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{ Monthly Archives } September 2006

you will know me by my consumption

Sam Anderson’s article “Judging Your Friends by their Netflix Queue” made it onto a few blogs and the like over the past week, often with comments along the lines of “This article is totally true.” Anderson describes his initial reaction:

When I first started looking at my friends’ Netflix lists, it felt a little creepy. The records of our cultural consumption (video rentals, library checkouts) have traditionally been protected by law. for all kinds of excellent reasons—tyrants, stalkers, mothers-in-law—so even though I’d been invited to look, my conscience kept telling me I’d crossed into sacred territory. I felt like an information-age window peeper, like I had dipped my toe into the shallow end of a pool whose deep end was Watergate. This feeling only intensified when many of my real-life friends refused to accept me as their Netflix friend. Though they’d talk to me all day about their DVD-watching habits—their three-month Buffy binges and methodical screenings of the entire Owen Wilson catalog—for some reason they wouldn’t let me see an actual list of the actual films they were actually renting.

This paragraph caught my attention. Like many people who find something interesting but are not actually knowledgeable about it, I will now proceed to climb on to my tiny digital soapbox and talk about it for a moment.

A few thoughts came to mind. Anderson’s initial reaction caused me to remember when I showed some colleagues this summer — they were first almost repelled by the idea that I and others would share our music history like that, but within a few minutes they started saying “show me that chart.”

Much like the Netflix’s Friends feature, profiles show a user’s actual behavior rather than a reported behavior. Compare this to what users list on Facebook or other profiles for their favorite music and movies. Those are representations users choose, and what people say they do is rarely exactly what they do.

I’m curious, then, if services like and Netflix friends will change how people express themselves in listing favorite music or movies. I used to think a little bit before filling in my favorite music or answering what track is currently stuck in my head. Music that I considered to be a guilty pleasure (generally music that is catchy but not necessarily of great critical value, c.f. some songs by Coldplay) would usually not make these lists. This all stopped one day when I noticed that my Facebook list of favorite music had grown a ways apart from my profile. This was partly by design — the same sort of decisions that people make when deciding what books to put on office or living room shelves — and partly because what I thought I listened to most wasn’t necessarily what I do listen to most. I decided to fix it by just copying over my reported top tracks.

My new method didn’t last very long. I started thinking that certain artists seemed to be missing, and quickly tack them back on to the end of the list. Sure, I’d rationalize it by saying “oh, she’s new,” or “well, they’ve only put out one album, so of course they get overwhelmed by more prolific artists.” The truth is, there was a discrepancy between what reported and what I wanted to list, and I felt a need to fix it.

Are tools that report our actual cultural consumption at odds with our ability to choose how we express ourselves? Does it matter?

I can’t say that I’m going anywhere with these thoughts (and I can say that I don’t know the first thing about self expression and identity), but I’ve been thinking about this on and off for a few days.

surveys and survey software

My group is doing a survey for SI682. I’d rather be doing all-interviews, because I like them better and because I actually know a bit about how to do them. Time is really very short right now, so we’re trying to supplement with the survey. I get butterflies in my stomach because, while I have taken many surveys, I don’t know a thing about writing them, but I suppose this is part of how to learn. You can help our group by taking it. I already realized I forgot to ask where people live (oops), so if you want to fill that in on the last question, that’d be swell.

In the process, I searched the Internet (well, mostly SourceForge) high and low for a tool that would do what I wanted. In the end, there were four that I really wanted to try, and only one that survived the test.

The first I tried, and most promising, was Web Survey Toolbox, from CMU’s HCII. It looked quite good, but unfortunately requires Tomcat, which my host does not support. I’ve also had some unpleasant experiences with Tomcat.

From there, I moved on to try UCCASS. It looked simple and straightforward. Install was quick, and I had created most of the initial survey before I realized it didn’t have a way to view individual responses (so there would be no way, for example, to correlate an answer to one question with that user’s answers to other questions). I could have written code to pull that from the database (I think), but I didn’t want to have to write new code to do this.

I next tried PHPSurveyor. This one gets used a lot. Aside from icons that are an eyesore and require you to mouseover them and wait for the ALT text to figure out what the link does, it looked like it had some good things going for it. Install was reasonably straightforward (though not without some .htaccess troubles), but what killed this project was the steps required to take the survey. Users must either have an email token inviting them to take it or sign up online and wait for a token to be emailed to them. While this is probably great for many situations, I didn’t want to make people deal with this, so it was time for the next application.

This happened to be phpESP. It’s pretty simple, and has limited answer types. With some concessions on my part, though, it could work for this survey. It has some serious shortcomings. For example, if you miss a required question, the page will just appear to reload with no message indicating why. This gets frustrating pretty quickly and it can take a while to realize what’s going on. Still, it’ll work for now.

Have you found something better? I’d love to hear about it. There were a number of apps on SourceForge, but these were the ones that seemed to have the most documentation online, and rather than downloading and installing everything, I tried to go with the ones about which I knew the most.

California sues automakers

While reading the news the other day, I noticed that California’s attorney general, Bill Lockyer, filed suit against six automakers. Interesting. Lockyer is “demanding that they pay for environmental damage caused by the emissions of their vehicles.”

Interesting, but irrational (as far as I can tell).

To the best of my knowledge, the automakers have remained in compliance with state and federal laws regulating emissions. Turning and filing suit against companies that have been compliant feels a bit like playing “gotcha.” If the emissions laws were insufficient, he should be complaining about the federal government and the state of California. It he’s looking for the real culprit, though, he would be suing the people of California who just keep on using their cars so much despite the known environmental consequences. That probably wouldn’t work so well for Mr. Lockyer, though, as he currently wants those same constituents to elect him to state treasurer in the fall.

oh calendar, where art though?

The School of Information is the first place I’ve been in a number of years that doesn’t have a community norm of using a calendaring system. From what I gather, the school’s administrators use MeetingMaker, faculty use nothing, and students use whatever they have with Google Calendar being the most common. Others in the University seem to use Meeting Maker or nothing, except for the lucky few on one of the Exchange servers.

I’m on three teams for courses, with three to five people on each. We’ve gotten pretty good about having regularly scheduled meetings and, when additional meetings are necessary, trying to schedule the next meeting at the end of the previous meeting. That process works okay, but still not as well as when facilitated by Exchange. This also leaves a number meetings which need to be scheduled outside of meetings, as the need arises. For those, we revert to seemingly endless chains of threads of messages.

On one team, we’ve started using a shared Google Calendar, but that’s really only good for keeping track of team meetings we have scheduled. When used as a scheduling tool in groups, the weaknesses — primarily having to seek out other users’ calendars and hoping for appropriate permissions, rather than having the free/busy information shown in context as you try to setup an appointment — quickly make it unmanageable.

I’m whining, I know, but I am going to have to figure something out. After years of taking Exchange’s services for granted, scheduling group meetings by emails back and forth won’t do.

Also: would it be going too far to say that a nontrivial amount of the success we had at Olin, both with involving students alongside staff and faculty in the administration of the school and with student teamwork, was faciliated by having Exchange in our suite of IT services?

moo minicards

Moo, a London-based company that aims to create products that “help folks take their virtual lives offline” got a respectable amount of attention earlier this week when they launched their minicard product for Flickr. The minicards are about half the size of a business card, with text on one side and photos on the other.

I’ve been looing at something to fill the role of business cards for a while. In all of my looking, I never really found something that worked for me. As a student, there’s the whole question of what to put on a business card. Without an affiliation, the cards would look rather bland and empty, unless a really big font got used. They also weren’t really very good for the semi-professional, semi-social interactions that students often have.

I’m hoping that the minicards, with a size and shape that says “I’m not really a business card,” fit this bill. I ordered my free pack of ten earlier this week, so we’ll see. The interface for designing and ordering your cards, by the by, is a pleasure, though it will likely leave some wanting more options.


My goal with this blog is to reflect a bit on topics reasonably close to my academic study (when I stay on topic, which won’t always be the case). This is somewhat new for me; in my past blogging experience, I tended to reflect on the world outside of the areas in which I was most engaged. From time to time, I might also try posting assignments here.

We’ll see how this goes.

ps: There are problems with the theme. Those, like the lack of a title, will be remedied in time.