Decisions, Making

Two seemingly unrelated bits of news/opinion in this post, but both have to do with decision-making on some level. To start, one of the first articles I read this morning was Ann Patchett’s op-ed in the New York Times about the Pulitzer Prize Board’s failure to select a fiction winner from the three finalists. As Patchett points out, this is not only disappointing for the authors (“It’s fine to lose to someone, and galling to lose to no one”), it’s also a letdown for readers and for booksellers. Here are the past winners.

Another article I read today is from ASIS&T: Thom Haller wrote on the topic “What happens when architectural questions are not asked?” (architecture, here, is information architecture, or IA). He used Facebook as an example, and it’s a good one: who hasn’t been confused by Facebook’s changing structure, or its hierarchy and organizing principles (or lack thereof), not to mention its always-in-flux privacy policies? The problem Haller discussed was that of labels (or lack of labels) for “content clusters,” and it’s something that would probably come up in a basic usability test; right now, it’s not really clear what the difference between “public” and “all” is, unless there is a label for each group of options (there isn’t).

For such a huge site, there are some surprising difficulties in terms of navigation and settings. I almost have to assume that these difficulties are planned, or at least unresolved, on purpose; it seems like Facebook wants certain actions (privacy settings, unfriending) to be difficult.

So as not to end on a negative note, please enjoy this list of fake Massachusetts town names from McSweeney’s. And may I also recommend Jenny Lawson’s (a.k.a. The Bloggess) just-published memoir, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened? Read a snippet here. (Unless you’re at work, because most people’s work doesn’t usually provoke hysterical laughter, and this might. You’ve been warned.)

A Balanced Information Diet

This evening I went to a screening of some TED talks at MIT, sponsored by the New England chapter of ASIS&T. We watched five TED talks, with a little bit of discussion between each one.

1. Raghava KK, “Shake up your story” – the artist/father talked about how looking at multiple perspectives could lead to the development of empathy and increase creativity.

2. Wael Ghonim, “Inside the Egyptian Revolution” – Ghonim described how the Internet allowed Egyptians to connect, to realize they were not alone and had shared dreams, to collaborate and speak out. He described how the “psychological barrier of fear” led to silence, but because of the Internet, “the fear is no longer fear, it’s strength. It’s power….The power of the people is much stronger than the people in power.” (After the talk, we discussed the flip side of technology: in the case of Egypt, technology allowed people to overcome their isolation, but what about when the government controls the technology?)

3. Eli Pariser, “Beware online filter bubbles” – This was the talk I found most interesting. Pariser, an online organizer and author, talked about the invisible shift in the flow of information online; search engines show us what they think we want – but what we want to see might not be what we need to see. Although the “personalization” due to algorithmic editing can sometimes be helpful, most people don’t realize that results are being filtered or tailored in this way – and we don’t decide what gets included or what gets left out.

Left to their own devices, people tend to read sources that re-confirm their existing points of view, and this was true long before the Internet (some people read the New York Times, some read the Wall Street Journal). Editors used to be our “human gatekeepers,” but now there are algorithmic gatekeepers, and they have no concept of journalistic integrity or ethics: they just want to show us what we want to see. Eventually, we may end up with a diet of “information dessert” and no “information vegetables. The information might be “relevant,” but we won’t be presented with information that is uncomfortable, challenging, important, or that presents other points of view – and we may become less and less aware that this information exists.

This addresses only a small piece of this issue, but check out the Google Transparency Report.

4. Sunni Brown, “Doodlers, Unite!” – According to Brown, doodling during a meeting isn’t a waste of time, and it doesn’t mean you aren’t paying attention – in fact, it may be helping you process information better. (After all, don’t many group brainstorming sessions end up using a whiteboard or pen and paper to sketch out ideas?)

5. Hans Rosling and the magic washing machine – This talk certainly had the best title, and was arguably the most entertaining. Swedish professor of global health Hans Rosling described the direct connection between the washing machine and reading: when his mother got a washing machine and no longer to do the washing by hand, she had time to take him to the library instead. “Thank you industrialization…that gave us time to read books!” The middle part of his talk concentrated on the developing world, climate change, and the use of resources (1/7 of the world population uses 1/2 of the resources – washing machines included).

One of the discussion questions (offered somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I believe) after this last talk was, “Do you think the invention of washing machines has increased library circulation?” In a roundabout way, it probably has: in the industrialized world, washing machines and other time-saving devices allow us to have more leisure time, which some of us do spend reading. 🙂

Many, many more TED talks are available “free to the world.” Explore, and enjoy!


  • The folks at SF Signal have devised a flowchart to add context to NPR’s list of top science fiction and fantasy books (though if you follow that link to NPR, you’ll see they did at least add a blurb about each book – the initial list was really just a list). I originally posted about it here.
  • Sadly, there were technical difficulties recording the GSLIS Perspective on ALA panel, and there will be no podcast. There is, however, a podcast of the ASIS&T event from the day before.
  • James Patterson’s article on CNN links out to a number of good readers’ advisory resources for children and teens, especially boys.
  • My YA Literature class has a blog where we’ll each be posting a review of one YA book.
That’s it for now – have a great weekend!


How much data? LOTS.

Yesterday I attended the Library Science Fair organized by the Simmons chapter of ASIS&T. Current GSLIS student Mark Tomko gave an impressive presentation titled “Translating Biological Data Sets Into Linked Data” (he’ll be presenting this at the 10th European Networked Knowledge Organisation Systems (NKOS) Workshop in Berlin later this month). Mark did a great job explaining both the biological aspects (“all the biology you need to know fits on one slide, and the font isn’t even that small,” he promised) and the importance of linked data to an audience who was not necessarily expert in either field.

Ben Florin (GSLIS alum, former staff, currently a web developer at the Boston College Libraries) also gave a talk entitled “What I don’t like about our library’s website, plus why we haven’t changed it yet, and what we’re doing about it.” He took us on a virtual tour of the BC Libraries site, pointing out its pros (prominent discovery tool, i.e. search) and cons (a fixed interface, with wasted screen space, instead of responsive design).

The example of responsive design Ben gave was The Boston Globe’s new site; if you go to the home page there and resize your browser window, the layout will adjust from three columns to two to one (as you go smaller), and then from one to two to three (as you make the window larger again). The layout of the BC Libraries page, on the other hand, remains fixed at two columns.

Chances are I will not end up working as a software engineer (or biologist), and maybe not even as a web developer; however, it was interesting to hear two extremely bright people talk about their work as it relates to libraries and organizational schemes.