Tuesday, February 28th

Reflections on Potlatch 21

Last weekend I attended Potlatch 21, a science fiction writer's convention that is held in the Seattle area every other year ( in the Bay Area in alternating years). This is the third time I have attended Potlatch and it is safe to say I have a unique perspective on the proceedings. As an aspiring sci-fi writer, I have come away each time not only with lots of ideas, but regrets at what the experience could have been. I really enjoy coming and want it to survive and thrive. In that vein, I would like to put forth a modest proposal based on my observations.

Potlatch is a rather small (it has deliberately never been more than 200 people), very narrowly focused convention that is aimed at science fiction writers and readers- nobody is dressed up in costumes. There is only one track of programming and one book that is featured as the "Book of Honor," which every attendee tries to read and many of the panels discuss either the book or subjects related to the book. There are also practical panels about issues relating to being a sci-fi writer. If none of the panels are tickling your fancy, any attendee can create what is termed "nanoprogramming," and create your own panel on the spot. I had a discussion with Jack William Bell the Potlatch 21 chair (Thanks Jack- great job!) and he told me that the conference grew out of an anarchist group and could be considered to be an example of a Temporary Autonomous Zone, which made complete sense/ blew my mind when I thought about it. It is definitely an example of, and perhaps one of the first, unconferences as well.

The first one I attended was Potlatch 17 in 2008. I was putting the finishing touches on my first novel and I was looking to: 1) meet some fellow sci-fi writers and 2) get some practical tips on how to approach my career through going to the panels and talking to some of the pros. What sealed the deal for me was that the Book of Honor was "Parable of the Sower" by Octavia Butler, whose work had really influenced me. She had also attended Potlatch before her untimely death. When I got there, I was surprised to find that there was a real generation gap. There were people who were far older than I was and a contingent of "younger" ones as well. Luckily for me, I really hit it off with three fellow younger writers who were in the same "unpublished/barely published" boat and we formed one of the greatest writer's groups in the history of writer's groups, The Shining Creamsicles. Noted steampunk author Cherie Priest was in attendance (this was just before she published her Hugo and Nubula- nominated book "Boneshaker") and she politely answered our questions and gave me a lot to think about.

As for the older generation, I had a real hard time breaking through and getting to know them. It's not that they were unfriendly per se, it's that they kept to themselves. Since they had known each other for many years, were more interested in hanging out with each other than talking with someone much younger than they were. I'm not the world's most outgoing person, but I'm pretty sociable when I want to be, and I figured it would be a welcoming crowd. I hadn't expected to encounter the Seattle Freeze at a sci-fi convention, but here it was- at least with the older crowd. The younger writers, however, were another story- we came looking to make connections, and many were made. My fellow Creamsicles and I are all good friends. I figured that maybe my lack of contact with the older writers was all in my mind or a result of my not reaching out and that at the next Potlatch, once people knew who I was, they would open up more.

I did not attend Potlatch 18 in 2009 as it was in the Bay Area, but several of the Creamsicles made it into a road trip and had a great time. Potlatch 19 in 2010 was back in Seattle and it was fun and informative as ever. One thing I noticed was that there were several of the younger writers who didn't return, but I got to meet a few new people as well as perennial political candidate Goodspaceguy! Overall, though, I found myself in the same situation of getting to know the younger convention goers but not the older ones.

I was looking forward to attending Potlatch 21 for many reasons, the least of which was that the Book of Honor was "A Canticle For Leibowitz" by Walter M. Miller, Jr., one of my all-time favorite sci-fi novels. It is also a deeply Catholic novel, and I thought that I would bring a different perspective to the discussions of the novel as a practicing Catholic. What was even more exciting was that one of my short stories was accepted into the Writer's Workshop that was lead by noted sci-fi author Vylar Kaftan. The writer's workshop was great and I not only got to read and comment on several awesome short stories, I got some really solid critiques and practical advice from Vylar as well.

In the main panel about the book, I made several comments, and while they were listened to respectfully, I was disappointed that some of them were not taken up or ignored. In order to engender further discussion, I created two nanoprograms where I talked further about the issues of faith and religion that were raised in "Canticle." The first discussion had 6 people, and the second was just someone sitting at my table, but we turned it into a wonderful conversation.

So again, for the third time, I enjoyed myself, learned a lot, didn't break the ice with the older people and wished I'd had more time to talk to some of the younger/aspiring writers. Then on Sunday afternoon, it hit me. At first, I thought I should have done a nanoprogram where I got all the younger/aspiring writers together to break the ice. Then, I thought while that would certainly have been a great idea, why wasn't Potlatch doing this?

If Potlatch is going to survive and thrive, I would suggest that it become slightly more structured and be more welcoming towards the younger/aspiring writers. I was extremely lucky that I met 3 good friends right off the bat the first night of my first Potlatch. But what if I hadn't? What if I was an introverted young/aspiring writer hoping to meet some new people, regardless of their age, and I had gotten the Seattle Freeze all weekend long? Would I return next year? Having been to 3 Potlatches, I would have to say that there are a lot of younger/aspiring writers who may have felt this way and did not return. Having some official programming geared towards this audience may technically violate the ethos of Potlatch, but I think it is necessary to add a little more structure if it is to retain enough new fans to survive.

santo26 on 02.28.12 @ 07:20 PM PST [link] [No Comments]

Wednesday, February 15th

Communication and Information Theory: Not As Useless As They Seem?

As I mentioned at the end of my previous post, I am seeing the importance of applying communication and information theory to my information management work. Now that I have started to help people and organizations to get their information under control, the theories that seemed rather useless in my freshman year of college are now quite applicable in the real world. If you are trying to mediate between people and their information systems, it is vital to learn how they are interacting and transmitting information, i.e. communicating so you can diagnose the problems before finding a solution.

Back in the day when I was a freshman at UMass Amherst (Go Minutemen!), I was a "Pre-Communications" major, which means that I got to take 100-level Communications classes in a smaller setting. Although I enjoyed learning about it, and the instructor I had for my second semester really made the material interesting, I didn't see that learning about how people communicated was applicable to anything in the real world (which I obviously knew so much about). I later became a journalism major and nearly switched to computer science before eventually transferring to another college where I got a film degree.

When I went back to graduate school a couple of years ago, I wanted to study information management, which I describe as a combination of information science, computer science and business. This allows you to see things in a way so you can help organizations solve their information management problems. If computer scientists are engineers, they are the ones that build the actual structures, the "information pipes," and information managers are the ones who control the flow of the information through the "pipes." In order to do this, you have to be able to act as a translator and mediator between the IT and non-IT parts of an organization; to understand the information requirements of the system users and be able to explain them to the system administrators in order to build the solution (or build it yourself).

In the early 21st century, we are approaching a point where we have built these information systems and set them up so they will collect all this data, but what are we doing with it? Organizations that are able to harness the data and turn it into information will have a serious competitive advantage moving forward over those who prefer to keep it in silos.

One of our first required classes was IMT 510, "Human Aspects of Information Systems" and was taught by one of the senior professors in the University of Washington's iSchool. In this class we learned about information theory and how to conduct academic research. Some of the students in my cohort, which was made up of many people who were already established professionals in their field, questioned the need for this class. I saw many parallels, however, with my Communications classes of yore, and decided to go along for the ride.

The class turned out to be one of the most useful during my time at the iSchool, as it helped me to understand how vital it is if you are trying to modify an information system is to first observe how the information is currently being transmitted. I used the knowledge that I gained from IMT 510 in many of my other classes as well as on my thesis project.

Once I got out in the real world, I noticed it was just as, if not more applicable. For one of my first consulting projects, I am working with an organization that needs to migrate their data into a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system. Their organization has reached the point where they have too much data in too many different systems and there may be only one person who understands each one. In order for my partner and I to properly consult them on what they needed to do to undertake this project, we had understand how the systems they are currently using work, what was information was most important to them, and what they wanted the new system to do. In order to do this, we had to do a lot of user interviews and use the systems ourselves. I have heard that not all consultants use this method, but how would you know how to solve someone's information problem if you don't know how they do their work? I suppose if one were a technical expert in a particular field you might just tell them what to do, but will doing so create a sustainable long-term solution?

I'm just starting out in this field, and there have been people who have been designing information systems for years, and am by no means an expert, technical or otherwise. I am just a person who is finally beginning to realize how vital it is to take into account how people actually communicate and transmit information when you are designing information systems, and that I have been interested in these questions for quite a long time without even knowing it.

santo26 on 02.15.12 @ 07:46 AM PST [link] [No Comments]

Saturday, February 11th

Information Portion Control, Part Two

The morning after I wrote my first post on Information Portion Control, I didn't have time to read any philosophy. I had a meeting in downtown Seattle and had to hustle in order to catch the bus. I had a summary paper that I needed to read but not for the meeting I was going to, and was listening to some Ludwig van on my MP3 player, thereby creating a distance between myself and the other passengers on the crowded bus. After I finished the paper, instead of starting to dive right in and read more of my library copy of Message in the Bottle that was tucked in my bag, I started to look at the world both inside and outside the bus through the lens of what I had read yesterday.

Instead of trying to gorge myself on the next piece of information I could find, I began to think critically about street signs and pieces of graffiti as symbols, and how it is that I understood what they meant. A "No Parking" sign (or one of its many variants) is something that I can, in a span of time so small one could never measure it, make a connection in my mind that the particular rectangular shape I was seeing out of the bus window on this particular day in this particular place at this particular time was an instance of a "No Parking" sign. How does such a thing happen?

The piece of graffiti (the one I am recalling is the word "Whore" written on the lower right-hand corner of a building) that I observed was another example of making the connection that the words written with spray paint on the side of a building was an instance of "graffiti." That instance of graffiti is unique; it was not mass-produced like the "No Parking" sign, it doesn't have a set meaning in the way that the sign does, and is trying to express something altogether different from all the other pieces of graffiti that has ever existed. But what is the meaning of this particular piece of graffiti? Does the fact that the person who created the graffiti (I'll leave the ethics of creating graffiti for another discussion) put it on this particular spot mean something in particular, or were they just "marking their territory?"

It is not a stretch to say that this line of thinking is not something that I do not usually engage in, especially when I am on the bus. My friend's suggestion to read philosophy in the morning and my attempts to engage in information portion control had resulted in a kind of intellectual stimulation I had not experienced in a long time.

Another factor that came into play later that evening was that my fiance and I watched Werner Herzog's documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The movie is about Chauvet Cave, which is a perfectly preserved prehistoric site with hundreds of cave paintings and bones. I cannot recommend the movie (or any of Herzog's other films) enough, but this viewing had especial significance for me considering the philosophy I had been reading.

Percy had a theory called the "Delta phenomenon-" the moment where a human makes the connection between the thing they are personally experiencing and the word that other humans use to describe the thing being experienced. Percy uses the example of when Helen Keller understood, with the help of Anne Sullivan, that the thing she was experiencing- water- and the symbols that Anne was tracing on her hand- meant that it "is" water. It is one of those historical events that I learned about as a child and you never forget. It was, however, the first time in years I had thought of it, and I was now looking at it with fresh eyes, and seeing how it was such an important moment for humanity being able to better understand ourselves.

"Cave of Forgotten Dreams" stirred the same thoughts and emotions. I have known about cave paintings since I was a child, but hadn't thought of how important they really are. These artists of the past left behind not only art, but profound clues as to when and how our species made the leap from being animals to humans.

How far removed were these cave artists from the people like myself who were crowded onto the bus that morning, most of whom were plugged into electronic devices that were transmitting information to them? Do any of us have the capacity anymore to make such massive intellectual leaps as the cave painters did?

It is funny to think that I am starting, in a sense, to come full circle. As a freshman in college, I started off as a Communications major, thinking and learning about theories like this and wondering about their applicability in the wider world. Now that I have a Master's degree in Information Management, I find that how people communicate has a great deal to do with my work, and is also stimulating my writing as well. I will continue to explore this subject in future posts.

PS- For the record, two days after the bus ride, I returned all but two books and two DVDs to the Seattle Public Library. "Message In The Bottle" and four other books I have out from the University of Washington Library and haven't made the trip over there yet.

As for the internet overconsumption part of information portion control plan, I had 1.5 days of limited consumption and fell off the wagon the past 2.5 days. I hope to get back on the wagon today with my internet portion control, and to look at my physical space- my study- and try to better control the information flow in here as well.

santo26 on 02.11.12 @ 07:57 AM PST [link] [No Comments]

Tuesday, February 7th

Information Portion Control & Walker Percy

Yesterday, I was having a conversation with one of my oldest friends that covered a wide range of topics, from the upcoming Presidential election to religion and my feeling overwhelmed by all of the information I have to process. The latter remark was sparked by the fact that I have over 25 books, 2 books on tape and 8 DVDs out from two separate libraries, not to mention the books I have on loan from other people.

Towards the end of our conversation, he made a comment that really stuck me and I am trying out- namely, that just as people who need to lose weight need to exercise some discipline and practice portion control, one should practice it regarding one's information consumption.

In order to accomplish this, he suggested returning all but two books (and those that I need as reference material for my work), and to spend a short amount of time in the morning reading short selections of several books of philosophy before I even have any coffee. I shouldn't read too much- only about 10 pages- because I would not be able to adequately mentally digest what I had taken in.

I spent the rest of the evening taking in what he had said and applying it to my situation. How much of the information that I take in every day is "mentally nutritious?" How much of it is "mental junk food?" I fear the answer is mostly on the junk food side, especially in my daily interactions on the internet.

Last night, I picked out the book of philosophy I read last night before bed and read this morning before (and after) coffee: The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other by Walker Percy. In the past 6 months, I have read two of his novels: "Love in the Ruins" and his first, and most famous novel, "The Moviegoer". These books have moved me in a way I hadn't been moved by literature in a long time, and the subtitle of "Love in the Ruins," a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel of sorts (of which I am trying to write one) summed up what I have been feeling lately: "The adventures of a bad Catholic at a time near the end of the world."

I had taken out "The Message in the Bottle," a collection of his essays several months ago in the hope of learning more about him and his philosophy. I had perhaps cracked this book open once since bringing it back from the library, but when I decided to pick a work to begin this exercise with, I was drawn to it and have been floored so far by the first essay in the collection, "The Delta Factor," a meditation on what exactly is the thing we call "language."

Speaking of information portion control, when I was creating the hyperlinks for the books, my mind briefly wandered and I started to read the reviews until I noticed what I was doing. This is exactly the kind of thing I am trying to avoid right now. How many times a day do I do this action or its equivalent? How much time do I waste and how much anxiety do I create for myself by engaging in this behavior? How can I do my work during the day and digest what I have read if I am constantly and unconsciously "consuming" such things?

I will report back tomorrow on my progress.

santo26 on 02.07.12 @ 05:47 AM PST [link] [No Comments]

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