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Cut & Paste. Fold, Bend, Staple & Mutilate. February 28, 2011

Posted by Karen E. Lund in Language, Technology, Website.
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This past weekend I attended a reading of selections from William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch. I had not read the work before (it’s now on my TBR list), but I knew enough about the Beats to not be shocked by its strange, surreal and sometimes profane language.

In the discussion that followed the reading, someone mentioned there are now websites that will “translate” any text into Burroughs style and I have been eager to try them out. But first, a little background. Burroughs’ strange language is not merely the product of his mind, it is the product of his hands: after typing some of his text, he cut up the paper and rearranged the pieces, thus reordering the words and even inventing new words. That became the “final” version. This wasn’t Burroughs’ own invention (I learned that today by researching online), but he is the most widely-known practitioner of the technique. There’s a video of an interview with Burroughs that includes a short demonstration of the cut-up technique. You don’t need a demonstration, though; it’s easy enough to try it yourself with a printed text (that you’re willing to sacrifice for the sake of art) and scissors.

Or you can do it virtually using online tools. This is fun to play with. Open up a text file on your computer—the odder the better—and give it a try!

I started at The Lazarus Corporation, which has compiled several text-altering programs.

To begin, I ran a couple of paragraphs from a recent post through the Text Mixing Desk, which is most similar to Burroughs’ cut-up technique. Enter some text in the box, then scroll down to the filter options. “Cut-up Engine” is the Burroughs technique, so I used with that, but there are other options and you can even combine manipulations in a single go. Click “Process Signal Now.” The next screen asks you to choose a number of words per strip—basically how wide the cut paper would be. Then “Click Here to Finish.” This is what my first attempt produced (with some parentheses removed and capitalization tidied by me):

Read under the bedcovers with a not always straight; a b or couldn’t seem to soak it up fast the picture books and matched less than a b, the kind who to be asleep. it felt like there alphabet when I started myself to read. I’d memorized understood the words. I knew the remember, probably before I flashlight after I was supposed blame, of course. They read to enough.

My parents are to was so much to know and I kindergarten and then taught me at bedtime from before I can two might slip in, but nothing child–the kind who got as if I was a nerdy, bookish the words to the pictures.

Next I visited Language Is a Virus and spent some time playing with the Haiku-a-Tron. It’s totally random—no user input at all—so a lot of the results are nonsense. But after a few tries it offered me something vaguely evocative of a Beat poem:

strange lose angel
disappointed inhaling rhythms starbrite
hell jagged

At this point I should probably mention that if you’re at work it would be a good idea to bookmark a few things for later and get back to what you were doing…

Got time? The Non-linear Adding Machine asks for four text samples, then slices and dices them into nonsense. (Have we identified Col. Gaddafi’s speechwriter?) Or try the Shannonizer, which takes a chunk of text and “edits” it in the style of a famous author—you can choose from Dr. Seuss, Edgar Allan Poe, God or Miss Manners, among others. (Hint: Try editing the same text by choosing different authors and see what happens.)

Enough of this! I’m going to play with word games for a while… Do you have a favorite? Did I miss something? Leave a comment and help me waste, uh enjoy, even more time online.

Under the Influence February 21, 2011

Posted by Karen E. Lund in Humanizing Technology, Ignorance, Social Media, Technology.
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I have always liked old buildings. On vacations I usually seek out old house museums. My home is almost a century old (the original part, anyway, which is only two rooms). I love that high-tech companies are putting their offices into old lofts and industrial buildings. So when I learned that Christopher Gray, who writes about architectural history for the New York Times, was speaking at a local historic preservation organization, I went.

After Gray’s talk I got into a conversation with a woman who is a regular member of the group. She said it was nice to see a “young person” like me (this was several years ago; I was still in my 30s) attending an event in person. It seemed to her that many young people spent too much time with “this new Internet thing.” Then she asked how I’d heard about the event.

“I read about it on the society’s website.” Her face fell.

To me it was an early lesson in the influence of the Internet: a good website can tell you something you didn’t know before; a great website can make you shut down the computer, get up from your chair, and do something in real life. When I say a “great website” I don’t mean great design, just useful information. In this case all it took was an events calendar.

The Internet has come a long way since that evening. Even the term “Internet” has become a bit squishy: it’s no longer just the World Wide Web and UseNet, nor is it just about computers. Sure you can view your Twitter, Facebook and other social media feeds in a web browser, but you can also view them other ways, including hand-held devices like smart phones and tablets. Wi-fi is becoming ubiquitous. As Americans (and others) spend more time online, the means of accessing the online world saturates our very landscape.

So where’s the influence? And who is influencing whom?

Tools like Klout, PeerIndex, etc., purport to measure a person’s online “influence.” It’s an interesting idea but they are nowhere near the goal; at best they can make a good estimate of one’s effectiveness on Twitter (which is the data most of them use). They can measure the number of tweets a user sends, the ratio of followers to following, how many links are included in tweets, and how many @mentions are exchanged.

But I’m not convinced. Specifically, having watched my own Klout score fluctuate over the past few months I think their algorithm has a ways to go before it can even measure Twitter effectiveness well. When I took three days off from Twitter and the rest of the online world over the New Year’s weekend, my Klout score gained a couple of points. Maybe I do come across as the strong silent type, but being silent in social media ought not to raise my influence score.

That said, both Klout and PeerIndex do a decent job of measuring the unmeasurable, if you consider only the narrow scope of Twitter effectiveness. Klout identifies five people who influence me and five others I influence. Four of each group are members of the #UsGuys Twitter tribe, which is where I spend most of my Twitter time. That’s accurate. My other influencer is @WriterChanelle, the organizer of the #GenYChat (which I occasionally participate in, despite being a Boomer) and Klout says I influence @Pushing Social, one of the organizers of #TweetDiner. Those are good so far as they go, but if I’m influenced by Chanelle, I’m probably influenced by @OneJillian, too. And I know that @MargieClayman, the other #TweetDiner organizer, influences me, especially as a blogger—probably more than Stanford Smith (@PushingSocial) does.

But that’s all about online influences, and there’s nothing Klout or PeerIndex could quantify to show how my blog has been influenced by other bloggers, or that I’ve read books (or put them on my TBR list) that were reviewed and recommended by virtual friends.

Offline Influence Hits the Streets

Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google engineer who created We Are All Khaled Said and was jailed for 11 days during the democracy protests in Egypt, was interviewed on 60 Minutes. “If there were no social networks it would have never been sparked,” he said.

But then Ghonim went on to say,

“One of the strategic mistakes of this regime was blocking Facebook. … They have told 4 million people that they are scared like hell from the revolution. … They forced them to go to the streets to be part of this.”

Now that’s influence!

If your presence or absence on social media (or both, in sequence) or access to it can provoke hundreds of thousands of people to go out into the streets and peacefully protest for democracy, you have clout—”clout” with a small “c” and big impact.

Not that Ghonim did it alone. Actually, he kept a fairly low profile until after he was released from jail. It was his use of social media combined with thousands of other young Egyptians and people outside Egypt who spread the word, who united to take action or to watch from around the world and voice their support.

In the end what matters is not what influence we have in the online world; it’s whether the online world can influence us to step away from the computer and do something.

..

This post is another Monday edition of #UsBlogs. This week’s theme is “How to build your offline Klout.” I’ll be posting other contributors on the #UsBlogs page later in the week, after the pixels are dry.

Back to My Roots February 17, 2011

Posted by Karen E. Lund in Change, Internet, Learning, Technology.
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Trinity College Library

Trinity College Library by Nic McPhee

I was a nerdy, bookish child–the kind who got As (if not always straight As; a B or two might slip in, but nothing less than a B), the kind who read under the bedcovers with a flashlight after I was supposed to be asleep. It felt like there was so much to know and I couldn’t seem to soak it up fast enough.

My parents are to blame, of course. They read to me at bedtime from before I can remember, probably before I understood the words. I knew the alphabet when I started kindergarten and then taught myself to read. (I’d memorized the picture books and matched the words to the pictures.)

My Mom would take time to answer any question I asked, and if she didn’t know the answer (“Why is the sky blue?”) we’d go to the Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia and try to find out. She was also fascinated by the space program which probably contributed to my curiosity. It didn’t really click until, nine years of age, I stayed up late to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon.

Dad contributed. After he introduced my younger brother and me to baseball, he began to explain the statistics. Long before my class studied percentages I could calculate a batting average, won-lost average, or even an earned run average.

By the time somebody at school told me girls aren’t “supposed” to like math and science, I was getting As in both—and had seen men walk on the moon, seen Earthrise, and figured the earned run averages of every Mets pitcher.

It continued in college. I started as a chemistry major, realized my career as a research chemist wouldn’t go anywhere when I was always the first person to be sick or stoned in organic chemistry lab, and switched to an English major. Only people who didn’t know me thought this was odd.

So when I looked at suggested topics for this month’s Blogger Love project, “Back to School” jumped out at me. Except I have a suspicion I’ve never really left school. Left formal education, certainly. That drastic change of majors required and extra semester to earn my degree and by then I was ready to get out of the classroom and do something. But I wasn’t ready to stop learning.

I didn’t stop learning. Years later—last year, in fact—I combined that baseball stats/chemistry major geeky with the English major who enjoys reading and writing and started this blog. The name Circle of Ignorance came from a friend’s e-mail to me in which he wrote, “So we all have a circle of knowledge and on the circumference is our exposure to ignorance.” In my first post I wrote, “We not only learn things we didn’t know before, we learn of things we didn’t even know existed before. The more answers I get, the more new questions I discover.”

As a Baby Boomer I’ve witnessed amazing things in my life: men walking on the Moon; technology that used to be available only to large business becoming accessible to almost anyone (faster and better, as well as cheaper); the end of the Cold War and now maybe a democracy movement in the Middle East and North Africa. I’ve seen some bad stuff, too. But for the most part my first half century has been an exhilarating show.

I thought about this a bit last week, sitting in an auditorium before a Social Media Week event began. I had my laptop open, tapping into the venue’s wi-fi. Around me were people in their 20s and 30s with iPads and smart phones—and suddenly I had the feeling that my laptop was just a little behind the curve. Ah, but so far ahead of where technology was even a decade ago!

I remember the first time I saw the Internet. We’d gotten connected at work and I started up Netscape on my desktop computer. It was like I’d died and discovered heaven is a terrific library—and the Web wasn’t nearly what it is today. But I could get so much information, so quickly, without visiting a library or worrying that somebody else was using that book. (I don’t believe in an afterlife, but if there is one I hope it’s like Dublin—all the books in the gorgeous gallery of Trinity College library, infinite time to read, with pubs and tea shops a short walk away when I want a break from reading.)

So the bookish little girl I used to be has grown up to be an explorer and a blogger. Back to school? Nope—I never left!

Can You Pass a Turing Test? January 27, 2011

Posted by Karen E. Lund in Humanizing Technology, Language, Social Media, Technology.
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In 1950 Alan Turing proposed a test to determine whether a machine (such as a computer) could overcome the limitations foreseen by Descartes in his Discourse on the Method:

For we can certainly conceive of a machine so constructed that it utters words… But it is not conceivable that such a machine should produce different arrangements of words so as to give an appropriately meaningful answer to whatever is said in its presence, as the dullest of men can do.

Turing called it the Imitation Game; we now call it the Turing Test. Two people—or perhaps one is a machine—sit at teletype terminals and have a conversation. Neither can see the other, but they are allowed to ask each other anything.

Hashtag pretzels from the Tweet-up

In those days it would have been a teletype terminal, not a video monitor, so you wouldn’t have been able to send or request a photograph. You have to determine whether the responses are from a human or a machine based entirely on the text.

Six decades later we actually encounter something similar in online social networking. But I’m not here to discuss “bots” that send automated status updates, advertising, or non sequeters to Twitter or Facebook. I want to talk about humans who, when they log on to their social networking accounts, forget that they are human or social.

There’s a very nice non-profit organization I follow on Twitter that retweets the same links over and over. Volunteers tweet in teams and actually seem to think that broadcasting at a rate of more than one tweet per minute for 15 or 20 minutes is a good thing. (Hint: It’s not.) So I moved them off my primary timeline and only check their feed every few days. The way they use Twitter, it’s enough.

But they’re not so bad–more like overeager puppies or toddlers learning to speak than machines. The same goes for some of the news sources I follow. I don’t expect the BBC News to interact with me on Twitter (or anywhere else). The reason I follow them is to get notifications about new articles and videos they post to their website.

So the Turing Test doesn’t really apply to those accounts. They more or less replicate TV, radio and newspapers in the way they deliver information to me. As long as the information is interesting and useful, I’ll continue to follow them.

Three recent examples illustrate how real people can pass or fail a Turing Test. I use Twitter in these examples, but the same can be true of Facebook, LinkedIn or even e-mail.

Auto-DMs to New Followers

Some Twitter users, both individuals and organizations, send automated Direct Messages (Auto-DMs) to anyone who follows them. The practice is so unpopular with followers that I wonder why it persists. At best it feels impersonal; at worst some of the automated messages are nothing but advertisements for a product, website, etc.

In a recent Twitter chat, a few people said that if they receive an Auto-DM they immediately stop following that account. I’ve been thinking about this recently. After almost six months on Twitter I follow over 1,000 accounts and have over 500 followers. I don’t thank people for following me, though I’m glad to follow them in return, engage them in conversation, or simply read what they tweet. It depends on what their profiles and recent tweets suggest about their genuineness and whether I think they would be interesting to follow.

As for being thanked by everyone I follow… No! If you feel the need to thank each person who follows you, you’re either very new at Twitter or you need to get a life. Just go on being interesting. I’ll be happy if you follow me back, retweet something I post, or send me a tweet to start a conversation. But “Thank you for following me” is not necessary–and if it looks like an Auto-DM, I’d rather you didn’t do it.

Creepy Followers

Someone I know on Twitter was recently followed by a young man (to judge by what little he revealed of himself) she didn’t know. After a few tweets, she decided she didn’t want to know him.

It started innocently enough when he mentioned her by her Twitter handle in a tweet. She wrote back and asked if they knew each other. His reply was something along the lines of “No but I’d like to know you.” (This is never a good sign.) She dropped the conversation, but he tweeted directly to her a few more times. One tweet had a link to a photo.

When she called it to our attention, a few of us looked at his Twitter account. He had no followers, didn’t follow anyone, and had no biography. We all blocked his account and reported it for spam. He might be harmless enough, but his knowledge of online etiquette is poor even for a newcomer.

IRL

I’ve saved the happy story for last. I recently attended a meetup (or tweet-up, if you prefer) with some people I had previously known only through Twitter. We’ve been conversing a lot over the past few months and have become a tribe. As we’re spread all across the United States, Canada and a few other countries, we’ve organized regional meetups; this was not the first, but it was the first that was close enough for me to attend.

A Tweet-up with my Tribe

The good stuff started when I stepped off a train. Another woman had offered to give me a lift from the station to the restaurant where we were meeting. I told her she would probably recognize me by my hair, and sure enough she did. When I saw her waving several yards away on the platform, I recognized her.

At the restaurant, an amazing thing happened: one person after another arrived and we recognized each other almost immediately from our profile photos. We talked like old friends. People turned out to be just what we expected in real life. I needed to leave on time to catch my train home. I was sorry to leave so soon and hugs were exchanged.

Later I learned that the party had continued after our private room reservation was over. (Yes, I’m a little jealous–but I’m also very happy that we get along as well in real life as on Twitter.) Alan Turing would surely agree that we passed with flying colors.

Here are my crib notes for passing a Turing Test:

  • Be yourself online. Don’t try to be someone else, but do remember to be your best self. You’re very visible (unlike the original technology Turing imagined) and you don’t want to make a bad first impression.
  • Share information about yourself. While it’s wise not to reveal too much, people want to know your name, where you live (at least approximately), and what you’re interested in. Use a profile photo or, at minimum, a cartoon sketch or illustration that tells people about you. Fill out your profile and provide link(s) to a blog, website or other profile you have online.
  • Remember that online interactions take place without body language, facial expression, etc. It’s easier to misinterpret words, especially with people who don’t yet know you or your sense of humor. Avoid coming across as rude, snarky or even mean-spirited.
  • Don’t talk like a machine. Real people have many interests in life. If all you post is links to your website or blog, updates about the same topic, or (gasp!) advertising, you’ll bore people. It’s OK to share information about yourself, but mix in other things and share with the people you interact with online.
  • Remember that there are other human beings viewing what you post. Be nice.
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