov. 10. I hear there will be Special Out of Town Guests. Details are still evolving here:

December Wiki Wednesday
Next month, December 5th, our Wiki Wednesday speakers will be Philip Neustrom and Arlen Abraham, WikiSpot and DavisWiki developers.

RCC 2008
Recent Changes Camp 2008 organizing has not kicked off yet, but I believe it will be in San Francisco or in the Bay Area, March 2008.

Wikimedia moving to SF
I am super happy that Wikimedia Foundation is moving to San Francisco. That will really boost our already fantastic wiki community here in the Bay Area.


And a final thought about events and gender.

In conversation with Sarah Dopp about BlogWorldExpo, I thought over my own track record as an organizer. Out of 11 speakers for Wiki Wednesday, I would like to point out that the gender ratio is nearly even, at 7 men and 5 women. It's not like that took special effort, honestly.

I also consider that I have done a decent job of being even-handed and community-minded, promoting Wiki Ohana across many different wiki companies and communities, inviting speakers and participants from Blue Oxen, WikiHow, Twiki, PBwiki, Confluence, Wiktionary, WikiSpot, and Wikipedia, as well as researchers and academics from Stanford, Northwestern, and Xerox PARC. In fact, this is the first month I have had speakers or even demos from Socialtext. I have to say, I'm happy to work for a company that sponsors me to do this as part of my job, without requiring me to do any sort of special marketing or promotion.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Top Ten Useful Mobility Gadgets

Here's my top picks for useful hacks for cripples.

Think about getting some of these for older people who might need help but don't want to be seen as disabled. Seriously, once they try a bathtub rail they'll never go back. The boomer generation has not really tapped into all this. I don't even know what you call the generation before boomers... but they're hopeless, they won't use it till they're losing it. I dunno, maybe if you make it all tie dyed or decorate it with hippie beads, or make that junk look like a ridiculous fancy sports car. Gen X will be so much easier, they will go for the duct tape and stickers as I have. We're cheap that way. Pretend it's a skateboard... whatever...

And now, the top 10!

1) A good wheelchair

Beg, borrow, or steal a really nice, light chair. You could always boot someone else out of theirs if they're more crippled than you are. I like my Quickie x-frame but I'd rather have a nifty Ti-lite, Zephyr, or Boing. If you are in one and you see me watch out because I might kick your ass.

2) Fancy walkers

Walkers with a built in place to park your butt and a bike basket on the front. I've never had one but they appear to rock. There is a certain panache to the old-school ones with tennis balls on the back legs. But the new-style walkers seem way more useful for shopping or standing (sitting) in line. (Although I always want to slap people who har-har and comment that they wish they could sit down in line too. Hey, dumbass, want to sit down? Just sit on the floor then, nothing is stopping you, no need to comment on my wheelchair...)

3) A reacher/grabber

Any of them are okay, but I like one with a textured gripping claw. I can pick stuff up off the floor with my 3-foot long robotic cyborg arm! I can get coffee mugs from off the shelves way up high!

4) A bathtub rail
Lumex makes a great portable one, very easy to install. It's like a rubberized vise grip that grabs onto the rim of your bathtub. It makes getting in and out of the bathtub easy and not scary.

They seriouly market this shit all wrong. It looks hospitally and geriatric. They need to be all like "COOL-ASS GNARLY FREAKY BATHTUB RAIL". And it needs to have flames.

5) Fancy canes

Oh there are such fabulous fancy canes out there. Flowered ones, scrolly gold ones, and most of them fold up in segments. Mod it up with a velcro strap to keep it closed. There is even a vibrating cane! File off its sharp handle edges for a little more ergonomics in your vibrating fun.

6) Pockets

Get pockets in your clothes. Seriously now! A guayabera is very nice - a Cuban shirt with 2 top and 2 bottom pockets. Why get up. Just carry your junk all around with you. Photographer vests are good. What the hell, who cares if they're ugly, they're useful.

7) Duct tape and stickers

Huzzah, duct tape! Modify anything! Build pockets for your crutches or a cup holder for your wheelchair. Then, decorate them.

8) Phone holster

Wear your phone on your belt. Don't put things in your back pockets any more. You have to lean forward to get them out of your pockets. Screw that.

9) The perfect wheelchair shopping cart

No one has invented this yet, but I thought of two ways to do it.

- Easy-install clamps that would go from the lower front of the chair to the lower back of a child-size shopping cart.

- a lap basket that clamps onto the chair's sides, so it hovers just off your lap and the weight doesn't rest on you.

10) Booze and painkillers

I just had a seriously painful nerve conduction study where I got like 20 zillion electric shocks to my leg with needle electrodes and this taser thing and they also wiggled the needles. While I was crying and screaming and naked and covered in snot. Now I can't walk even more. I swear to god. I'm already crippled, now I have to be tortured? Pass the bottle please. Again.

I'll just go drool over the chairs on that Colours site again... thanks...

No, wait, I have some honorable mentions for useful gadgets. Shelves, heating pads, electric blankets, sippy cups, trays, and keys on straps around your neck! Add more in comments!

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Keyboard shortcuts in Thunderbird, and the failures of visual metaphors

This is so great, I'm feeling all bouncy! There is a Thunderbird extension, Nostalgy, for using keyboard shortcuts to do everything. I was just feeling super pissy that this didn't exist, and wishing someone would write it, because I hate mousing or trackpadding: it slows me down. If I'm just using typing shortcuts, then I can get the feel of the commands in my fingers, like playing piano or Nethack, and I don't have to think about what to do. So, now I'm super happy that it *does* exist (thanks to Oblomovka for the link). You can get the latest version here and in fact there are instructions on how to update directly from svn for the latest bug fixes.

Meanwhile, I'm really enjoying yubnub and its keystroke commands. I don't have to do any slow mousing that requires hand-eye coordination, or extra shoulder/wrist movements that flare up old RSI problems. Instead I am training my fingers to go "apple-K wp" if I want to search Wikipedia. It becomes automatic, and I don't have to think about it. I can do it with my eyes closed, lightning fast.

I look forward to getting back into that mode for email! I like Thunderbird, but I miss Pine because of the speed and efficiency of keyboard shortcuts.

This was something we talked about during She's Geeky, at Beth Kanter and Elizabeth Perry's session on non-profits. Someone mentioned that very small technological interventions can make huge changes in a whole organization.

I found this to be true at the businesses, schools, and universities where I did tech support and training. Training classes were useful, but the best way to help a person work with their computer was to watch them work for even a few minutes, and then teach them at least one way to improve their basic workflow. A few simple tricks made people more confident and productive and happy. Those tricks would then spread throughout an organization. Sometimes, this is as simple as teaching a person that in menus, the underlined letter or the keys next to the command are keyboard shortcuts that they can learn. Or, a small trick like using tabs in a web browser can help people enormously. Many people, especially baby boomers, don't feel comfortable with basic navigation on a computer desktop, no matter what system they're on. The concepts that go along with productivity tricks can also help people's understanding of what they're doing on a computer, so they feel less like they're flailing and instead, have constructed a mental map or geography of what's happening.

It is amazing, but most people who use computers every day at work and at home still don't have basic concepts down. It is like they have their eyes shut, and are trying to walk around their house by counting the number of steps to go in each direction, and they're never sure which direction they're pointing until they hit a wall. But most computer classes are procedural. You end up with a step by step list of what to do to produce a result, but with no understanding of what just happened.

Do you need to know those basic concepts? Or is it like driving a car -- you can be a good driver, without knowing what a carburetor is? To some extent, it is more and more like driving a car. We don't need to know anything about bits and bytes and how computers work at a low level. But we *do* need to know what wheels and brakes are. The mental model that we hold is in our physical memory. We turn the steering wheel, the wheels shift, we can picture the wheels shifting, and then the car physically turns. To be a good end user of computer applications, I think that people need to create a similar mental geography. Maps and diagrams and metaphors can really help with that.

So here is my list of things to teach people who use computers a lot, but who are flailing.

Keyboard shortcuts:

- open, close, minimize a window or tab
- open, close, minimize an application
- find, select, copy, paste
- my tabs, let me show you them
- switch between applications or windows
- search (a folder or hard drive)


- The difference between closing and minimizing.
- Noticing, or how to tell, if an application is already open
- You can keep many applications open at once
- Recent history, recently opened documents or apps


- where is stuff on your hard drive
- what is a hard drive? what servers are you using? what does that mean?
- files and folders and network places; draw diagrams

Often, I'd start out trying to help someone with a complex issue, like teaching them how to do a mail merge, or fiddle around with a FoxPro or Filemaker database, and I'd end up going back to square one to teach them some of these concepts.

As I ponder this I think of a counterexample to the "mental map / diagram" idea I'm suggesting. Years ago, my otherwise pretty awesome boss at a K-12 school wanted me to create a particular thing that I loathed on instinct. Any of you who have been web developers will know what I mean! The year, 1996; the thing, a web site that was all a visual metaphor. The home page for the school web site would be a picture of a classroom-ish-office, or an office-ish-classroom, and all the things you might want to do on the website would link from pictures, like if you wanted to send email there would be a little mailbox, or to look at the cafeteria menu, click on the apple on the teacher's desk. If you wanted to look up some document or form, click on the filing cabinet.

Number one, this would have been dog slow in the early web, on the LC-II Macs we had in most classrooms, and for people at home who only had dialup. Number two, the idea that the happy shiny pictures would not scare off the little kids who couldn't read yet was just dumb, because one layer past the main page and you'd get to text. It is no good to click a 10-pixel-wide image of a phone book, if what you get is then... a phone book! Which if you're 5, you probably can't read and don't want to use anyway. But number three, the whole idea of this visual metaphor sucked. We have invented words, and language, for a good goddamned reason and that is because it rocks! It's efficient and powerful. If I want to look up what an apple is, in an encyclopedia, I don't want to be floating in cyberspace and vaguely "clicking" through a 3-D taxonomy of shapes until I narrow it down to red round-ish blobs. We have words, and indexes, and alphabetical order, and search algorithms, and the convention of hierarchical menus of things-one-can-do-on-web-sites, to help us. We have the ability to group words tightly, to cluster them, in ways that makes sense for words but not for images. I don't want to have to click on visual images one by one to figure out where to find the staff directory. I can scan a page of text very quickly to find that. Even much the most basic international symbols meant to bridge across cultures and languages are not obvious, and must be learned in context!

Possibly this is a bad story to tell because the end of the story is that when they did not listen to my objections, I mulishly ignored and resisted the Classroom Visual Home Page and instead just went off and made a plain, kick-ass, really slick and clean, page that did everything they really wanted and not what was coming out of their mouths, and that fit the specifications for dialup and legacy computers. And they used it for the next eight years. Which, while I am proud of it, maybe shows a bit too much about what it is like to have me work for you. You can't always get what you want, but you get what you need.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Liveblogging for She's Geeky

I'm at the She's Geeky conference in Mountain View, and I'll be liveblogging in very raw format. Later this week I'll come back and clean up this post to make it more coherent and to take out the typos and add links.

I'm having a great time here. There is a very pleasant spectrum and range of people who are sort of hard core programming or hardware geeks plus the web 2.0, entrepeneur, blogging, marketing crowd. So it's a great mix for me. People in general seem excited and inspired! The Computer History Museum is gorgeous, and I can't wait to come back and go through it all. It is also a great place to have a conference.


Open source lunch table conversation

Tori Orr, Susan Gerhart, Liz Henry, Ursula Kallio, Kim Wallace, Akkana, Margaret Rosas.

Open source stuff we talked about: Ubuntu 7.10, Drupal, LAMP in general, Joomla, Drupalcamp, Linuxchix, Ubuntu Women, the recent O'Reilly series, Python
Someone (someone who is a marketing person) was saying that we need to do more marketing for open source, joomla is marketed better, more consumer accessibile. Businesses aren't realizing how valuable open source stuff is, they haven't realized it yet. They don't know how to listen to something without an authority figure or a hierarchy they can recognize. Also it is not made slick enough for them. But when it is, they'll go for it.

Someone else mentioned wishing that there was an open source enterprise-level shopping cart.

Kim W. drew us diagrams to explain her release process for her company, which was pretty interesting for me because I was just going through the whole release process at mine.

Akkana talked about having a hackday and said to talk to Gloria W. about grrlcamp and other events.

I met Gaba, who was there with her 6 month old baby, and who talked about working for crabgrass, and about programming.
Also, Ursula and her partner Wiebke, I think both programmers but now I can't remember what they do.

Someone else, I think Tori, talked with me about librarians and wikis, librarians and CMS, people still trying to figure out tech and cms. We agreed that people don't realize the depth of the problem of managing knowledge, keeping and maintaining and using it. It is not a trivial problem! I had an idea: exposing the dead links in your years of blogs. How about an app to do that and then helps you find a live link for those dead link, in the internet archive AND other places. This would be a really great application. It should be built into ecto and other multiplatform blogging clients.

Another idea we talked about: make Moodblast do your location. Or something to let you talk to Doppler very quickly to update your location. General agreement from half the table that Dopplr is slick, and ears perked up around the other half of the table. (This was the case in nearly every conversation I was in, all day!)

Kaliya's opening intro.

She mentioned some Stanford researchers - researching US. and reporters, like Mike - our "guy" from the San Jose Mercury News, plus Karen, the photographer

Julie from Wired News was also mentioned and got a huge cheer
c.?? from GigaOm (I did not hear her name.)

Kaliya mentions that the lunch trash is all compostable - but we need to find someone to take it somewhere that they compost stuff. Anyone ? Someone from google volunteers. Oh, California, where else would we find this funny and sweet and wondrous behavior?

Susan Mernit talking now, about Lillian (last name?) in animation in the 1930s, refused entry to animation school because women don't do that sort of creative work.
What's changed and what hasn't? Things are shifting. We're here at this moment in time. Yet they are not shifting enough. We are in an unbalanced environment, seen as an exception, exception b/c of being an engineer, doing back end work, or because of things like having to take care of everyone on the team. Everyone's really comfortable if you do that, but if you don't you're the bitch. "You're so amazing you're not one of those tight sweaters" "what?" you now those really cute girls who work in pr and marketing... or "put your name on it or no one will believe you contributed." or "Hey how did you come to be (engineer)" etc. or "Are you married? What does your husband think" These aren't the reasons we're here today, but this is an environment we all function in. We do it to each other and ourselves too; we have to fight to be as comfortable as we are.
Here we get to really talk, Linux, back end, systems, biotech, whatever you are passionate about. Also our stories of things we have to deal with.

Question from audience: Is anything being recorded? Can we watch this later? (Answer: Maybe - the videobloggers here are doing some recording.

Nonprofits session

Beth Kanter - circuit rider, learned html early, started blogging to keep a work log of things fixed
Elizabeth Perry - works at a school - accidental techie - came out of feminist literary theory background. School environment, adoption, you get computers but teachers aren't sure how to make use of it. Inefficiency, confusion, concern. Elizabeth wrote a tech plan, interviewed to get best practices, then got a job doing that development, how to use tech to develop curriculum. New ways of using tech. Tech evangelist, one on one to help teachers use technology in their teaching. Technology integration specialist.
Beth: shoulder to shoulder learning
Eliz: ideal for people who love projects and learning new things. Teachers don't know the tech but are great learners. What was cool for you in middle and high school? What can we do for girls? Eliz's background is in community organizing.
Beth: the role of translator, an important skill.

Ursula K. Music industry, help musicians promote with tech.
EP: look at higher education and doing a gig teaching a course in how to do this.
Beth K: Webinars, for Rockefeller Foundation, supporting independent musicians, the business of music. Beth was out looking for people who work with musicinas and taught those things.

Ursula: often the valuable thigns are the Small details like don't send a jpg that's more than 120 pixels wide because it will give a bad impression.

Beth Cameron - sacramento. started out as admin asst and ended up doing al the techie stuff like setting up networks and fixing computers. getting peopel on listsev. Califo assoc. of health facilities. every time i go to any sort of training or anything I"m one of 2 women if even.
Beth K: it's an important point, small interventions go a long way. the flip side is that there is a lot of resistance and adoption issues.
EP: I just learned this thing last year! Why do I have to learn another thing!
Beth C: Change is hard. And our org is mostly female except for the CEO of course (laughter) a little cynicism, glass ceilng... So I teach people how to send their first email, how to blog, back with AOL. Try gmail! and so on.
EP: they are passionate about something other than technoogy. because their mind is not on that they make careless or foolish mistakes and therefore they get really frustrated, and so it's like therapy, lowering their stress level around technology. creating passionate users. those rewards, like video gamers levelling up rewards, kathy sierra. first you show them the blog entry, then the microphone, hey you could record something.
BK: You can't overwhelm them, can't use any jargon.
Akkana: takng time off from Silicon Valley rat race, looking for something more worthwhile. I know women who work in np as sys admins. I'm more of a programmer. Is there a space for things other than sys admin?

BJ Wishinski: quit high tech job to work for year for anita borg (wow) Graphics programmer, manager of education services around technogoloy. Software for designing integrated circuits. one of the more masculine ends of tech you can possibly be in. i'm so tired of that enviornment that I don't want to go back. so I gave notice. I just went from grace hopper conference to here, to anita borg, now I have a year to figure out a paying job doing something to build support structures for women in tech industry and a new career

susan gearhart: interested in baby boomers who are going to be losing vision. I have a vision loss program. as i've been goin ghtrough this transition I am understandng what boomers will need from technology. women who could get together to develop assistive tech that in an open source mode . then, t here are other really great tech ideas but theya re really 2 or 3 generations behind. how can we bring that new stuff into the attention of the rehab organizations that work for states, counties, schools, to make much better tech available for everybody of all ages. Is there an org anywhere, or way to form one, develop better assistive tech. Existing rehab organizations.

BJ: Center for Independent Living?
Susan: Bookshare
Liz: no really awesome ones around.

blond woman: boomers, next phase, silver something. using tech, patents. "Hearrings" earrings that are hearing aids.

(We all get rather excited about Hearrings. Fancy hats with veils and flowers with all that stuff built in...)

Susan's blog:

me: I worked in K-12 school, universities, in tech. worked in search at excite, back end, perl, went off to get degree in comparative literature and translation, blogging, blogher, now at socialtext, wiki software, i manage the open source release of this wiki software . pbwiki, socialtext, wikipatterns could be very useful for educators and nonprofits. I love what Beth said about the small interventions.

Beth: watch people work, see how you can intervene.

Wiebke Mueller, from germany. accessibility, e-learning. training people on computers, web developer, trainer.

Liz: This site, a woman I met at BlogHer, keeps this blog which explains step by step everything you have to do to make a blog accessible, on various blogging platforms.

BJ: also interested in access. We are all going to be disabled at some point if we live long enough. Older people using email and the web more.

Wiebke: Dragon, it has become much better in version 9.

Anne Holden: Science education, communication.
Describes many issues of nonprofits and education. Donors, grants, professors. If there's a big court case we get a lot of press and then new members. Was working in research, thought the profs aren't getting their research out there enough for the public.

Amy Jussel - new media, non profit, non partisan, creative director. It's all about content. "Shaping youth" is her blog. Girls for a Change (conference?) Her background is CEO, productize this, make it open source, get it out there. Viral, counter-marketing, constructive. Readergirl. I get offers from companies who want to sponsor, but they just want my people. Kraft Foods, Walmart, all the biggies that are trying to change their colors but I'm a little cynical. I'm Trader Joes not Walmart. I'm looking for advice, how to integrate positive media but maintain an indy voice, how to be nonprofit, and open source, as a social entrepeneur.

EP: New Mexico media literacy group. Be afraid, be very afraid. Critical consumers.

BJ also mentions Girls for a Change. The girls really take it into their own hands, make a web site, put stuff on YouTube.

BK: about being an entrepeneur, are you workingn with a non profit?
AJ: I am a nonprofit.
BK: so you're frustrated with the structue you set up?
AJ: Have easy turnkey kits for teachers to download. then i decided, why charge 50 bucks for this? why not make it free and open source?
BK: have a small board, that can work really well, you can then move faster
AJ: we could go after grants, i dunno, the blogs become time sinks. be a vital resource, but pay the bills. how not to have big folks declare they're your partner and not take you over.
Abbey Patterson: company is Sooner. duke, harvard, partnership, unesco, columbia, healthcare. Music, hip hop.

I have lost the thread of what Abbey is talking about.

Katie - free technology services to small grassroots nonprofits. just getting a web site, the over the shoulder learning, etc.

American Cancer Society -
The Click Heard Round the World - Rickomatic - MacArthur, nonprofit and best practices paper.

Lightning talks. Danese

Slides are online:

* be clear what you are talking about
* don't think of yourself as a public speaker, it's regular conversation
* humble and funny
* nothing bad is going to happen
* don't overprepare. be real
* your audience wants you to succeed. watching you fail is excruciating.

what's your goal? not necessarily there to say what you've been told to say.

* (I have more extensive notes on the lightning talks sessions which I'll post on Thursday. I took notes on nearly all the 3 minute talks, and I gave a talk myself on How to Deal with It When You Don't Know What To Do (about bugs, and applications not working, and failed installs, and broken computers) and another on How to Make Your Wiki Not Suck.)
* The extra time for eating and breaks was a fantastic part of this conference
* I got some fun stickers from google and firefox, and an O'Reilly tshirt
* I talked more with Danese which was super fun
* I talked about my workplace and what I do and demo-ed my wiki for people
* I hung out with my kick-ass sister, who is a web dev and blogger
* I also talked with Z. about open document format, she showed me some linux translation efforts which I marked to blog about later, and we talked about
* I caught the first bit of Heather Gold's stand up comedy which was great, but I had to leave
* Did I mention, the food was good?
* I talked with 2 people from Atlassian, which was fun (their company also sells enterprise-level wikis)
* I promised lots of people cards and "Wiki Way" tshirts and more talking and information the next day when I would be less tired
* and there were so many people there I wanted to talk with, old friends and new people to meet
* BUT THEN that night I got nastily ill and spent the whole day 2 of the conference in bed throwing up. DAMN
* So I didn't get to give the fun long version of my talk "How to Make Your Wiki Not Suck So Bad"
* I was very very sad about being sick and missing the rest of the conference
* Mad props to Kaliya and team for a great conference and a great job organizing!
* Note to self and others, go add your writeups and information to the wiki! Yes, this means you! Link them from either the Monday page, or Proposed Topics, or the nearly totally empty Notes page which I hope we will populate and organize. The main thing is to put up your notes. Someone else will come along and fix things and organize it later, that is what wikis are all about. But this was a great conference that deserves to have a record of what happened there set out coherently.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Wiki Wednesday tonight, KQED's Quest science education wiki/mashup

I'm hosting Wiki Wednesday tonight in San Francisco at Citizen Space, at 6:30pm. Please come tonight! You can sign up on upcoming, or on the wiki page itself. My friend Craig Rosa will be speaking along with two colleagues from KQED's Quest science education program, Lauren Sommer and AJ Alfieri-Crispin. The TV show, radio program, and web pages are all tied together; you can go on one of their explorations in the San Francisco Bay Area, and use GPS and Flickr to contribute to the site. I'm very curious to hear how wikis have made their job easier!

There will be pizza and beer, and probably a lively discussion after the talk. Our events are often pretty small, around 10-20 people. This one might be bigger.

This will be the 6th Wiki Wednesday I've run, and I'm really having fun with it! Thanks very much to Betsy Megas, Eugene Eric Kim, Brian Pendleton, Eszter Hargittai, Yoz Grahame, and Rashmi Sinha for coming to give such excellent talks and leading our discussions so far this year.

Meanwhile, I'm gearing up for a trip to Beijing, and for the She's Geeky unconference on Oct. 22-23 in Mountain View at the Computer History Museum. I'll blog more about both those things later this week!

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Better Firefox, and a free makeover

I'm still halfway with a toe in poet-y land where everything is made of words and reality is very thin. It's like swimming around in beautiful chaos! I love getting into that state of mind.

At the same time I'm messing about with techie things and it's been a sort of cleanup week for me, as if it's even more important for me to establish Order in the midst of my poety chaos.

I got fed up with my 8000+ emails in my Thunderbird inbox. I switched from using Pine about a year ago. And don't get me started on how hard it was to get me even to the Pine level. I was very conservative and grumpy about it! Dammit, mm was good enough for me in 1989 and it was good enough for me in 1999! Anyway, my Thunderbird filters stopped working, and my inbox got goddamned huge. At times it has hit 20K. Finally, I gave up. I moved everything to a totally lame "2007 Inbox" folder. Voila! I'm at 0! As new flows in, I'll construct new filters. And if I feel especially virtuous, I'll go bulldozing through those 8000 old-inbox messages and put them away in logical places.

Search in Thunderbird still gives me hives. It starts searching the earliest emails first, and since I imported everything since 2003, holy hell it takes a long time to find the thing I filed away somewhere last month! Chug chug chug twiddle twiddle... sigh...

Still, it's been pretty decent so far. I'm happy with it, though still wondering if I would be better off sending everything first to Gmail and then forwarding it on. Then I'd have it all two places without having to deal with IMAP.

My sister passed me a link today to some mozilla forum discussion about a bug with Firefox, Flash, and Ajax. Yeah I had KIND OF NOTICED. Ready to throw my computer out the window over here if it hangs one more time while I'm surfing around, hanging and chugging up my CPU without rhyme or reason. The links were all to PC/Ajax bug discussions, but here I am running FF with "Activity Monitor" up, because running top in a term window just makes the cpu usage problem worse, but with Activity Monitor I can sometimes kill Firefox before my whole machine crashes and I have to hard restart.

A few poking-around searches and I got to this repository of Firefox builds including ones for Intel Macs. So far I haven't crashed today... huzzah. What will happen? Will it delight my heart? Will it bear all the weight I pile upon its back?

I've been using Desktop Manager (inspired by Skud). With this I can set up many different desktops and rotate between them, which is perfect! It's rad! It's not totally reliable but that doesn't matter. I miss my old techie jobs where I would have 3 machines; a Mac, a PC, and an old Sun server. It felt like having a fabulous command center to swivel about and have all different junk set up on each computer. Plus on the Sun I'd have XWindow and 4 different desktops where I did all the real work. Anyway, now I have one small laptop, plus Desktop Manager. It's nifty. At first I was mildly annoyed that I couldn't get "move this window to Desktop 3" to work. Then I figured out I could just minimize it, go to 3 with a keystroke, and re open those windows with Quicksilver, which is relatively painless -- I can train my hands to do it, like playing the piano. Mousing and trackpads suck because you can't get that finger memory really working.

Mmmmm, Quicksilver. It haunts me. I am only scratching the surface of its beautifulness. It makes me so happy. It's elegant! It feels like a powerful beast waiting to be tamed and taught tricks! So far I only really use it to switch and open apps. But, if I wanted to make some more nifty productivity stuff, Quicksilver is probably where I'd start. Danny babbled a bit to me about writing Applescripts to do various things. Applescript has never appealed to me. Maybe.

Meanwhile, at work yesterday Pete showed me YubNub so I'm in command line/ keystroke heaven. Now I can command-K up to the toolbar and I've got a bazillion useful shortcuts predefined.

You'd think that's enough new stuff. But I have all these nagging projects. I spent some time at 7am this morning dicking around with me and Laura's Mediawiki install which has had annoying blanking and nonsense-insertion vandal attacks lately. As I looked around on the net I came across an article by WikiAngela that made great sense. I agree, it is better to leave a wiki open to anonymous edits! Then I came across Bad Behavior, a blacklist/whitelist application that I could certainly use on some blogs as well. Finally I ended up reading an incredibly useful article, Blocking Spam in Mediawiki. I did a bunch of it while Laura and I knitted our brows over permissions and group problems on the server. (Note: ConfirmEdit.php has a bug which breaks when it gets urls with a trailing backslash.) Oh man! Thank you for that excellent, brief, practical guide. Even if I cracked up hysterically laughing at your Orgasmosocialism page... OMG. Somehow "destroying the patriarchal institution of marriage and monogamy" was left off this dude's list of the utopia which eliminates all social and political barriers to "the development of intimate relationships between consenting parties".

Then I spent most of the rest of the day actually working. No really! It's not just that my coworkers might read this! Except for when I went out for pie and bacon and the Bad Ass Mama's Coffee Hour! I can prove it because finally this is up on SourceForge. I need to wrassle the ginormous release notes and bug fixes into a more news-like blog post and announcement for email lists. But it is nice to have it more or less out there for consumption. Yesterday I was melting down at the thought that I was stuck. But actually it was very very almost done, and things were fine. Why always with the last minute tearing out of my hair. I wish I hadn't spazzed about it! At least not in front of people.

I leave you with this final, snarky, juicy thought as a reward for reading all the way to the end of this post. On a wonderful mailing list that I love dearly that shall not be named there was a long serious thread about this article on a nerd auction. The Washington State University LUG is auctioning themselves off at a Nerd Auction, to sorority girls, offering to fix their computers in exchange for a makeover. I cannot wait for the video. My god. I mean I am going to buy a plane ticket and quickly join the WSULUG. A lightning-smart hot chick in a pink sweater will buy me, and I will fix her computer. I will totally impress her with Quicksilver and Yubnub. Then, the (mutual) makeover, with a lot of giggling. Hey! Why not just sleep over in the sorority house? Geek slumber party! They'll all end up with funny colored hair and will start wearing Leatherman tools on their belts, while I'll come out of it all dishevelled, with lipstick all over my shoulders and a kick ass pedicure. Screw you nerds I am stealin all ur wimminz...

And then afterwards when all the ditzy sorority girls naturally reject the pale weedy glasses-taped-together nerd boys, I will be around the next day to comfort I'd get the action from repressed, desperate nerds too. What a great setup!

"You can buy a nerd and he'll fix your computer, help you with stats homework, or if you're really adventurous, take you to dinner!"

My actual answer to that is unprintable and many-leveled and includes a snarling declaration of the actual meaning of Adventure.

No, seriously. The whole idea is kind of funny and yet pisses me off big time. I love the comment from this WSU mom of a geek daughter:

Do a search on world of warcraft and you will be loaded with girls who have no idea that WSU has great computer science department with a sense of bizarre humor.
Hell, if you had had a booth showing your online programs (assuming) for the stuff she does (which I don't Maya, etc.,etc., she might take an interest in her mother's old school. Or maybe you are all Alliance and not Horde. Or are you all waiting for Halo 3. She lives on Newegg and is building her latest and greatest computer as we speak and would never ever join a sorority.

What a taunt! Hahaha!

Seriously again, the auction PR stunt plays up the very stereotypes they are trying to fight. Another comment points out,
Seriously, people, you wonder why you need this much press to get a woman to come within 10 feet of your sorry selves? This brings back every sexist or otherwise slimy incident I experienced studying engineering. . .

I have to agree, although I love ridiculous fun and can see that this LUG thought it was playing with stereotypes, not playing them up. I wish them success in that goal. And, presuming human decency from the bulk of them, I understand the lure of the spectacle and of publicity and of a joke. However, the impression I get is also that as a woman I am expected by their department's culture to laugh and go along with degrading stereotypes of my gender.

But, I hope that the end result is that the CS department asks women why they don't enter or stick with CS as a major, and listens to the answers, and acts on that. Or, they could go read the many studies which address exactly that question. How about this one by Ellen Spertus, Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists? . How about reading She's Such a Geek, a book of fabulous essays by geeky women, in which nearly every essay explains the barriers and annoyances we face. Or this paper by Tracy Camp, The Incredible Shrinking Pipeline. There are a zillion more.

Maybe if they paint the Computer Science Dept. building pink? That might help?

I wonder what they do to encourage racial minorities to enroll... "Nerds" fix your computer, and you teach them to... what? What race and stereotype spring to your mind? Think that event would happen? No? Then why is this one okay?

Despite everything I have ever experienced and said about geek culture and gender, here is the key. I still expect geeks to be better than this. My techno utopia has got some basic feminism in it and so do a lot of other people's.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Long poems last for a long time

Lately, poetry is all coming in floaty long phrases. It's all endless stretching introductions full of commas. I think it's because I'm in a beginning, and don't have the clarity to send down a full stop sort of root into where I'm going with the language and ideas. I need a whole day to travel and think very thinkily, to figure that out. The ocean is often too distracting. I write poetry best when I'm pulled over by the side of the road, after having thought out phrases and rhythm and a holistic vision in my head to the sound of the highway.

I worked more on the very long Homeric Hymn that has been around for a couple of years. Its first part is good, and I can see the 2nd and 3rd bits aren't going to match it no matter how long I wait for lightning to strike 3 times. That's okay. I can detach from the desire for it to all be as good as the best bit. There, the long unhinging of the first section rambles into personal memory. I can't match Steve Arntsen's sustained visions, often 20 minutes of digression and glory.

That might be true for the new long poems, that they will be a little bit about personal memory. There is one about the moon landing and another about spaceflight and mistakes; another called Information Manifesto that makes me especially happy. The other thing holding me back is that I can't quite figure out where they go in relation to others; are they part of Mother Frankenstein or are they something else and something new? That can be such an illusion, as so many people's careful arrangement of poems into books is pointless. It's only worth it to care if there is driving unity behind it and not just "the poems that i wrote sort of together in time." Meanwhile, the manuscript of artless is just sitting around. At this point, fuck it, I thought I'd put out a tiny book at a time, like Woodbird Jazzophone, keep Tollbooth Press alive, and fuck the idea of books. Of all of it, artless is the only one important to keep together bookishly, because it is a deliberate series and I thought it out as one thing with structure.

I hauled out my Alta booklets lately and went looking online for another that I had seen in the New York Poetry House library - and found it. I have always liked the stolid bulldozer of her in Burn This Memorize Yourself. And I got a new Maureen Owen book and again pulled out old ones (as I have rearranged my library and excavated through piles and piles of books, weeding and shelving and shedding an entire piano's worth of worthlessness, to make room for Oblomovka). Lucky find, and lucky remembrance, also from my trip to New York last year with its unsatisfactory visit to the Bowery Poetry Club -- but there, in a lonely shelf of used books that were utter crap that I laughed at with qatipay by my side, I found Untapped Maps and was riveted to the spot till I had finished the book (with some sort of Erotic Poetry Happening happening all around me). Reading Owen was horrifying because until then I felt pleasantly maverick. I read AE later and realized so many things in common, leaps of thought and language in parallel, similar tracks. The relationship built across time and unreality! So that's horrifying, understand, yet beautiful and made me cry with happiness because I feel less alone (as a poet). The beautiful similarities to the long and short airy eddies from Elvira Hernandez -- I would like to send Owen my translations -- and then spinning off into curls of density -- and then her moments of solidness ringing true as, say, Piercy's don't for me. The thought that I might be thought to copy her upsets me. At least it is better than people drivelling about "the female Ginsberg" not that I don't love it but WTF... as if.

But that moment holding the battered 20 year old copy of Untapped Maps in my hands was beautiful also if you think of all the small books that are to some extent neglected and you might think what's the point, or where do they go, or are they dead. No! They might be lighthouses in the fog, and a distant in time person will hold them and cry a little with relief that not all poetry is damned boringly all the same as all the other poetry of its time. As I felt with some of the issues of Alcatraz and especially Wanda Coleman's stuff in there. Think of the mountain, the dead weight, of awfully dull magazines! Think how nice it will be when some future poet-eating woman cradles your quite unexpectedly excellent little book in her hands. Send out those time travellers!

I do think of Greg Hall and how much he would (and might already) dig this crazy chick, certain phrases in particular are very Dirty Greggie, and I want to call him up and get back in touch and send him a xeroxed sheaf with coffee cup stains added accidentally on purpose.

Meanwhile! I'm very excited that a friend introduced me to Maureen Alsop, another translator of Juana de Ibarbourou! I have around 100 poems of Ibarbourou's, translated in varying degrees of done-ness. Maureen and I had both tackled the Diaria de una isleña, a long prose poem in umpteen sections; one of Ibarbourou's later works, I think from 1968 or 1969. The arc of Ibarbourou's writing over her lifetime went from those pantheic exultations, almost-sonnety droplets published in 1919, to her sonnets on Biblical characters, and prayers of the 30s as if to atone; to forays into the surreal in the 40s and 50s, and then grey complex elegies, mad-eyed and Norn-like, in the 1960s and 1970s. Maureen's and my separate translations of Diary of an Islander felt complementary, and I hope we carry out our collaboration by the sea, and merge versions over endless cups of strong tea and the solace of knowing someone else has loved and inhabited the words we've loved by the act of translation.

That's what's going on with my poetry and translations; it's been a while since I've said. The translations of some of Carmen Berenguer's poems from A media asta aren't out yet; publishing is always slow; maybe the magazine's in difficulty? Maybe the difficult typography of that flag poem broke their souls! I hope it comes out soon. No one took my translations of Nestor Perlongher; so again, screw it, I'll publish them myself in little booklets; I know they're good and compelling and there is no magic validation needed of some other half-assed clique to rubberstamp it good. Get it out into the world and move on.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

A culture of free as in free beer, trust, and ethical payment

The other day I was checking out the developer preview of Songbird's music player, and had a few ideas. Right now you can use it like a browser, reading blogs and downloading mp3s from those blogs. In about 5 minutes I had found great music from búscate un novio and fuck me i'm twee (I've been listening to a lot of girly pop/punk lately.)

I'd really love to change the whole model of music distribution. Rather than buying the rights to do whatever I like with a song, I'd like to download it and listen to it without feeling like a criminal. I'd like it to be licensed under Creative Commons in some sensible way. And then I'd like my music players to include a tip jar.

If I like a song, I'll tip the artist, or the consortium of artists, or whoever does their distribution. For example, I'd like a guarantee that the original artist gets a particular percentage of the tip. Even if I knew they would get 50%, that would make me more likely to tip than I'd be if I had zero information.

Skyrocketing downloads, as music consumers felt the confidence that they weren't doing anything illegal, would fuel the music industry. We'd tip a song, or an artist, more than once. When I made a mix CD for someone and put my favorite song on it, I might tip again. Over the many years of listening to a song, I might tip its creator many times... generating more money for the creator, and for anyone in the middle like Songbird could be, than a simple "pay 99 cents for it" model.

I'd see in my music player that I'd tipped 3 times for a particular song or album. I could sort my music on paid-for or not, which would encourage me to want to pay more artists and feel good about my own habits.

Further, I could earn a reputation as an ethical consumer. My own profile -- on Songbird, or on some public site -- maybe on a badge I stuck on my blogs -- could proclaim that I've tipped musical artists 1052 times, or dollars worth of tips, in the last 5 years.

This information could build relationships between consumer and artist, or label or consortium. Kathleen Hanna would know that I'm her loyal fan to the tune of $30 over several years, and might send me announcements, concert information, free stuff, tshirts, or free new music.

This might also avoid the morass of micropayments. Create small payment structures for specific industries, instead of a grand scheme of people passing around the same .001th of a cent whenever they read a web page.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Talking with the city about ramps

After I sent a bit of an email blast to everyone in the city government I could think of who might be able to help, I got a super nice response. A city technician, Charlie, called me and left voicemail; I called him back and we met half an hour later outside my house. There could not be a nicer, more competent-seeming person. It was very reassuring.

We walked around and looked at the main obstacles to places I go often: the grocery store, the school, and my path to the train station. With 6-7 curb cuts, it would be workable. There was a large locust tree in the way of one ramp location. Charlie, who is also something of an arborist, said that the tree was around 5 years from dying anyway; it is split in a way that means a main branch should come off, and its core is dead. So it might should be cut down anyway. Still, losing a tree makes me sad.

I learned many other interesting things from Charlie as we walked (and rolled) the route and discussed tangential things like the city's history, street names, clues to former land use and the evolution of streetscapes.

The curb cuts cost the city about $5000 each.

As of last year, the standard curb ramp is a wide diagonal, heading both directions. It has texture to warn visually impaired people that a slope is about to happen. It has those yellow bumps at the edge to warn that you're about to be in the street. The texture also directs where the diagonal is, so you know not to go out into the exact middle of both intersections, but to choose one or the other. Behind the ramp, across the sidewalk, there will also be a sort of raised back curb, which signals the sidewalk's edge.

I found some excellent guidelines here on the Department of Transportation federal government site. It's especially good at explaining the different needs of different people; how power vs. manual wheelchairs have conflicting requirements that also conflict with cane/walker/crutch users and visually impaired people. It has a very cool table of best practices for access. Also, the illustrations of dismayed wheelchair users in section 7.3.7, Change of grade, are quite funny.

The streets Charlie and I looked at are fairly old. It is not a "Centennial" neighborhood quite, but I think more like the teens... My own house I believe was started in 1910. The many resurfacings since then mean that the street is raised in the middle from the curb and gutter, so the ramp construction will take the crown and gutter slope into account.

Charlie mentioned my other request for a stop sign, and said that Traffic and Engineering might take a while with that, so he would have his crew construct a base for it in the ramp, and put a cone over the base. If the stop sign doesn't happen, they grind down the base and fill it in. If they don't do that prep work, then someone will "drill a hole in my ramp" and possibly weaken it structurally.

Not to mention Charlie's other mission of training rednecks not to do u-turns on the curb ramps and not to use them as driveways. The weight and the sheering force does major structural damage! Now you know. It would never occur to me to do a U-turn onto a sidewalk. I did not ask about skateboarders...

The city contracts its sidewalk construction and repair out to a company called J & J. They have to have a certain amount of work to be done before the contractors will come and do it all in a batch. This had a particular name, but I have forgotten it. The contractors are in the neighborhood now, working, so might be able to do this; but might need to schedule it in October instead and to do that Charlie will likely have to find another batch of work to go with it. I am sure there's no shortage of things to be done.

The money for this comes from a pool of money for ADA improvements that the federal government gives to the city each year. I don't know how much there is total. Charlie described a project he was on that provided sidewalk access from Edgewood Road all the way to the Senior Center on Roosevelt. Not bad!

The alleys on my block also limit access to the main road behind our block, Jefferson. It is actually quite funny because there are very nice ramps and crosswalks all on Jefferson, but they lead you up onto a section of sidewalk that ends in a giant curb at the alleyway. I am not going to worry too much about the alleys. If I want to use the mailbox at that corner, I will drive to it or go across the street and down the block and across the street again.

Charlie and I also discussed the driveway slope. That is something I could pay half of and the city would pay half, to fix. For now I am thinking to just put a big heavy board there as a temporary fix so that my car will stop bottoming out and so that I can get down the driveway in my wheelchair.

Then we went into discussion of trees and City Trees. The city used to recommend crepe myrtles, and then banned them, and now doesn't mind them again, but since they push up the sidewalks the same as a big shade tree, they recommend you just go with the big shade tree. It helps houses be more energy efficient and it makes the city nicer for everyone. Big trees need 6 feet of planting space between the curb and sidewalk, and medium ones need 5. Our planting strip is narrow; about 2.5 feet. So, on streets like ours, the city does the 50/50 cost split, creates a sort of bump or bend in the sidewalk, moving the sidewalk closer up towards the house. The right of way is actually much greater than most people think, so, about 5 feet into our front yard is actually public land or right-of-way.

That was about 1 hour of my morning, and I took another hour to write it up. Time well spent.

I am very relieved that I don't have to fight harder for this. Also, I was grateful not to have to explain myself, the ADA, my medical status, or anything else, to Charlie, who took my right to use the public sidewalks as a given. What a great public employee and great person to work with.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Apple store sued over ADA issues

Wow, I wonder why sue Apple in particular? Because most of these same things have happened to me in ... well... pretty much every single store or public place I've been in.

ON the other hand I was unusually ticked off at the Apple Store in Palo Alto a few weeks ago. A "genius" was trying to fix my computer and I was insisting on trying to watch (as, if not using a wheelchair, I would normally do.) Another employee came by and told him he could pull out a little stand from the side of the counter. He complained.. .and they argued about it in front of me without talking to me. She showed him how to pull out the counter, and I started helping her do it and set it up. The dude acted put out. Then, at some point, he needed to plug into an ethernet cable because part of the problem was that my wireless software wasn't working. And he couldn't manage to find a cable long enough to reach to the little pull-out desk extension that I could see from my wheelchair. So we fought about that for a while, I went behind the counter and craned my neck and was rudely kicked out by a manager who said it was against store policy. When I tried during the *next* problem to come up that day to get him to pull the wheelchair accessible desk out again, he refused because it was inconvenient for him and blocked the way.

I am routinely in elevators with inaccessible buttons, or have to put up with someone else's humiliating fussing over their wires or chairs or boxes stacked in a hallway to the bathroom... and so is every other disabled person I've ever talked with.

This bit made me laugh, "they were unable to reach products or service desks at the retail shop". This is also true nearly everywhere. I accept that part and will just ask for help if I need it.

This part made me happy:

"The women said they are more interested in changing the store to better accommodate their disabilities than punishing the Cupertino-based company"

Well, yeah. And sometimes you have to push it, and sue, or bring down the law in any way possible, or change doesn't happen. That's how we got the ADA and equal-access laws in the first place.

Politely talking to a manager doesn't always work. Picketing doesn't either. Using the law might. It is legitimate activism.

So I respect their lawsuit and wish them luck.

But wait. Read the comments on the article. Check this one out:

"First, it seems unlikely that a company as astute as Apple typically is would miss something this important. They do have blinders, but not usually like that. " That's so annoying. Oh, well, it's impossible to imagine that some poor yobs in a retail store, even a nice new fancy one downtown for a slick computer company, might be rude and discriminatory. Or that there are flaws in the ADA compliance in the building or the store setup, such as the wheelchair buttons or inevitable boxes in the hallway to the bathroom.

Bah. Screw them... no, sue them. Until they shape up. The disabled protesters who occupied the SF Federal Building 20 years ago didn't do it just for fun... they did it so we can use the law to change things.

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Wiki Wednesday's talk on Wiktionary and multilingual collaboration

crossposted from my blog at

September's Bay Area Wiki Wednesday featured Betsy Megas, a mechanical engineer and Wiktionary administrator, known in the wikiverse as Dvortygirl. She's a Wiki Wednesday regular and spoke at Wikimania 2006. In her talk, she gave us a ton of information on the history of Wiktionary, a tour of its interesting features, and thoughts on possible future directions for this worldwide, massively multilingual collaboration.

Betsy started by explaining the difference between Wikipedia and Wiktionary. Wikipedia's goal is to capture all the knowledge in the world. Except for dictionary definitions! Wiktionary's modest goal is to include all words in all languages. While an encyclopedia article is about a subject, a dictionary definition is about a word.

But what is a dictionary? Betsy went to a library to browse dictionary collections. Some dictionaries focus on types of words: cliches, law, saints, nonsexist language. Others center around types of content: rhymes, usage, etymology, visual information. Others are dictionaries of translation. Wiktionary, because it's not paper, is searchable, unlimited by size; it can evolve; and it has strong ties to people who edit it, and to communities of its editors.

Wiktionary content includes audio pronunciations, definitions, etymologies, metadata such as a word's frequency in English according to all the text on Project Gutenberg; pictures (such as this great photo illustrating the concept of "train wreck"); and videos attached to a word, for example, videos of how to express a word in American Sign Language. It also includes translations.

We went off on a few speculations to future directions for Wiktionary, Wikipedia, and perhaps the entire web. What if links knew why they were linked? For example, why is "Lima" linked to "Peru"? Betsy thinks that we are missing out on a lot of metadata that could be quite useful. And for Wiktionary specifically, what if we had categories that were structured around the functionality of a word, for example, its part of speech?

Betsy then went on to sketch out basic entry layout - which is different in different languages, but which for English is referred to as WT:ELE. She explains the problem of Wiktionary as "We have structured data, and no structure". This is a problem and a feature of many wikis!

Wiktionary has many tools to help with the tension between structure and structurelessness. It heavily relies on entry templates, which fill a regular wikitext entry box with something like this:



# {{substub}}

*Add verifiable references here to show where you found the word in use.

Other useful tools depend mostly on automated detection of problems, relying on human beings to do the cleanup by hand. For example, Connel MacKenzie wrote a bot to list potentially messed-up second level article headers, but a person checks each link by hand to do the gardening.

Structurelessness or being structure-light can be a problem for sensible reuse of Wiktionary content. Other dictionary projects such as Onelook and Ninjawords have used content from Wiktionary, but ran into difficulties with their imports. Is Wiktionary content reusable? Yes, but barely.

Somewhere in the mix, we also discussed WT:CFI (Criteria for Inclusion) and WT:RFV (Requests for Verification).

But then, the truly fascinating stuff about translation and multilingual collaboration. Words, or definitions, exist in many places. For example, we might have an English word defined in the English Wiktionary and the Spanish Wiccionario, and then a Spanish equivalent of that word also defined in both places. So, a single word (or definition, or lexeme) can potentially exist in a matrix of all the 2000+ languages which currently have Wiktionaries (or the 6000-7000+ known living languages) squared.

For a taste of how the Wiktionary community has dealt with that level of complexity, take a look at the English entry for the word "board". About halfway down the page, there's a section titled "Translations", with javascript show/hide toggles off to the right hand side of the page. There are many meanings for the English word, including "piece of wood" and "committee". If I show the translations for board meaning a piece of wood, many other languages are listed, with the word in that language as a link. The Dutch word for "piece of wood" is listed as "plank", and if I click that word I get to the English Wiktionary's entry for plank (which, so far, does not list itself as Dutch, but as English and Swedish.) I also noted that the noun form and the verb form of "board" have different sections to show the translations.

Ariel, another Wikipedia and Wiktionary editor and admin, showed us a bit of the guts of the translation template. The page looks like this:


But the code behind it, which you can see if you click to edit the page, looks like this, all on one line (I have added artificial line breaks to protect the width of your browser window)}:

nbsp;({{{tr}}})}}{{#switch:{{{3|}}}|f|m|mf|n|c|nm= {{{{{3}}}}}|
}}{{#switch:{{{4|}}}|s|p= {{{{{4}}}}}|}}

Fortunately, this template has a lovely Talk page which explains everything.

We all sat around marvelling at the extent of language, and the ambition of the multilingual Wiktionary projects. The scope of OmegaWiki was impressive. As Betsy and Ariel demonstrated its editing interface for structured multilingual data, I got a bit scared, though! Maybe a good future step for OmegaWiki contributions could be to build a friendlier editing UI on top of what sounds like a very nice and solid database structure.

We also took a brief tour of and its forums, which Wordreference editors go through to update the content of its translation dictionaries.

I'm a literary translator, and publish mostly my English translations of Spanish poetry; so I'm a dictionary geek. In order to translate one poem, I might end up in the underbelly of Stanford library, poring over regional dictionaries from 1930s Argentina, as well as browsing online for clues to past and current usage of just a few words in that poem. Wiktionary is a translator's dream — or will be, over time and as more people contribute. I noted as I surfed during Betsy's talk that the Spanish Wiktionary has a core of only 15 or so die-hard contributors. So, with only a little bit of sustained effort, one person could make a substantial difference in a particular language.

The guy who is scanning the OED and who works for the Internet Archive talked about that as an interesting scanning problem. We told him that Kragen has also worked on a similar project. The IA guy, whose name I didn't catch, described his goals of comparing his OCR version to the not-copy-protected first CD version of the second edition.

At some point, someone brought up ideas about structuring and web forms. I have forgotten the exact question, but Betsy's answer was hilariously understated: "I think that the structure of languages is substantially more complex."

Chris Dent brought up some interesting ideas as we closed out the evening. What is a wiki? When we talk about Wikipedia or Wiktionary or most other wiki software implementations, really we're just talking about "the web". And what he thinks wiki originally meant and still means is a particular kind of tight close collaboration. As I understand it, he was saying that possibly we overstate wiki-ness as "editability" when really the whole web is "editable". I thought about this some more. We say we are "editing a page" but really we are creating a copy of the old one, swapping it to the same url, and making our changes. The old page still exists. So for the general web, we can't click on a page to "edit" it, but we can make our own page and reference back to the "old" page, which is essentially the same thing as what most wiki software does; but at a different pace and with different tools and ease of entry/editing. So his point is that wiki-ness is about evolving collaborative narratives. I'm not really sure where to go with that idea, but it was cool to think about and I was inspired by the idea that the entire web, really, has a big button on it that says "Edit This Page".

As is often the case, we had low attendance, but a great speaker and unusually good group discussion. I'm happy with only 10 people being there, if they're the right people. And yet I feel that many people are missing out on this great event. Betsy's going to give me her slides and an audio recording for this month, but next month I will try to get a videocamera and record the entire event. If any actual videobloggers would like to come and do the recording, I'd love it.

Also, tune in next week, or September 16, for the San Francisco Wikipedia/Mediawiki meetup!

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Hacking City Hall

My experiences with activism, and also my peripheral awareness of politically savvy friends, taught me some things that aren't automatic knowledge. In this case, I would like a 4-way stop sign at an intersection near my house. I would also like curb cuts -- sloping ramps from the sidewalks to the street -- at the busy intersections along my street, between the grocery store and the many apartment buildings and the two schools. And incidentally... to my house.

If you saw me in the street with my 7 year old at 8:15 am this morning you would understand a little bit better. It is hard for me to find a place to cross the street. The curbs and driveways are steep. Some driveways I can go up and down, and some I can't, especially if I'm tired and hurting. Meanwhile, my kid wants to walk next to me, but I won't let him, so I'm trying to herd him by shouting, and keep us both caught up, and teach him traffic awareness and how to cross the street, but while I'm in the street and we are separated by parked cars. Giant Hummers and SUVs driven by people talking on cell phones fail to stop when they see me, even when they're at stop signs, and they blow past me at 40 miles an hour while I'm out in the middle of the road going past parked cars with people getting in and out, parallel parking with vans full of kids. It's a nightmare because the drivers are careless and distracted and ill-tempered and inconsiderate. Because we don't have school buses in this district, everyone has to walk or has to drop off their kids on the way to work. The police circle the block, giving tickets to the worst offenders.

So, what to do? I need to be able to cross the street in my wheelchair! At an intersection! With my kid!

I looked up some addresses on the city web site and wrote a couple of emails months ago. When I realized that didn't have any result, I figured I'd go in person to City Hall and ask questions. Procrastination ensued. I continued wheeling my wheelchair in the street whenever I needed to get groceries.

After three days of walking my son to and from school during periods of very heavy traffic, I lost patience with the situation. A few years ago, I watched my friend Elaine work the machinery of the city, and her position as president of the Moms' Club, to get a stop sign at a busy intersection that was between her house and the local playground. It benefited everyone in the neighborhood. I saw her do very similar things to get shade structures and bathrooms in some of the local playgrounds! But if it were not for seeing her go through that political process, it wouldn't have occurred to me to do what I'm doing now.

city hall

So! I went to City Hall. I asked at an information desk who I should talk to about sidewalks, ramps, and stop signs.

Step one. I explained briefly what I was looking for at the information desk. The information desk person told me to go to Planning.

Step two: The guy at the Planning desk told me to go to the Public Works building. I asked him more pressing questions, and he responded that maybe I could talk to someone in Engineering, but that would not help and the people responsible were in Public Works (across town.) Since those were the people I wrote to in the first place who didn't respond and I didn't trust his information and I didn't want to pack up my wheelchair and drive across town and unpack myself into the wheelchair again, I told him I was going to go upstairs to the big sign I could see that said "City Manager" and "City Attorney" since I suspected there was some more direct path to action. He seemed mildly perturbed. I smiled with sharky politeness.

Step 3: On the way to the elevator, I told the information desk person #1 (nicely) that the person she had sent me to didn't know what I should do next.

Step 4: Upstairs, an information desk or reception person for the City Manager seemed to know what I was talking about and what to do. She looked up some information online, and wrote down a name and phone number and email of Rich, the Traffic Engineer, and his assistant Peter, who were just downstairs next to the Planning desk I had gone to in Step 2.

Step 5: Someone came to talk with me at the Maps and something-or-other desk after I waited a few minutes. I gave my two-sentence summary of what I would like. She asked if I had an appointment to speak with Saber. I said I did not, but I would like to wait and speak with anyone who could explain the next steps in the process to me. She said things that indicated everyone was very busy and went away. I waited.

Step 6: An engineer, Brendan, came out to talk with me. We went over to a low desk that was pleasantly wheelchair accessible, with a large, lightweight computer monitor that swivelled around. I explained to Brendan, and showed him my map of the 3 blocks between the grocery store, my house, and the school. On it I circled the places I wished for curb cuts, and the intersection that I think needs a 4-way stop instead of a 2-way stop. I asked Brendan what I should do next to request these things from the city, through official channels.

(Here is where I would not have known there *was* a way to do this sort of thing, if not for the local Redwood City Moms' Club and its email list, and my friend Elaine.)

(I would like to point out the many steps before this actually productive step; Expect delays, and uncertainty, and people who don't know what to do next or who to refer you to; Don't get mad at them, but keep patiently asking different people until you hit the good one who will say, "I don't know, but let's go find out.")

Step 6, continued: Brendan listened intently to my explanation. He said that I should do separate requests for the stop sign -- for which there was a known procedure -- and for the curb cuts, which no one understands, which take longer, and which will cost a lot more.

Then, Brendan he explained what I should do and what would happen next. I should write a letter to the Senior Engineer, Saber. I gave a feral grin and whipped out my computer. There was wireless. I wrote the letter and showed it to Brendan across the desk. He said it looked okay. I cc-ed the letter to one of the school principals and to my housemates, the only people on my block whose email addresses I know offhand.

Then I took notes on paper for what he said next. Here is what will happen and what I should do:

- Write a letter proposing the stop sign (done!)
- Write a letter proposing the curb cuts.
- The city will respond within a couple of weeks (someone is on vacation)
- Engineering will order a traffic analysis, just from the fact of my request letter for the stop sign. They will put those tube things across the street and do traffic counts, and I think they'll do a pedestrian count as well.
- Meanwhile, I must get signatures from the people living at the four corners of the intersection. Brendan called up an application that uses Google Maps, and we talked about how some of the buildings at the corners were single family and some were apartments and some were duplexes. The more signatures from those addresses I can get, the better.
- Also meanwhile, I must get signatures from people within a 1-block radius of the intersections.
- Brendan was aware that the neighborhood has many Spanish-speaking and Guatemalan/Salvadorean/Southern Mexico-native-language-speaking immigrants, so he advised me to make my petition bilingual and also warned me that people might be wary of signing things for various reasons.
- Meanwhile, a letter will go out from the City to everyone on the blocks near the intersection to explain the traffic analysis studies.
- Then, the engineer makes a recommendation to the City Council in a staff report.
- A public hearing will then be scheduled for the City Council to discuss the stop sign.
- It is important for people who want the stop sign (or curb cuts) to come to the meeting, because if only people who are opposed come, it might sway the council.

Brendan explained other issues in excellent detail. He called up fles on his computer, and swivelled the monitor around to show me the screen. The main thing we looked at was the list of criteria that the city considers in its recommendation: how many cars must flow through the intersection in an 8 hour period, but the ways around that as well; pedestrian count in smaller time units is considered along with average speed of cars going through the intersection. That was interesting! And useful! Brendan said he would find out if he could email me that document, and gave me his card.

We discussed strategy for the curb cuts a little bit. He mentioned again that they were quite expensive and he had never seen anyone request them, and so there might be a bit of confusion as well as reluctance from the city. But that there was probably money for it somewhere. "Well, I think there has to be, because of the ADA," I said in a friendly way. I hoped that would indicate my total willingness to work through their process, but would show that I am aware there are legal rights involved here, and laws that specify things like sidewalk accessibility. While I don't think we have to go there, it seems good to at least mention the law.

I have some good ideas. IN addition to pounding the pavement for signatures, I could go speak to a middle school class at both schools, and perhaps enlist help from a social studies or civics class. I could explain the process I went through, and get some older kids to knock on doors and get signatures. Then I will not have to do some much physical labor, and a bunch of kids will learn something about local political processes and how to effect small changes.

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