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Posts about internet (old posts, page 1)

Getting rid of the laptop

I've been playing with evaluating two new toys important new pieces of technology: an iPad and a Pulse SmartPen. The combination almost makes we ready to ditch my netbook -- or at least got me thinking carefully about why I still have one.

The iPad is well-known; the SmartPen perhaps not so. It's made by a company called LiveScribe, and works with special notebook paper. A camera in the nib watches what's been written and tracks the pen by looking at a background of dots arranged to provide location information about the pen on the page. The pen can also record what's being said, and cleverly links the two data streams together: later you can tap a word and hear what was being said at the time. I've been using one for a fortnight.

I used to keep written notebooks, but moved to taking notes purely on my netbook when I realised I was forgetting what I'd written where: a notebook is just a dead tree with dead information on it, and I've become used to everything being searchable. However, getting searchability meant converting my note-taking style to linear text rather than mindmaps or sketches, since that's what the tools typically support. (There are mindmap tools, of course, but they're completely separate from other note-taking tools and so get in the way somewhat.) There's also a barrier to note-taking in having to get the netbook out, rather than just picking up a (special) pen and (special) paper. The resulting data is searchable, since the desktop tool does fairly decent) handwriting recognition: I can "tag" pages in the margins, writing slightly more carefully than usual, and search for the tags even if full content searching is a bit aspirational.

For what I do this is a lot, but not quite enough, as I spend a lot of time reading, looking up information and writing emails, papers and the like. A Kindle or other e-reader would be great for the reading, but not for the net access. That's where the iPad comes in: can it replace the need for a more traditional web-access and writing device? It's certainly a lovely piece of kit, fast and stable, and allows easy browsing. The keyboard is pretty good for a "soft" device, and one could easily see writing email and editing small amounts of text using it. I can also see that it'd be an awesome platform for interactive content and mixed media books/films, assuming the editing tools are available elsewhere.

Of course neither netbooks nor iPads are really optimised for the creation of content: they're very much consumer devices intended for the consumption of content written on other, bigger machines. I don't think that's a criticism -- no-one does smartphone software development on a smartphone, after all -- but it does mean that neither is optimal as a device for someone who creates a lot. But the combination of a digitised paper notebook with an internet-access device is extremely attractive. Both devices are extremely portable and friendly, and link well to the larger "back office" machines I use for "serious" work.

I have two worries, one about both devices and one about the iPad alone. The first worry is the almost completely closed nature of the software. The Pulse loads its recorded sound and images into its own desktop tool, which are than only available through that tool despite (I imagine) using standard data formats internally with some clever hyperlinking. The tool does provide important value-add, of course, specifically the links from written text to recorded audio. But that should be separate from the actual content, and it isn't. One can "archive" a notebook, or turn individual pages into PDF, but not (as far as I can tell) get access to the content programmatically as it stands. That's simply obstructive on the part of Livescribe -- and also a little shortsighted, I think, since their linking technology could clearly be applied to any print-linked-to-sound data if their tool was open and able to access arbitrary content. I think this is a great example of where openness is both friendly to the community and potentially a commercial virtue. (Oh, and the Livescribe desktop only works on Intel Macs: who exactly writes non-universal binaries these days? and why?)

The iPad has a similar ecosystem, of course, which is "open" in the sense that anyone can write programs for it but "closed" in the sense that (firstly) access to the App Store is carefully constrained and (secondly) there are features of the platform and operating system that aren't freely available to everyone.

I can understand Apple's contention that -- for phones especially -- it's important to only download apps that won't brick the device. This doesn't of course imply that there should be a single gatekeeper as has happened with the App Store: one could provide a default store but allow external ones, as happens with Android Market. A single gatekeeper is basically just a way to extract rents from the software ecosystem. This can stifle both innovation and price, to Apple's advantage.

What worries me more, though, is the extra, non-commercial dimension in terms of content control, which I think is more broadly damaging than just software. I was looking at an app for cocktail recipes (Linda's a big fan). There are several available, of course, but all come with a rating of 17+ because of their mention of frequent drinking or drug use. There's a suggestion of the illicit becoming the illegal there. It's also well-known that Apple enforces a "no porn" rule on the App Store. Whatever one's attitude to pornography, much of it isn't illegal and it's not clear that a software company should restrict the uses of a device above and beyond the law.

The whole experience reminds me very strongly of Disneyland: safe, beautiful, welcoming, friendly -- and utterly fake, and utterly anodyne. One can choose not to go to Disneyland, of course -- and certainly not to live there -- but it's another thing to hand control of access to information and information technology off to a commercial third party. Anything can be disallowed on a whim, or for the greater commercial good -- and can of course be disallowed or edited retrospectively.

Whether we like it or not, human culture includes material, that is distasteful for many people. That's why we have critical faculties, and diversity, and laws on free speech. Commercial device providers and operators are not constrained by requirements to fairness in the way that newspapers and public broadcasters are, and could easily be persuaded to silence some forms of speech on the basis of commercial interest regardless of their wider legality.

For the present I'll be keeping the netbook for internet access, but using the SmartPen for note-taking, and thinking a bit more about a dedicated ebook reader. It's a compromise between openness and convenience that I'm conscious of making, and not without some hesitation. Time will tell how the choices play out and evolve, and maybe I'll buy an Android tablet when they mature a little :-)

The power of comics

I've been fortunate enough to spend some of the past couple of days with a comic-writer who studies the academic experience, and who might well have a greater aggregate impact on science than almost anyone else I've ever met.

This week has been the SICSA graduate student conference, giving SICSA's  PhD students to share their ideas in front of a friendly audience. As well as the science, one of the goals of the event was to improve the student experience in social ways, letting them find new collaborators and share their experiences and worries. And what better way facilitate this than by inviting the writer of PhD Comics, one off the most popular internet comic strips, to come and talk?

The man behind PhD Comics is Jorge Cham, whom I have to say is one of the nicest guys you could want to hang out with.

Jorge has a PhD himself, of course. His research topic was robotics, specifically small, fast robots mimicking cockroach locomotion to move over uneven surfaces. These sorts of systems have huge potential applications, from space missions and environmental rovers to accident-victim location and disaster recovery. However, his main passion even during his PhD was cartooning, reflecting on and responding to the graduate student experience. It started as a print comic in a Stanford newspaper and predictably did well in a place where the student density is so high.

But it was only when he put it onto the internet that it really took off. Like many things on the internet, there's a law-of-large-numbers effect that can come unexpectedly into play. The number of graduate students in any particular place is usually small, but integrated over the world you have a respectable audience -- and PhD Comics now sustains around half a million hits per day.

The goal of PhD Comics is to act as an encouragement to graduate students. For anyone who's been through it  -- as I have -- it's overall an extremely rewarding, liberating intellectual, social and life experience; it's also a lonely, frustrating, depressing, isolating and self-critical one. It takes an effort of will to believe that you're making a contribution, making discoveries that others will find interesting and worthwhile. Even those with unbounded self-confidence -- which most certainly does not include me, not now and certainly not then -- will find themselves questioning their motivations and capabilities over the course of their PhD.

Often the most sobering part of the whole experience is the realisation of how smart other people are. Most graduate students come from being top or near-top of their undergraduaate class. They then land in an environment where everyone was top of their class: the average suddenly lurches upwards, which can be disorienting. Not only that, but graduate students generally mix, on fairly equal terms, with postdocs and staff who have enormously more experience and who may in some cases be quite famous within the limited bounds of their fields, putting further strain on self-confidence.

I have a quite visceral memory of going to my first graduate-level presentation on a topic (type theory) that I thought I understood well -- as indeed I did, at an undergraduate level. Three slides into the talk, I realised that I knew absolutely nothing about type theory as it actually is, its important concepts, challenges and uses. It was quite wrenching to realise the extent of my own ignorance. Conversely, though, when I now talk about my own work I'm conscious of the gap that exists between people with a reasonable (in every sense) knowledge of a field and those with an expert knowledge, and try to pitch the material accordingly.

Which brings us back to PHD Comics. Every individual graduate student will feel overwhelmed at some point, and may not be able to reach out locally to find support. But they can reach out to the shared experience that is the comic and its archive and see how others feel about the same situations and challenges that they face -- and do so in a way that's far more entertaining than talking to a counsellor. I suspect this is an incredibly valuable service, and one that I'd've welcomed when doing my own PhD.

Does this help with the process of doing science? The completion rates for PhDs is high --over 99% for Scottish computer science, for example -- but the time taken, and stress endured, in that process varies widely. Anything that helps mitigate the strain, helping students cement their self-confidence and deal with the challenges, is very much to be welcomed.

This got me thinking. Robotics is an important field, and it's impossible to say what we lost in terms of research and innovation when Jorge followed his passion. But it's almost certain that he's influenced more scientific activity, more widely, as a cartoonist than he ever would have done as a researcher or an academic. Not everyone can be a researcher, but even fewer can provide insight and entertainment as cartoonists, and even fewer can spot and take the opportunity to become the voice of graduate students worldwide.

Following this logic a little further, I suspect that bringing Jorge over to SICSA may have been the single most effective "soft spend" in the whole programme to date. We don't have a problem with completion, but we do, like all universities, have issues with confidence and motivation, and anything we can do to improve those is money well spent. I wish I could think of a way to confirm that value empirically, but I can't: but that's not going to stop me recommending Jorge as a speaker to anyone wanting to improve their research environment.

Made smarter by the internet?

Over the weekend there was a fascinating exchange of viewpoints in the Wall Street Journal taking opposing sides of the argument as to what effect the internet is having on us: is it making us smarter and better-informed, or more shallow and un-disciplined compared to our book-reading days? Perhaps more importantly. is there anything we can do to leverage the internet to promote smartness more effectively?

Clay Shirky's article takes the positivist approach, arguing that amid the spam and the videos of people tripping over chairs are the beginnings of a new media culture that's attuned to writing for a non-linear, multimedia experience. Opposed to this is Nicholas Carr's view that the internet is opposed to the "stillness" that books encourage, and that the mental discipline that attends reading is of value in itself.

This is a critical (indeed, perhaps the critical) cultural argument over the "content revolution" that we're currently in the middle of. As a computer scientist with a deep interest in writing and literature, I find it fascinating that computers are at the forefront of a societal change, just as they're at the forefront of scientific change. I think we can both critique the points made by both authors, and also use them to move on from what risks being a sterile discussion to consider what computers have to offer in terms of literature and writing.

It's perhaps unsurprising that overall I take Shirky's position: the internet is mind-expanding, and the mind-blowing volume of mediocrity created in the process doesn't alter that. It's undoubtedly true that there is an amazing amount of trivial and/or self-serving junk on the web (probably including most of what I write), as well as material that's offensive and/or dangerous. The same is true for print.

Carr's argument seems to me to centre around a critique of hyperlinking rather than of the web per se, and it's hard to argue with the suggestion that rapidly clicking from page to page isn't conducive to deep study or critical understanding. It's also clearly true that this sort of frenetic behaviour is at least facilitated, if not encouraged, by pages with lots of links such as those found on Wikipedia and many news sites. There's a tendency to encounter something one doesn't know and immediately look it up -- because doing so is so easy -- only to do the same thing with this second page, and so on. On the other hand, few things are  less rewarding than keeping reading material for which one doesn't have the background, whose arguments will never make sense and whose content will never cohere as a result. Hyperlinking makes such context readily available, alongside a potentially destabilising of loss of focus.

It's important to realise that such distraction isn't inevitable, though. When reading Carr's article I was reminded of a comment by Esther Dyson (in another context) to the effect that the internet is simply an amplifier that accentuates what one would do anyway. Deep thinkers can use hyperlinking to find additional information, simplify and their learning and generally enrich their thinking; conversely, shallow thinkers can skim more material with less depth. I think there's an unmistakable whiff of cultural elitism in the notion that book-reading is self-evidently profound and web-page-reading necessarily superficial.

It's tempting to suggest that books better reflect and support a shared cultural experience, a value system that's broadly shared and considered, while the internet fosters fragmentation, ill-considered and narrowly-shared sub-cultures. I suspect this suggestion of broadly true, but not in a naive cause-and-effect way: books cost money to print and distribute, which tends to throttle the diversity of expression they represent. In other words, there's a shared cultural space because that's all people were offered. Both the British government and the Catholic church maintained a list of censored and banned books that effectively limited the space of public discourse through books. Both systems survived until recently: the Index Liborum Prohibitorum was only abolished in 1966 (and hung around for longer than that in Ireland), and the British government domestically banned Spycatcher in the 1980s.

What may be more significant than hyperlinking, though, is closed hyperlinking and closed platforms in general. This is a danger that several writers have alluded to in analysing the iPad. The notion of curated computing -- where users live in a closed garden whose contents are entirely pre-approved (and sometimes post-retracted, too) -- seems to me to be more conducive to shallow thinking. Whatever else the open internet provides, it provides an informational and discursive space that's largely unconstrained, at least in the democratic world. One can only read deeply when there is deep material to read, and when one can find the background, context and dissenting material against which to check one's reading. To use Dyson's analogy again, it'd be easy to amplify the tendency of people to look for material that agrees with their pre-existing opinions (confirmational bias) and so shape the public discussion. There might be broad cultural agreement that Mein Kampf and its recent derivatives should be excluded in the interests of public safety, but that's a powerful decision to give to someone -- especially when digital technology gives them the power to enforce it, both into the future and retroactively.

(As an historical aside, in the early days of the web a technology called content selection was developed, intended to label pages with a machine-readable tag of their content to enable parental control amongst other things. There was even a standard developed, PICS, to attach labels to pages. The question then arose as to who should issue the labels. If memory serves me correctly, a consortium of southern-US Christian churches lobbied W3C to be nominated as the sole label-provider. It's fair to say this would have changed the internet forever....)

But much of this discussion focuses on the relationship between the current internet and books. I suspect it's much more interesting to consider what post-book media will look like, and then to ask what might make such media more conducive to "smart study". There are shallow and simple changes one might make. Allowing hyperlinks that bring up definitions of terms in-line or in pop-ups (as allowed by HyTime, incidentally, a far older hypertext model than the web), would reduce de-contextualisation and attention fragmentation. I find tools like Read It Later to be invaluable, allowing me quickly to mark pages for later reading rather than having to rely on memory and the inevitable cognitive load, especially on mobile devices. Annotating pages client-side would be another addition, on the page rather than at a separate site. More broadly, multimedia and linking invite a whole new style of book. The iPad has seen several "concept" projects for radically hyperlinked multimedia works, and projects like Sophie are also looking at the readability of hypermedia. Unsurprisingly a lot of the best work is going on within the Squeak community, which has been looking at these issues for years: it has a rich history in computer science, albeit somewhat outwith the mainstream.

I doubt the internet can ever make someone smarter, any more than it can make someone careful. What it can do is facilitate new ways of thinking about how to collect, present, organise and interact with information in a dynamic and semantically directed fashion. This is definitely an agenda worth following, and its great to see discussions on new media taking place in the general wide-circulation press and newspapers