Monthly Archives: August 2010

Drinking from the firehose

About a week ago, I asked David Sasaki for his tips on drinking from the firehose of social media, and living to tell the tale. How did he parse all the information he came across on any given day? What tools did he use and what tips could he share? He responded with an “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours”-type challenge. Just before the bank holiday, he posted his response on his blog, and it’s really good. Below is my answer to the same set of questions.

My alarm clock wakes me up an hour into BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. It’s not always the most soothing way to greet a new day. But although some in the web world shun the idea of broadcast media altogether, I still think it’s an important way of finding out about what’s going on. Anyway, a lot of my work requires me to pay attention to the broadcast news agenda: as a campaigner, you know that legislators are being influenced by what gets airplay on Today. And for a brief while, I wrote a column satirising the mainstream news agenda for the New Statesman.

From 8:30/9 until at least 11, I try to ignore the outside world altogether, as I’ve found this is a time best set aside for writing. The first thing I’ll do after that is check my emails. A lot of the stuff I read online I’m pointed to by people on the various email lists to which I’m subscribed. Some of these are public lists, some of these – like the FIPR and ORG advisory council lists – are limited to a few people. It’s a great privilege to sit on these lists as they’re full of very clever and expert people. I get much more than I give – I’m a classic lurker.

I use Gmail for email and Chrome to browse the web. Links I’m sent via email get opened in separate tabs as I clear my inbox. Once that’s done, I’ll review the pages that I’ve opened. I’ll be skim reading here. If I like something and it’s relevant to some aspect of my work, it will get saved using one of two social bookmarking services – delicious, for stuff relevant to my work with the Open Society Institute, diigo for stuff relevant to a book-length writing project I’m doing called Barefoot Into Cyberspace (you heard it here first!). Really, I’d like to use separate delicious accounts and move away from diigo, but although the delicious bookmarking toolbar used to support multiple accounts, right now it appears not to (at least, I haven’t found a way to make that work). The stuff I save to delicious is mostly stuff I know I’ll want to refer to at a later date. Occasionally, I’ll find something I want to read in depth, and very often I’ll print that out as well as logging it in delicious/diigo, so I can take it away from the screen and read it over a coffee or something later. Printed material will eventually get stuffed into a relevant box file on the other side of my study, usually never to be looked at again. The hope is that by that time the important bits of it will be written to my own mushy version of an internal disk.

I share the delicious account I use with the rest of the OSI Information Program team, another bunch of switched-on people I feel very privileged to work with, and each day I’ll check out what they’ve been saving to the feed. About twice a week, I open up my Google reader and check out what’s coming through on RSS. I’ve got 60 subscriptions at the moment. About half of that number are Information Program grantees whose blogs, websites and campaigns I’m tracking just in case I see an opportunity to publicise something they’re doing through the main OSI website. The other half are actors and influencers in the information politics space. There are a few I follow just for fun, one of which is Adam Curtis, whose blog for the BBC I absolutely love.

The drill here is as with email, I clear the reader and open anything I want to look at properly in a new tab. Then I work through the tabs saving stuff to delicious and diigo or (occasionally) printing it out.

The reason the delicious feed is so central is because every week I go through everything on it and select the stories and features which will go in the weekly Information Program Digest, an email update subscribed to by roughly 60 people from around the OSI network. If you’re interested in what that digest looks like, you should know that I also usually publish it to this blog. That’s pretty much all I publish to this blog, unless I’ve done a research paper I want to talk about or have thought of some other thing original to say. Or if I’m promoting a gig of some kind.

I have a few places I go to distract myself – usually in the afternoon. One of them is Twitter, where again, I’m a lurker. I don’t use Tweetdeck or any other Twitter client, I just go to the website. I follow just under 200 people, not all of whom are active. So far I’m disappointed with who the newish “Who to follow” feature on Twitter is suggesting I follow, so I guess that means I’m not following the kind of people I’d like to in the first place. But I do get sent to interesting places from here – again, I’ll log these on delicious or diigo if relevant material comes up. Facebook is another place I go to distract myself but this is just to spy on friends, and not much that’s loggable turns up.

The other two places I go when I’m distracted are the top stories of the day on Reddit, and if that hasn’t sated my web appetite, BoingBoing. Most of what I do online is work-related, but if I’ve made it as far as here, I’m officially off duty.

I recently got an iPod nano for my birthday – my first portable mp3 player in ages – and I’m slowly getting back into podcasts. Audio is the killer app of the portable media age, and because I spend a lot of time travelling in and out of London, and driving around the countryside, there are lots of opportunities to listen to podcasts. Right now I’m mostly subscribed to books and writing-related podcasts. For tech and politics, it’s currently Shift.Run.Stop and Little Atoms.

Music-wise, I like Last.fm, and I’ve tried Spotify, but I’m not as interested in music as I used to be. Most of the CDs in my collection date back to the late nineties. Starting from then a fatal succession of events occurred: I briefly worked as a music journalist, littering my digs with promotional CDs and making me sick of the sight of them; then I started living with a guy who didn’t appreciate my taste for early Seattle grunge and DIY punk; then my late twenties set in, a time when I know many people’s music taste starts to ossify. I stopped filesharing after the closure of Napster. I tried eMusic but their download client crashed a lot, so I quit. Perhaps there’s a service yet to be invented that will bring me back to the musical fold. If so , I hope the oligarchs of recorded rights see fit to sanction it someday. Until then, I’ll listen to BBC 6 music while I’m cooking dinner, and later in the evening to Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie Radio 2, if I haven’t gone out, or switched to TV by then.

The in-house tech support has made homebrew audio-visual media centres his life’s work. Since at least 2006, he’s been running MythTV on a Linux box in the sitting room. Its reliability and user interface have both improved steadily over time. Theoretically, “the Myth” means there’s always something worthwhile to see if we feel like watching television. But that’s only if we’ve remembered to record anything – otherwise, I’ll switch back to broadcast, a move which never goes down well. Another impact of having the Myth is that quite frequently I’ll have sat down to enjoy something I’ve recorded only to instead spend fifteen minutes watching shenanigans in the command line as some bug gets fixed. And we’ve also been directly affected by the BBC’s decision to poison its HD stream with DRM. Thanks, OfCom!

The IP TV client Boxee has also recently been added to this Linux box, and the apps I use most here are the iPlayer app (far superior than watching on a browser) and YouTube. Which reminds me that I’ve been meaning to shout about this excellent YouTube curation piece from Pedro Almodóvar.


Postscript: As I mentioned at the top of the post, I’m writing this partly in response to a similar post by David Sasaki. What I didn’t mention is that I hadn’t read his post before I wrote mine – I wanted to write this blind because I thought that it would make it more interesting to compare the two. So…

  • Firstly, I’m surprised and delighted at how similar our routines are. He does sound like he’s using more devices than me, although beyond the Mac/PC thing, the only difference is that where I use dead trees he uses an iPad.
  • There’s also a difference in the amount of syncing he does, but it appears to me that’s because I’m relying on the cloud more than he is, or rather, we’re probably both relying on the cloud, but I’m indexing and he’s archiving.
  • Perhaps even more marked is the fact that I’m a lurker and David clearly isn’t. Although I’ve talked about a couple of outputs in my post – delicious and the Digest, this blog – I haven’t talked about what I think of as the mulching process. Most of what I’m reading is becoming mulch, from which I hope I occasionally grow something useful – a connection between two issues previously not thought of as being similar, say, or just a growing and refining thesis of some kind. But perhaps I’m just saying that to cover up the fact that I’ve become less good at sharing, which is my bad.
  • One thing I liked about David’s post is that he hinted at a note-taking system he uses when working through documents. I didn’t mention my own note-taking system (although I’m quite proud of it) and that’s mainly because it’s paper-based and it only extends to organising the work I have to do and taking notes of face-to-face meetings and telephone conversations. David has reminded me that I need to be more systematic about note-taking when I’m reading text in depth.
  • There were a couple of other tools I wanted to look into after reading David’s post. Unfortunately, it looks like Pukka, the tool he mentioned that lets you tag items for different delicious accounts, is only available for Mac and FlipBoard is an iPad app. Life suddenly looks a lot cooler in the cult of Mac 😦
  • In general, I think David gets through a lot more material than me each day – I check my Google Reader twice a week, and even then it only has around 200-300 items in it each time. He says he gets 600-800 a day. I also think it sounds like he’s guided by the broadcast media agenda to a far lesser extent than I am. But I think it’s fine that we’re different in these two respects.

Finally, I want to quote back this passage from near the end of his post, because I think it’s really important:

“At least once a day I try to spend time simply staring at the ceiling and/or going for a walk around my neighborhood. I am trying to spend more weekends out in the mountains away from connectivity. Cooking dinner has also been a recent source of calm for me.”

Links for last week

Here are the links from last week’s Information Program mailout, a weekly update of interesting information policy stories and features I help to compile.

World’s leading newspapers collaborate to expose leaked US documents on Afghanistan
The New York Times (US), Guardian (UK) and Der Spiegel (Germany) this week launched a coordinated exposé of over 75,000 secret US military documents leaked to the whistleblowing website Wikileaks. Among other revelations, the documents highlight greater levels of civilian casualties than officially reported. The three newspapers pooled their investigative resources to examine and report on the documents, and many of their online reports include rich data visualisations.
New York Times | Guardian | Der Spiegel

India unveils prototype of $35 tablet computer
India’s Human Resource Development minister Kapil Sibal has unveiled a prototype touchscreen computer aimed at students, which he says can be manufactured for $35 per unit. A ministry spokesperson confirmed that several global manufacturers have shown interest in making the device but no manufacturing or distribution deals have been finalised. The tablet project is part of a national education technology initiative, which also aims to bring broadband connectivity to India’s colleges and universities and make study materials available online.

Street protest in Istanbul over internet censorship
The Open Net Initiative report that street protests in Istanbul against Turkey’s internet censorship policies attracted thousands of participants: “This rise in frequency of protests for Turkey is really unexpected and nothing quite like it has yet happened in other nations who practice Internet censorship.”

Indo-EU Trade Dispute draws global attention
Brazil, China, Canada, Japan, Turkey and Ecuador have each filed requests to join in consultations at the World Trade Organization’s investigation into the Indo-EU trade dispute over the seizure of in-transit Indian generic drug consignments at various ports in the Netherlands. According to this report, “the future of these consultations and the outcome of the dispute may very well be key to determining whether ACTA will proceed as planned.”

WHO agrees that East African laws confuse fake and generic drugs
The World Health Organization’s Director of Essential Medicines and Pharmaceutical Policies, Hans Hogerzeil, has warned that draft anti-counterfeiting laws in Kenya and Uganda could “lump together actual counterfeit and fake medicines with generic medicines”, echoing the concerns of many in the access to medicines community.

When Arabs Tweet
“One cannot take seriously the United States or any other Western government that funds political activism by young Arabs while it simultaneously provides funds and guns that help cement the power of the very same Arab governments the young social and political activists target for change.” Rami G Khouri gives an Arab perspective on new US approaches to promoting internet freedom as a tool for political change.

Is copyright a help or a hindrance?
This British Library report brings important perspectives from the academic research community to the topic of copyright reform.

New ACTA analysis from Michael Geist
Michael Geist asks, “Could the EU walk away from ACTA?” and uses a new leak of the latest treaty text to highlight the major areas of disagreement that still remain.

Forensics: how wide should a genetic net reach?
The New York Times asks whether familial searching – looking through existing DNA records for partial matches to DNA material from crime scenes in order to find the family members of suspected perpetrators – warrants the invasion of privacy it entails.

Visualisation: Facebook users
The “population” of Facebook hit 500 million this week. This visualisation shows where they live in the real world, and which countries contain the highest proportion of Facebook users per head of population.

Podcast: Thinking about thinking about the net
What are the most basic points of view about the significance of the internet? In a wide-ranging conversation (episode 158 of the excellent Radio Berkman podcast) David Weinberger argues that three variables capture just about every attitude towards the Net, while Tim Hwang works through some of the common memes and metaphors that help us make sense of it, and their implications.