Wednesday 30 November 2011

Opening remarks for National Digital Forum 2011

[I didn't give references for the quotes I used yesterday when kicking off the NDF2011 proceedings, so I thought I'd pop the text up here in case anyone wanted to follow them up.]

Before I introduce our first speaker for the conference, I wanted to share a few thoughts. They’re not really thoughts of mine - they’re the thoughts of other people, thoughts that have stuck in my head all year, buzzing away quietly in the background and rising to the top whenever I’ve contemplated this moment of standing here in front of you all.
The 20th century has released us into history through technology

This idea comes from broadcaster and author Melvyn Bragg - I found it in one of his In Our Time e-newsletters at the start of the year.

Bragg was talking about a series of radio interviews he’d been doing at radio stations across the England, asking people to contribute photos, videos, diary entries and other memories to be mixed with archival material to create the TV series “The Reel History of Britain”. Bragge said he was:

attempting to encourage people to send in their memoirs, photographs, whatever, to build up this series, so that it widely and fully and properly represents all of us who were part of all of the history of this country over the last 120 years.

Releasing people into history through technology - this is what we’ve been doing for the past ten years. We call what we do harvesting or cataloguing, digitising or preserving, data visualising or crowd-sourcing, community management or customer service, or whatever the latest round of restructuring has deemed our job to involve. But what we’re really doing is working with people to create and share back our collective and collaborative history.
A book is a machine to think with

This line comes from IA Richards’ introduction to his 1924 book Principles of Literary Criticism.  I haven't actually read the book myself - I've just spotted the reference a lot lately.

The line is often cited in debates about the future of the book - contrasted against the idea of a book as ‘tree flakes encased in dead cows’. The full quote goes like this:

A book is a machine to think with. What kind of a machine? Not a bellows or a locomotive but more like a loom on which to re-weave some ravelled parts of our civilisation. 

When you think about books like this they become social items, items which pass through a network of people. In the case of a book, the network includes the writer, the editor, the publisher, the reviewer, the reader: each extracting and absorbing and reusing what they have touched, consciously or otherwise.

The same can be said of all the items we work with: physical, digital, physical made digital, digital made physical. All this stuff, these records of human life and thinking and experience that we are busy collecting, preserving and making available. They are all crucial items in the unending cycle of creation and creativity, and we’re there in the middle of it, helping the wheel turn around. It’s a position of responsibility and privilege and opportunity.  

Data needs spokespeople

I first saw this phrase in a blog post by the urban designer Adam Greenfield, citing a presentation about people-powered data by Elizabeth Goodman, who was in turn citing Bruno Latour, at which point I gave up any hope of understanding the original thought, and decided to take out of it just what I wanted to.

What I wanted was this:

We are swimming in data. Digital New Zealand now has more than 25 million records* in its search API. It can’t print posters advertising this miraculous figure, because it grows faster than their printing budget can keep up with.

Over the past ten years we have mastered the tasks of data: of collecting and preserving and making available. More recently, we’ve been getting so much better at the arts of data: of sharing nicely, of recruiting supporters, of welcoming contributions. The hurdle at which we continue to stumble, however, is letting go.

And I know, I know - I’ve banged my heads against the walls of copyright and donor restrictions with the best of you. But if we are going to continue to play an important role in the cycle of creation and creativity, we are going to have to do even more to not just promote our data for what it is, but to promote it for what people can make of it.  

Giving a shit

This line comes from an article by Alexis Madrigal published in The Atlantic in June this year. He was talking about the tenacity, the bullheadedness, the inspiration and the desire that’s needed for people like us to keep pushing our institutions forward in order to serve the people we are here to serve.

The article is titled ‘What Big Media can learn from the New York Public Library’. Here’s the full quote:

First, I'm convinced the NYPL is succeeding online because of desire. The library's employees give a shit about the digital aspects of their institution, and they are supported in that shit giving. I mean this in the most fundamental way possible and as a damning critique for media companies. Second, the library sees its users as collaborators in improving the collections the library already has. While serving them online costs the library some money, they are creating value, too, by opening up conduits into the library for superusers. 

You don’t work for your line manager, or your director, or your CE. Really, you work for your customers. How much say do they have in what you do? How many decisions are made in their best interests? If you were to ask ‘what is the single best thing we could do to add value to our customers’ lives’, what would it be?

I hope that, as ever, this year’s conference is a chance for you to confirm just what it is that you give a shit about.

*27 million records, as of yesterday

Reading lists

Ah, I love the Books of the Year outpouring on the internet. Here are a few goodies:

New York Times 100 Notable Books

The Guardian's Books of the Year

The New Statesman's Books of the Year

Monday 28 November 2011

Bus stops

In the vein of abandoned, polar-bear infested workers' barracks, I now bring you Soviet bustops, including this beauty

which reminds me strongly of the Ratana temple at Ratana Pa

and Rua Kenana's meeting house and church at Maungapohatu

Photograph of a Soviet bus stop by Christopher Herwig from How to be a Retronaut
Ratana temple. Godber, Albert Percy, 1875-1949 :Collection of albums, prints and negatives. Ref: 1/2-018648-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. 
Bourne, George, 1875-1924. Rua Kenana Hepetipa's wooden circular courthouse and meeting house at Maungapohatu. Godber, Albert Percy, 1875-1949 :Collection of albums, prints and negatives. Ref: APG-1679-1/2-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Thursday 24 November 2011

What Middletown Reads

I am curious about the hands that books have travelled through. I am sad we no longer have due dates stamped into library books. I liked knowing that the book I had selected had been a popular as a pretty debutante for the first year after it arrived in the library, but had since then sat for twenty forlorn years in its place on the shelf, waiting for me to claim it.

At primary school, I could trace books back through their issue slips - when you're nine, the kids who had moved on to high school become like mythic beings. Taking out a book that they had once read was like a connection to adulthood, a promise that I too would soon don a navy blue uniform and stay on the bus into town after the little kids got off.

Today, I believe most libraries discard borrowers records, as a privacy matter. But one collection of small town American borrowers records - from turn-of-the-19th-century Muncie, Indiana, have been digitised and made available online.

In a terrific article on Slate, John Plotz covers what researchers are digging up from the ledgers:

For example, they discovered that fewer than 38 percent of Muncie patrons were blue-collar, though more than 60 percent of Muncie’s families were blue-collar. They also discovered that blue-collar families were significantly more likely to have multiple library cards than white-collar families. With little spare cash to buy books—and with few forms of affordable daily entertainment—the single book permitted out on each card frequently was not enough for a blue-collar family with several avid readers. Blue-collar borrowers were also more likely to borrow classics, or older books, while white-collar readers gravitated to the latest fashionable books: Felsenstein and Connolly speculate this may reflect the availability of older books in the houses of wealthier patrons.

Plotz's essay is more than just your typical data crunching+insight.  It's also the story of how he tries to re-live the reading life of Muncie teenager Louis Bloom, and his searching out of Bloom's descendants. It's a lovely and fascinating article, and perfect for a weekend read.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

NPR's Infinite Player

You know how every so often something comes along, and you're like, YES! That is exactly what I've been looking for?

Today I am LOVING NPR's experimental web app Infinite Player. There's a great explanation of the app on the Nieman Labs site. Basically, it presents a random mix of NPR pieces, designed bring that serendipity of just switching on the radio & listening to what it gives you to the web. It's a contrast to seeking out and listening to podcasts ('intentional listening'): every piece I've heard so far has been under five minutes long, so there's no annoyance if you zone out for a moment, or tune in a bit late; you're not overly invested, so you can move on.

At the moment, all you can do on the app is play, pause, refresh and igive an item a thumbs up or thumbs down to indicate your interest and teach the app about your tastes. It's brilliantly simple, and it was chucked out there in a sprint and a half.

One of the first stories Infinite Player threw up for me was about a guy who used 'Moneyball' style data analysis to win at Jeopardy. In half an hour I've heard about electric cars, cheese making, shortages in ADHD medication, something doomy about Obama and the economy, and criticisms of the latest Honda Civic. It's been joyous.

Of course, I've gone straight into feature bloat. I want other stations and other podcasts in there. I want a link so I can tweet and email stories to people. But wow - three weeks for this level of delight. That's all kinds of awesome.

Monday 21 November 2011

Crowdsourcing an Yvonne Todd catalogue

Go on, you know you want to ...

What the ...

This weekend I finished Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life. I've written something of a review over at Goodreads, but my single favourite finding in 416 pages was discovering that no-one seems sure what colour Dickens' eyes were:

they were reported variously as dark brown, dark glittering black, clear blue, 'not blue', distinct clear hazel, 'large effeminate eyes', clear grey, green-grey, dark slaty blue - with a little orange line surrounding the pupil - and even, by a cautious observer, as 'nondescript'.

Friday 18 November 2011


Adam Gopnik is probably my favourite New Yorker writer, and his Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life was one of my favourite books in recent years. I'm not going gangbusters over reading his new book (The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food) but boy, does the guy give good interview on the promotional trail. This interview with ZYZZYVA is the best so far, and includes gems like:

To me a great piece is a sequence of memorable sentences. And I know that’s a sort of limiting thing. Maybe that’s why I can’t write effective narratives! But for me a wonderful epigrammatic sentence, an effective aphorism, that for me is like seeing a pregnant woman, it’s the perfectly shaped thing, pregnant sentences.

And then paragraph structure fascinates me, too. One of the things that drives me nuts when I’m reading even good academic writing is that nobody seems to have ever heard that sentence variation is a vital part of writing. These are people who are perfectly competent in every other ways, but every sentence is the same shape.
In the end though, you either can produce surprising, beautiful sentences or you can’t. Without that, all the erudition and intelligence in the world is not going to make any difference. For me, yes, a piece works when I can say that there are six good sentences in it. And a piece that does not have any good sentence is not worth reading. Now, having said that, of course I struggle over weeks and pull my hair to work on the structure, to make it logical, and move paragraphs around so that the sequence flows. All that stuff matters, too. But if I am answering honestly, yes, it’s the sentence that matters.

Thursday 17 November 2011

Recommendations, please

Life has eased back a bit, and as a result I've started thinking ahead to Christmas and, as ever, my Christmas reading list.

I've got a growing stack of fiction (ranging from my first stab at George R. R. Martin through to Muriel Spark) but my non-fiction is looking very thin. So I thought I'd throw it open here: what should I read over summer?

To provide some guidance, here are some books I've particularly enjoyed over the past two years:

Michael Lewis's Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game - how the Oakland Athletics used hard numbers to build  winning baseball team

Robert Graves's Goodbye to all that - his searing memoir of childhood and World War I

Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - the story of the woman from whom the HeLa cells were drawn

Sarah Bakewell's How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer - a marvellously constructed study of the first essayist.

Lisa Jardine's Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland's Glory - how ideas, politics, people, power and money flowed between England and Holland in the 17th century

Siddartha Mukkerjee's The Emperor of All Maladies - a history of cancer

Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life - takes a coincidence (the two men were born on the same day) and turns it into a thoughtful take on two exhaustively documented lives

H.G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream - a heartbreaking look at Texan high school football

Nick Lane's Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution - a witty and occasionally mindblowing book, and thankfully not The Greatest Show on Earth

Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science - a vastly enjoyable study of the point before art and science began to divide.

Judith Schalansky's Atlas of Remote Islands - a thing of intelligent beauty

Lauren Redniss's Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie - a thing of beautiful intelligence

Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw's Why Does E=mc^2?: And Why Should We Care? - a kindly written introduction to the theory of general relativity, which had me for absolute minutes on end feeling like I actually understood it.

So, what should I read this summer?

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Goodbye, Seb

Seb Chan has posted the news that he's leaving the Powerhouse Museum for the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Seb has been a massive influence on me, personally and professionally. His work, and more importantly, his outreach at the Powerhouse brought the international digital cultural sector's attention to this part of the world, and New Zealand and Australia's cultural institutions have flourished in that time.

You can't pin all the changes down to one person, of course, but you also can't deny that Seb's combination of energy, data-driven innovation and sheer generosity of spirit has made it all that bit easier to push our own organisations forward in the digital world. Thanks Seb, travel safely, and I hope we see you down here again soon.

p.s. you probably all follow Seb's writing at Fresh and New(er), where he's going to keep posting; you might not know though about Small Stories, his delightful blog about books he's reading to his kids.  Highly recommended.

Monday 14 November 2011

The Big Irony

From the occasional reviews series: Lev Grossman's The Magicians.


Laura Miller described Erin Morgensten's (rather sickly sounding) The Night Circus as 'the first Etsy novel'. That might make Lev Grossman's The Magicians and The Magician King into Narnia for Boing Boing readers.

The Magician King is a quest story, written for an audience that's not just familiar with every Harry Potter meme, but with as well. I think of Grossman's tone as 21st century hardboiled; it's every bit as quotable, but also every bit as relentless, as Raymond Chandler. Here's a representative sample:

She always righted herself in the end, with the help of the dandy new shrink, a woman this time, and her dandy 450 milligrams of Wellbutrin and 30 milligrams of Lexapro daily, and her dandy new online support group for the depressed.

Actually, the support group really was pretty dandy. It was something special. It was founded by a woman who'd worked successively at Apple, and then Microsoft, and then Google. She blazed a glittering arc in the firmament at each firm for about four or five years, piling up tranches of stock options, before she rolled neurochemical snake eyes and a bout of clinical depression knocked her out of the sky. By the time Google was done with her she was forty-four and had her fuck-you money in the bank. So she retired early and started Free Trader Beowulf instead.

Free Trader Beowulf - you had to be at least forty and a recovering pen-and-paper role-playing-gamer to get the reference, but it was apt. Google it. FTB was an online support group for depressed people. But not your common run of depressed people. Oh, no.

To get in the door you first had to show them your prescriptions. They wanted credentials, solid ones. A bunch of nerds like this, they didn't want to hear your whining, and they didn't want to read your poems - sorry, Jack - or look at your doomy watercolours. This crowd wasn't soft-core. If you were depressed, they wanted to see the hard stuff, a diagnosis from an actual psychiatrist and hard-core chemical-on-neuron action. And if you were rocking double-neurochemical-penetration, like Julia was, all the better.

As much as I enjoyed The Magicians - felt like I was reading a palimpsest of every bit of lovable and scary fantasy I've ever read, supplemented by every bit Grossman has read - now the magic's starting to fade a little. The writing's still crisp, but the story is less compelling, the allusions less amusing, the inventiveness not quite as sparkling.

The book ends with a set-up to turn this duo into a trilogy. I kind of hope Grossman bucks this and does something totally different next.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Beyond access

My term on the National Digital Forum board is drawing to a close (I finish up after the NDF conference later this month).

It's a bit of an end of an era for me - I see it as part of the six year journey I've been on since I started work at the National Library in January 2006. Although I left in the middle of last year, working at the Library had a huge impact on me. For the past six years, I've spent a great deal of time thinking about cultural institutions and their collections.

I think about what these institutions stand for, and why they exist. I think about who they serve (or what they serve - I have this fuzzy, not particularly well articulated theory that collecting is part of creating history, whether or not anyone ever puts what is collected into a history). I think about how people interact and engage with the institutions and their collections. With our collections, when you really think about it.

Working on things like the National Library's Flickr Commons account and the @NLNZ twitter account reinforced for me not only that, thanks to the web, collections have moved beyond the physical places they're stored into the unlimited world, but that the role of researching and sorting and presenting these collections have moved beyond curators and historians and into the hands of anyone with a search box and a link to share around.

We've come a long way in the decade or so since cultural institutions started digitising their collection items and putting them online. But we haven't gone quite far enough. I still want more. I want more freedom to play with collections. In particular, I want more freedom to play with items that are out of copyright and ready to move back into the creative melting pot.

I was prompted to think about this again tonight when I read about the launch of Mixel, an iPad app that lets people grab images from around the web, remix them into collages and share them around. As one of the founders, Khoi Vinh, writes:

... we chose collage for a very important reason: it makes art easy. Photos, the component pieces of every collage, are among the most social and viral content on the Web, and allowing people to combine them into new, highly specific expressions of who they are and what they’re interested in is powerful. Collage also has a wonderfully accessible quality; few people are comfortable with a brush or a drawing implement, but almost everyone is comfortable cutting up images and recombining them in new, expressive, surprising or hilarious ways. We all used to do this as kids

When I see things like this

and this

and this

all I want to do is share them. And I can, thanks to the new statement on the National Library's Beta website:
You can copy this item for personal use, share it, and post it on a blog or website. It cannot be used commercially without permission, please ask us for advice. If reproducing this item, please maintain the integrity of the image (i.e. don't crop, recolour or overprint it), and ensure the following credit accompanies it
What I want now is the next bit. I want to start playing. I want to give them another life, like Mixel is doing:

Mixel keeps track of every piece of every collage, regardless of who uses it or how it’s been cropped. That means, in a sense, that the image pieces within Mixel have a social life of their own. Anyone can borrow or re-use any other piece; you’re free to peruse all the collages (we call them “mixels”) and pick up literally any piece and use it in your own mixel. If you don’t like the crop, the full, unedited original is stored on the server, so you can open it back up in an instant and cut out just the parts you like. Mixel can even show you everywhere else a particular image has been used, so you can follow it throughout the network to see how other people have cropped it and combined it with other elements.

I know we need to respect copyright, attribution, donors' original intentions, and the makers of these works themselves. But I honestly think it's what we need to make happen if we want to move from being providers of things that people enjoy and look at, and become providers of things people love and use. 

Introducing Mixel for iPad from Mixel App on Vimeo.

Images, from top 
Total eclipse of the sun. Ref: 1/2-051134-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. 
Young boy on a rocking horse. Harding, William James, 1826-1899 :Negatives of Wanganui district. Ref: 1/4-008595-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. 
Taieri Pet at Middlemarch. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-28295-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. 

Full disclosure - although I no longer work at the Library, the company I work for has a long relationship with the Library and we've worked together on the Beta site. Also, I realise the Whites Aviation photo is most likely not out of copyright - I just like it.

Wednesday 9 November 2011


Today on the radio I'm going to be previewing the visual arts line-up at next year's NZ International Festival of Arts. I was struck in 2010 by how much more Wellington's public galleries seem to be aligning their programming to the Festival than in previous years*, and that seems to be true of 2011 as well.

Te Papa is timing a refresh of 'Collecting Contemporary' for the start of the Festival, which will feature works by Karl Fritsch, Francis Upritchard and Martino Gamper from Gesamtkunsthandwerk, currently my 2011 show of the year.

City Gallery is unveiling 'The Obstinate Object: Contemporary NZ Sculpture', featuring new, recent and older work, including the single piece I am already most excited about seeing, Don Driver's Ritual**, which I've never seen in the flesh.

The Adam is showing series by four photographers: Kohei Yoshiyuki, Fiona Amundsen, John Lake and Simon Starling. I saw Starling's Autoxylopyrocycloboros (the work that will be at the Adam) at the Power Plant in Toronto in 2008, and was struck by how much Starling's practice reminds me of Michael Stevenson.

And the Dowse is showing Mexican artist Theresa Margolles' In the Air from 2003 alongside a new work commissioned for her visit to New Zealand. Margolles is my pick for the Festival. In the Air is very simple, on first glance (and glancing contact) - bubbles blown out into a gallery space that pop as they hit hard surfaces or land on wandering visitors.

The charge comes when you discover that the bubbles are blown using water that was previously used to wash down bodies - victims of violent crimes, drug overdoses, traffic accidents - in the Mexico City morgue. Even though the water has been sterilised, it still carries that taint of death and decay, turning the innocent bubbles into a somewhat grisly memento mori - a role they've played in Western painting for centuries.

It's the combination of the simplicity and the big reveal that I think will captivate people about this work. [My one concern is that there won't be enough bubbles to make the room seem fairytale like - please let there be enough bubbles.] Like Janet Cardiff's Forty-Part Motet - in my opinion the hit of the 2010 visual arts line-up - it's not a work you have to work hard to get. It's easily explained, but also easily experienced. I might sound like I'm being dismissive, but I'm actually being admiring; this kind of succinctness, of distillation, of directness, is relatively rare in contemporary art, but magical (or at the very least reaction-provoking) for the viewer, whatever their level of gallery-going experience.

*It's just as well I've never been an Angry Young Person, because that sentence makes me feel about forty.  
** Yeah - I'm most excited about the oldest work in the show. I was truly never an Angry Young Person. 

Monday 7 November 2011

Sports round-up

Some good reading I've come across lately ...

Dennis O'Toole's 'The Procreant Urge' (The Morning News), looking at John Updike's 1960 classic 'Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu' and quitting while you're ahead.

Karl Taro Greenfeld's 'The Green Bay Packers Have the Best Owners in Football' (Bloomberg Business Week) - like Moneyball, a examination of doing things differently.

Michael Tomasky's 'The Racist Redskins' (New York Review of Books), a review of Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins:

The nickname had been the brainchild of George Preston Marshall, a laundry magnate and flamboyant showman who had bought the Boston Braves football team in 1932. As his second head coach, Marshall hired William “Lone Star” Dietz, a journeyman coach at the collegiate level whose mother was most likely a Sioux. It was in “honor” of Dietz, who coached the team for just two seasons and who at Marshall’s urging willingly put on war paint and Indian feathers before home games, that Marshall changed the team’s name to the Redskins. When Marshall, frustrated by Boston fans’ lack of support, moved the franchise to the nation’s capital in 1937, the coach was gone, but the team name stayed.

That combination of 'urging' and 'willing' is odd. For more where this all came from, try out

Friday 4 November 2011

Take me out

From the occasional reviews series - Michael Lewis's Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.


There's something about American sportswriting that I just love. Or perhaps there's simply enough distance that what sounds banal and often ridiculous when it's written here in New Zealand (witness the outpouring of adjective, cliche and nation-building around the Rugby World Cup) sounds mythical and meaningful when it comes from offshore. Perhaps I'm just buying in to the romanticism that this book seeks to unravel. But I don't care - I love it, I loved this book, and you should read it.

As there's a movie just about to come out starring Brad Pitt based on 'Moneyball', I probably don't need to go deep into exposition. To keep it as short as possible: Lewis spent a year bedded into the Oakland Athletics, studying how general manager (and ex pro player) Billy Beane and a small number of his colleagues sought to ignore the folk wisdom that has traditionally governed how a baseball team is put together and instead assembled an assortment of unlikely, unfavoured and unheroic players on the basis of a bunch of carefully crunched statistics, and came out on top.

I might be one of the few people who expected more data and less sport from 'Moneyball'. Even though I know barely anything about baseball (a couple of seasons of softball as a kid is the sum total of my knowledge) I was able to skate past the unintelligible passages, and soak in the sections that made sense.

And soak in them you certainly can. Lewis has a hardbitten, salty, yet occasionally love-struck way of writing that makes this book the unexpected delight it is (my single favourite sentence: 'When it suited his purposes Billy Beane could throw the best pity party this side of the Last Supper.' The chapters dedicated to analysing single players - a batter with the best record of laying off the first pitch in the league, a pitcher with an amazing way of keeping runs down, but who looks all wrong - are beautiful character studies. And the overall story of Billy Beane, the guy who seemed to have it all going for him but couldn't make it, and who came back to rewrite the way teams were put together so guys like him were no longer the guys you wanted, is told with clear-eyed affection. Even if you have no interest in baseball, this is a remarkable book about the tenacity required to do something dramatically different.

I share my reviews on Goodreads (fair warning, I'm prepping to review a book about New Zealand YA writing, so there's going to be a lot in that vein coming up, starting with Elizabeth Knox's Dreamhunter and Dreamquake.