Discomfort, Trust, and Digital Selves

It’s been awhile. I’ve spent the last four months applying for new jobs, interviewing, getting hired, and moving from the midwest to the bay area. It’s been a long ride (drive, really). I’ve been out here three weeks now, and it still feels strange to call it my new home (new license plates on my car notwithstanding).

I’m a tech writer by trade, as I’ve alluded to/mentioned in the past with my post on Prescriptive Design and the Decline of Manuals, and I’ve so far enjoyed being in an area so tech-focused (though I do worry about the bubble).

Let’s get back into it, shall we?

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Advertising Alternatives: It Pays to Be a Google Contributor

Earlier this week I got an email from Google.

My email invitation to join Google Contributor

One of my principles is to pay for things that I support. I can afford it, and things on the web are relatively cheap. Subscribing to ThinkUp, Pocket Premium, Feedly Pro, each cost about the same as a new pair of shoes, or a nice pair of jeans. To me, that’s a justifiable cost, so I pay it to keep the things I use and love alive.

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Accessibility, Sound, and Communication

My birthday was yesterday! To celebrate, I ate an overly large and overly expensive steak and sorely undercooked brussels sprouts. Do yourself a favor and always roast brussels sprouts until they are caramelized and crunchy, then put some reduced apple cider and maple syrup on top. YUM!


Technology, while making the world more accessible than it has been in the past, has a lot of work to do for people with disabilities. A huge example of this is the shortcomings in OCR (optical character recognition) technology. In short, OCR sucks. And when we use it to simplify our lives (make a PDF into something that I can copy-paste into a text file), then when it fails it’s a minor inconvenience, and a silly one at that.

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Dams, Fish, and Engineering Disasters

1870 Train on a Railroad

David W. Butterfield (American, 1844 – 1933) Vermont and Massachusetts Railroad, about 1870 – 1880, Albumen silver print 42.2 x 56.6 cm (16 5/8 x 22 5/16 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Once upon a time (okay, the first one was in 1871), fish were carted across America in railroad cars. Of course, this was terrible for native fish species, but great for fisherman looking to fish fish that were in demand.

More than a century later, a community around the Putah Creek in California rallied together to restore a creek that had run dry after the watershed was transformed by a dam and opportunistic farmers.

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Prescriptive Design and the Decline of Manuals

Instruction manuals, and instructions in general, are incredibly important. I could be biased, since part of my job involves writing instructions for systems, but really, they’re important!

As this look into the historical importance of manuals makes clear, manuals (and instructions) make accessible professions, tools, and devices to anyone that can read them (which, admittedly, could be a hurdle of its own):

“With no established guild system in place for many of these new professions (printer, navigator, and so on), readers could, with the help of a manual, circumvent years of apprenticeship and change the course of their lives, at least in theory.”

However, as the economy and labor system shifted, manuals did too:

“in the 1980s, the manual began to change. Instead of growing, it began to shrink and even disappear. Instead of mastery, it promised competence.”

And nowadays, manuals are very rarely separate from the devices or systems they seek to explain:

“the help we once sought from a manual is now mostly embedded into the apps we use every day. It could also be crowdsourced, with users contributing Q&As or uploading how-to videos to YouTube, or it could programmed into a weak artificial intelligence such as Siri or Cortana.”

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Libraries, Digital Advertising, and the Machine Zone

Librarians are an underused, underpaid, and underestimated legion. And one librarian in particular is frustrated by e-book lending. Not just the fact that libraries have to maintain waitlists for access to a digital file, but also that the barriers to checking out an ebook are unnecessarily high. As she puts it,

“Teaching people about having technology serve them includes helping them learn to assess and evaluate risk for themselves.”

In her view,

“Information workers need to be willing to step up and be more honest about how technology really works and not silently carry water for bad systems. People trust us to tell them the truth.”

That seems like the least that can be expected by library patrons.

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So This Is The New Year

I didn’t start this as a resolution post, but here we are. It’s easier to write the introduction after the essay is written, so here I am to tell you this is a post of my 2015 resolutions. This year is all about purging the “someday maybes” and turning ideas into actions. Taking care of myself and moving forward.

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