Saturday, October 8, 2011

it's a wrap?

Maybe. I'm not sure. If I hadn't been taking the Writing for the Web course at BCIT, I don't think I would have started another blog, let alone one on technology. But I don't think I'll delete it, and maybe I'll even add to it. I was surprised at how easily this came to me.

It took me a long time to embrace my geekiness. While I was working on technical trade publications, I thought of myself as a musician with a day job, because playing in a rock band was what I really loved to do. When I was first working in software development, I thought of myself as an actor with a day job, because I had shifted into theatre and loved it. When I immigrated to Canada, I did so as an experienced software developer. I didn't tell them that I was really going to Vancouver to work in the film industry. As it turned out, even though I got plenty of work as an extra, I made more money as a technical writer.

I started to do software development again in 2000. Before long, with my music and acting more behind than ahead of me, I realized that I was fine doing software. I learned. I got better at it. And I found that in a lot of ways it was a creative outlet for me.

I guess it was really a new century. I started to admit that I was a software developer, not an aspiring actor or musician. This still surprises people sometimes, because even now there aren't that many women who work as software designers and developers.

Perhaps that's why it's important to me that people know there are other sides to me. If you've visited my "real" blog, Fromage, which I surreptitiously linked to over there on the right, you'll know what I'm passionate about. I write about fashion, food, music, politics and feminism. Sure, I'm a geek, but I'm also a fashionista, dammit! And I play guitar and even drums when I make time to practise! And I make really tasty food!

The passions that aren't revenue-neutral, however, tend to be revenue-negative and sometimes downright expensive. They are habits that need to be fed. So I continue to work in high tech.

It's not just a job, though. I like what I do, and I'm interested in how technology is evolving and changing all our lives. I'm old-fashioned in a lot of ways, but I'm not a Luddite. I've very attached to my laptop and my high-speed internet connection. They allow me to put my words out there for anyone to see! The fact that there are millions and millions of us doing the same thing doesn't make it any less cool.

Friday, October 7, 2011

market economy

Blog was originally short for "web log." I wonder how many people remember that. The idea was to keep a log, or journal, or diary, but to do so in public. It was on the web, so other people could read it. Some wrote about whatever was happening in their lives. Some wrote about specific topics. But now, I doubt that any of the "my boring life" blogs will get a large readership, unless the person is very funny or witty—which sometimes happens. Seinfeld was, after all, a show about nothing, but it was some of the funniest nothing ever.

Twitter started in a similar way. People tweeted their every mundane action in 140 or fewer characters. "Just had lunch at Bungie Burger. Yum!" It wasn't long before people tired of that sort of thing. Anyone who tweets things like that any more is unlikely to have many followers. Maybe even many friends!

Both blogging and tweeting have evolved into something else, at least for those who want it: ways to create your own personal brand. It used to be that a brand was only something owned by a corporation. Now, we have the democratization of branding. Bloggers and tweeters are no longer just people. They are their own product, and they engage in their own marketing.

It was happening right from the start, but usually in a passive way. We built it, and sometimes they came, thanks to search engines and word of mouth. But now, the competition for eyeballs is more active. We share our blogs on Facebook. We set them up to post a URL automatically to Twitter. We set up links to and from other blogs. We comment on other blogs and leave a link behind when we do.

I think a lot of this has to do with the extreme competition for employment and contracts. We no longer approach an interview with our degree and work experience, hoping to be a good fit. It has become almost a company-to-company negotiation. We have strengths, assets, abilities. We show how our brand can help their brand—and how it can do so better than all those other personal brands out there can.

Many of us now need a web presence as much as a corporation does. We market ourselves actively. And thus we must be careful about our web presence. We might need to compartmentalize our lives, or simply keep the fun (yet embarrassing) stuff off the web entirely. The plus side of living in public is that your accomplishments and abilities can be well known. The downside is that you might be highly visible, warts and all.

The better part of valour is discretion, wrote the Bard. If you wake up with a hangover and can't remember what you did the night before except you're pretty sure there were police involved, that might not be the best subject for a blog post or a tweet, or even your "private" Facebook wall. On the web, it's easy to overshare. It's very difficult to take it back.

Addendum: which is better—no photo or (one hopes) a good photo?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

snap, crackle, pop

A comment that was left on my words on a page post reminded me of another major change in technology: audio recording. The commentator remarked that reading a Kindle versus reading a book was a little like listening to an MP3 versus listening to a CD. And I thought, what about any digital recording versus a phonograph record or tape?

Music preserved
The first kind of audio recording method was analogue recording. Every step in the process involved either vibrations or something analogous to vibrations. An orchestra plays. Sound waves strike the diaphragms of microphones. The microphones convert sound vibrations to their electrical analogue. The electrical signal magnifies a recording head, which arranges the pattern of metal oxide in yet another representation of the original sound waves.

The tape might then be used to master a phonograph record, in which the sound wave analogue is a pattern of slight irregularities in a groove of vinyl. And finally, either the tape magnetizes a playback head and produces an electrical signal, or the stylus of a phonograph vibrates according to the record groove and produces an electrical signal. That signal is amplified, and the strengthened signal causes a speaker to vibrate and reproduce, with greater or lesser fidelity, the original sound.

At each stage of an audio recording, there is something of the original sound wave intact. The electrical signal resembles the sound wave. The magnetic pattern resembles the electrical signal. The grooves in the record resemble the magnetic pattern. The electrical signal resembles the vibration of the grooves. The vibration of the speaker resembles the electrical signal. And finally, the sound waves produced by the speaker resemble the vibration—and every previous form of the wave back to the original. The trick in analogue audio recording is always to capture as much of the original wave as possible, losing as little as possible and adding as little as possible (distortion) in the process of recording and reproducing the sound.

It's remarkable what this technological descendent of Thomas Edison's invention—speaking into a cone, which caused a needle to vibrate and trace a pattern in a wax cylinder—can produce. The best analogue audio recording and reproduction equipment results in a sound that is remarkably faithful to the original, including its dynamic range, its frequency range, and its harmonics and overtones.

Of course, most of us can't afford the finest reproduction equipment—things like a super-quiet turntable, wooden tonearm, multiradial stylus, low-distortion amplifier, and speakers accurate from 20 to 20,000 Hertz.

Music encoded
Digital recording does not produce analogues of the original sound wave. Instead, it encodes sound information into a stream of ones and zeros. What is remarkable is that this works at all and that a reasonable facsimile of what the New Pornographers sounded like in the studio comes out of our speakers or headphones—without any signal loss, hiss, hum, clicks, or other byproducts of analogue recording and reproduction. What is far less remarkable is the reality of how well this encoding actually works. Yes, you can hear the squeak in Ringo's bass drum pedal. But are you truly hearing what the Vienna Symphony Orchestra sounded like in the concert hall?

Sound information is incredibly complex. Take just one instrument, such as a cello. The sound it makes can be loud or soft or in between. It has a wide frequency range. And the frequency range includes not only the actual notes played but the harmonics and overtones that are also generated by bow and fingers on strings amplified by a wooden casing. There are also more subtleties, such as how each note starts and ends and whether a note sounds rich or thin.

In digital recording, all of this information has to be encoded in such a way that it can be reproduced faithfully. And it works, to an extent. For most of us, a compact disc sounds wonderfully clear and realistic. To an audiophile, CDs have a harshness that is not present in analogue recording, more apparent in orchestral music than in the rock and hip-hop and other popular music that many of us listen to. (I remember an all-digital recording of the solo piano version of Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky that even to these non-audiophile ears was unlistenable.) Digital is an improvement in many ways over analogue, but in many other ways there is a loss of quality that is not dissimilar to the difference between reading from a Kindle and reading a book. It's a difference in quality more than in quantity.

The loss of quality is exacerbated in a file format such as MP3 versus CD. Encoding all that complexity takes one heck of a lot of ones and zeros. MP3s are usually encoded at lower sampling rate than is used for CDs, so that the files don't become even larger than they are. That means an MP3 lacks both dynamic and frequency range. It simply doesn't have enough information to do a great job of reproduction. We sacrifice quality for convenience, and most of us don't notice the difference.

The warmth of imperfection
Analogue recording isn't simple, but there is an elegance to it. Waves becomes waves become waves and finally turn back into waves very much like the originals. Wax cylinders are still playable using very simple equipment. And in the words of a story I once heard, vinyl is final. It warps, is too easily scratched, and even breaks, but in many ways it is incredibly durable. You can still play great-grandpa's 78s. We now know that CDs aren't nearly as immutable as was once thought. When analogue media deteriorate, you can still make out a semblance of the original sound. The same is not true for encoded bits. They work or they don't.

Despite what I know, I have far more CDs than records. I have a turntable that is not set up. I listen to MP3s more often than anything else. Yet I understand the appeal of records and tapes. There was no mystery to it. You can understand how sound vibrations can be turned into something similar and then turned back into sound. I have no clue how music is digitally encoded.

I have some MP3s that I ripped from an old audio cassette that was recorded from a borrowed copy of Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division. Each pop is familiar. There is something oddly comforting about this imperfection.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

words on a page

Like Sara Barbour, writer of Kindle vs. books: The dead trees society, I have never used a Kindle, even though I am probably closer to the age of her grandmother, who was grateful for such a gift. No Kindle, no Kobo, no e-book readers at all. Also like Barbour, the only encounter I have had with an e-reader so far is over someone's shoulder while riding public transit.

I am not repelled by e-readers, but neither am I particularly drawn to them. I have some of what Barbour described of her romance with actual bound books. I treasure an old paperback box set of The Lord of the Rings that was given to me when I was a scared 12-year-old in hospital. I read those books so much that I had to tape the bindings back together. I later bought a hard-cover set, but I will never get rid of my original set. I have other books that are associated with old memories.

I love seeing books on shelves. I love the different colours, heights, thicknesses, typefaces on the spine. I love pulling a book down from a shelf, either for the first time or for the umpteenth time. The gift of a book is special, not least because it is a rare gift (one problem with family who don't really know me). The gift is even more special when it introduces me to a world that I had not known previously. It's like a new corner of the universe suddenly opening up to me.

An e-book can just as easily be a gift, and a thoughtful one, but somehow it would not feel the same, at least not yet. One thing that always strikes me about my over-shoulder peeping is that one book on an e-reader looks just like another. There is no individuality. An e-book is totally about the content, not about the medium. An e-book is a disembodied book.

However, I can see myself buying an e-reader someday, or being happy to receive one as a gift. If I buy it myself, it will probably be driven by the desire for convenience. When travelling, it would be much easier to slip a Kindle into my carry-on luggage than to choose a particular book or books to bring because they fit in the available space. I could read a book in the dark! And I could finally catch up on all those classics that I've meant to read but never have. If I had a Kindle, I have a feeling it would be my constant companion.

I've gotten used to so much else during my life. I'm sure I would get used to not having to use a bookmark, to not turning physical pages, to not smelling the paper and breaking in the binding of a new volume. There are other pleasures in the world. And in the end, I am really reading a book for the writing. Great writing will draw me in no matter whether it is printed on paper or formed out of pixels on a screen.

When books are only published in electronic form, should such a day come, will we have lost something, as Barbour says? Perhaps. But there are those who think that we lost something when we started to write rather than telling our stories aloud and passing them on orally. And surely there were some who lamented the replacement of the scroll by the new-fangled codex. Every generation loses something that the next generation never knows it missed.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

why me?

Not only am I an accidental geekist. I'm now a kind of an accidental technology commentator. Serendipity—which is a happy accident. And it's really what having a blog is all about. No one tells you what to do. You try to find ways to draw people in. You hope they like what they see, come back for me, and pass the link on to others. Successful blogs are the written equivalent of viral videos.

Why should you care what I think about technology?
  • My spelling and grammar are impeccable.1 OK, my spelling isn't actually impeccable, but I always correct errors I find. And if you see me write with poor grammar, you can be sure I did it on purpose. Like, for comic effect.
  • If there are any errors, you can always post a comment! I monitor comments but I let all but the spam through.2
  • I have a wry sense of humour that comes from decades of bantering with my life partner, as well as from unhealthy doses of Monty Python and the Kids in the Hall.
  • I'm pretty smart, and I've learned a lot both doing my job and spending time glued to my computer and to the interwebs when I should have been outside playing (or doing my job).3
  • I try never to comment on anything that I don't know enough about. I learned my lesson on that one a long time ago. If I do, you can call me on it.
  • I am a skeptic, not a cynic. I don't like everything. I don't hate everything. I'm Fair and Balanced.™4
  • I'm older than dirt. OK, not that old, but I wasn't born yesterday. Not even close, sadly. I've been in the business for a long time.
  • Did I mention about comments? I handle feedback very well, even feedback that tells me I don't know what I'm talking about. Which I might not, despite trying not to get into that situation (see above).
Besides, how many female technology commentators do you know? Hopefully you're at least somewhat curious.

1English degrees really are good for something.
2Unless a comment is egregiously nasty, of course!
3Just kidding. I always do my job.
4Yes, they really trademarked that phrase. I'll probably get busted for using it.

Friday, September 23, 2011

geek happens

I never intended to become a geek. At university, I was an English major. I had had some early exposure to computers in high school—I remember teletypes and paper tape (yikes!)—but I was totally about liberal arts at uni. The only computer course I signed up for, which I did because I thought I should, was deathly dull. It's the only course I ever withdrew from, not just because it was boring but because in those days you had to line up at obscene hours of the night to get computer time. The motivation just wasn't there.

And yet here I am with 17 years of software development and six years of technical writing on my CV. How did that happen?

Like this: With my shiny new English degree in hand, I sent unsolicited resumes to every publishing company in the Boston area. Out of dozens of publishers, the only company that contacted me was a publisher of technical trade magazines. First came production, then a leap to editorial, then a kind of sideways hop into software development (when such a hop was still possible), and before I knew it, a few decades had passed. My geek card is a bit crumpled, but I still have it.

I spend far too much time on Facebook (and not just complaining about the changes). I send and receive lots of email. Sometimes I chat with friends via Skype or Yahoo Messenger or Google Talk—yes, I'm on all three. I used to have a very active Second Life. I show off my skills and experience on LinkedIn, log my music plays on, download new material from eMusic, and write a blog—make that two blogs now. I even joined Google+ during the invitation-only beta test period.

That all sounds sufficiently geeky, right? But I am often a reluctant geek. I tried Twitter years ago but deleted my account and have never been back. I don't put my bookmarks on Delicious, and I'm not connected to a cloud. I can't remember where my Flickr account is. I actually go to Facebook rather than posting from some mobile device. My mobile phone is as dumb as a post! When I hop on transit, that's time for me to unplug and read a book--an actual book. And when Mashable tells me that Facebook is going to revolutionize my life, I raise one skeptical eyebrow (metaphorically, since sadly I can't actually raise only one eyebrow).

Sometimes I like technology for its own sake, but most often I like it if it serves my needs. And my needs are not themselves technological. I work alone in my home office, but I'm a very social creature, so that's why I hopped onto social networking fairly early on. I don't think it's likely that Facebook will ever revolutionize my life, but it does help me keep in touch with a lot of people. I have reconnected with family and friends far away. I stay on top of events that don't show up in the weekly arts paper. I follow links that look interesting.

One of my new favourite services is Meetup is a service that allows people to set up groups based around some shared interest and to arrange events at which group members can meet. According to the founders of Meetup, the idea was to use technology to get people off their chairs, out from behind their computers, and into the real world. It was perfect for someone like me who was somewhat isolated and wanted to meet new people. I am active in five groups and the organizer of a sixth. Meetup hasn't revolutionized my life, but it has certainly enhanced it.

I'm not the kind of geek who stays on top of every latest trend. I don't latch onto every new toy that comes along. But I do like to find out about new geeky things that might be useful to me, or just fun.