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Wednesday, August 30

It's all about narrative.

That's my current bee-in-bonnet. It's my theory hammer by which I am busy finding evidence-nails. And when you have a good (or at least attractive) theory-hammer, everything starts to like like evidence-nails.

That would be a great band name. Attractive Theory-Hammer. You heard of it here first. (Almost as good as Grand Moff Tarkin--but not quite.)

Anyway, narrative.* If human beings have various kinds of aesthetic registers--big categories of things that make us happy or interested beyond survival and reproduction--narrative has to be one of the most important. At least, it's the one I get along with the best, so I get to think it's the most important. I mean narrative here in the general sense of any construction that tells a story (or can be interpreted as telling a story), not just text or spoken word. If you look at it with just the right squint almost any set of human behaviour or interaction can look like narrative (see: almost all of anthropology). This is not new thought, but I've been mulling it over for a while now in reference to a couple of not particularly related things, namely:

  1. Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Samuel Delany's critique of Understanding Comics.**
  2. Why blogger is so popular and/or useful--and why blogs themsleves are worthwhile as a genre.
  3. Why I'm such a sucker for online journals.
  4. Why I'm such a sucker for mailing lists--and why I'm not for web-based disucussion forums (usually).
. . . and then I read ahead a chapter in The Social Life of Information and a few things fell into place.

The authors summarized the findings of an anthrological study done at Xerox Parc concerning (wait for it) Xerox technical service representatives (i.e. copier servicepeople) in the field. There were a couple of conclusions drawn (mostly having to do with the disconnect between how the Powers That Be thought the reps were doing their jobs and how they actually were doing their jobs), but the one that stood out was how much information the reps shared through casual and informal socializing. These allowed them to pool their resources as they discovered new tricks of the trade--and the main form their discussions took were war stories of the kind that anyone who's worked in the support trenches will be familiar with.

Brown and Duguid point out a few uses of this kind of narration--not only does it serve to disseminate useful specific information (like how to handle a particular problem)-- it also: helps the group evolve larger theories about the systems they're working with. Also,

In their storytelling, the reps developed a common framework that allowed them to interpret the information they recieved in a common light. To collaborate around shared information you first have to develop a shared framework for interpretation
Brown and Duguid also highlight two more uses of storytelling in this context: first, that it helps acclimatize and educate new reps, and second, that the act of storytelling helps the storyteller clarify their own thoughts on something.

(Kind of like I'm trying to do here--so if you're actually reading this, please bear with me.)

Now the above list comes together a little bit in my head. Scott McCloud was busy explaining (in UC) that comics (i.e. his definition of words and pictures arranged in deliberate order) tell stories very well and have for ages, as well as explaining how they have done so. In RC he went on to explain some new and different ways they might do so in the future--emphasizing that the web has a lot of potential for this.

Meanwhile blogger (recently) has been making ever more easy the individual task of creating and expressing a narrative on the web of all kinds--and not just the obviously personal narratives. Blogger would be great for publishing serial fiction. Blogger is used for relating the day to day work of various companies, both for the edification of the outside and (more often) for the use of those inside the company (its original purpose, I gather). Even the ever-present link-centric blogs are narratives of a kind (do I hear the sound of a theory-hammer?), at least when done well: a good link blog usually either concentrates on a single topic (and so forms a narrative of the evolution of a field of interest) or reflects an individuals idiosyncratic interests (forming a more personal narrative, albeit less obviously than a straight-up journal). To quote myself (because I'm like that): "For me, I'm finding that while most of my entries are pop culture links and such, writing about myself sort of leaks out around the edges. And I like it that way."

Now, blogger has been enabling these kinds of narrative for a little while now, and I really think that the ease that it brings to the task is the main reason for its popularity. Online journals and webcams of the dramatic variety (Jennicam) have also had their days in the sun. Other forms of narrative are based on group dynamics: mailing lists and discussion boards. My experience has been that mailing lists as a medium have been much more successful in generating the elusive 'sense of community' than web-based discussion forums. I have some hunches as to why that might be the case--and one is that e-mail conveys a sense of narrative more effectively than most web-based forums and (as you might have guessed by now) I think narrative is kind of important in generative that sense of community.

So: Narrative->community, Narrative-->working more effectively, Narrative-->aesthetic pleasure, Narrative-->history (haven't even touched that yet--but just think: archives!), Narrative-->all that and a bag of chips. What of it?

Well, I'm in this program to (among other things) learn about information architecture, interface design, human-computer interaction, and a whole bunch of similar areas. And I think that narrative will be a dandy way to think about these areas--not in a "does my design tell a story" kind of way (maybe that too) but in a "does the system I'm designing help or hinder people's ability to construct a narrative, either on their own, or in a group?" kind of way.

That's all for now. G'night. I'll stare at this again in the morning, and see if it makes any sense in the cold, harsh daylight.

*Yeah, I haven't defined how I'm using the word narrative. I'm mulling. I'll get back to you.

**My thinking about narrative is strongly influenced by Delany at this point (hush, you, not everything in my life is influenced by Delany, really . . .), and in particular his critique of McCloud's work. I should probably go on about that at length at some point . . . not to mention his critique of Harraway's Cyborg Manifesto . . . but then that's starting to sound like work, and a whole different kettle of fish.

 (9:29 PM | #)

I went to my first day of classes yesterday. Woo! I am taking (all required standard classes):
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Found a new comic zine. It's angry, and kinda good. Weirdly, I found it by going to a store in Berkeley I don't usually frequent (i.e. not Comic Relief) and seeing the first issue near the door. They now seem to be on their 14th issue, so hey. It's called savant, and you should check it out.
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Monday, August 28

Bondie caddie.

I don't actually know who owns this car. But it's kind of fun to speculate, isn't it?

The first day of actual classes is tomorrow. Hoo-boy.

Belle is still hiding under beds. Any will do. She is willing to put up with being lured out for a trip to the spare room to eat and use the litter box--but then she shoots straight back under the bad. Oh well.

Slate is running a book club on comics. This weekend the Chronicle ran a nice FULL PAGE review of two other comic books. What is the world coming to? (Actually it's worse: I haven't read either the Clowes or the Katchor (aside from catching the occasional strip as it ran in one of the weeklies) from the Slate discussion, and while I think that Goodbye, Chunky Rice is just one of the best things ever, I haven't gotten around to buying Dear Julia. Oh well, next trip to the comic book store . . .)

 (6:32 PM | #)

Saturday, August 26

So even my dad has been nagging me to post again. So I suppose I'd better. What's been going on, in no particular order:
  1. I quit my job. (sort of)
  2. I started school. (sort of)
  3. I went on a real (short) vacation.
  4. Eva adopted a kitty.
  5. I've taken a lot of pictures of buildings.
  6. I have a new toy.
  7. My family's dog, Abby, died. :(
First the sort ofs. I have stopped working full-time at RHII. In about six weeks (which is about what time I had) I gave notice, advertised for my position, screened resumes, interviewed candidates, made a short-list for my manager, found a replacement, and trained her (mostly). I am now working about one day a week, with a bunch of hours spent coaching the new District Marketing Coordinator (actually, I think they may be making her a Marketing Manager, along with all the others--something they should have done for the position years ago, given its responsibilities) by phone and e-mail. Her name is France, and she rocks, and will undoubtedly be better at the job than I was once she gets up to speed. Not that I did badly, by any means--but I get to be smug as hell if she works out well. I think she's feeling overwhelmed by the amount of *stuff* that comes at you all the time in the position, and I keep telling her that a. it's normal, b. it *can* be handled in 40 hours a week barring real emergencies, and c. that she's doing much better than I was at this time last year. I don't think she believes me yet.

I can't believe I was a marketer for a whole year, by the way. I do think I was reasonably good at it, and it was a lot more interesting (not to mention demanding) than I expected, especially as I spent almost all my time working with more traditional marketing methods rather than online efforts. Managing a (very large) budget and being pretty much in control of the whole deal was probably a large part of what did make it satisfying. I still make fun of marketers now, I just mentally add: well, you know, those *other* marketers.

I also now know more about the temporary and permanent job placement industry than is probably healthy. It's fascinating. Scary, but fascinating. If you ask me, I'll be perfectly happy to bore you to tears with my observations.

But I am now a fully-fledged member of the 2002 Masters class at the Berkeley School of Information Management and Systems (SIMS for short). There's about 50 of us in the entering class, their largest class yet (it's a really new program), and I've met probably about twenty or so of them so far at the orientation events, along with a few professors, staff, and senior students. The sort of here is that I don't start classes until Tuesday.

I'll probably be babbling on at length about SIMS for most of the next few years , so I'll limit myself to saying that our building, South Hall, is the coolest Adams Family-looking thing in the world. Pictures soon.

Vacation was four days spent in Ft. Bragg and Mendocino. It was the first real vacation Eva and I have had (i.e. not for wedding or family reasons) since she moved out here two years ago. It was wonderful. We were much relaxed. Pictures (not many) soon.

The kitty's name is Belle, we adopted her from the SF SPCA (the poshest and coolest SPCA in the country) about three hours ago, and she's currently cowering in a corner in our spare room, waiting for the world to stop being scary. We figure she'll probably start venturing out tomorrow. She's leetle and skinny and has a crook in the end of her tail and when we saw her in her Kitty Condo she just walked right out and said hello to us. Which is why we took her home. Pictures, oddly, soon.

It's a picture of a face on a poster stuck to the back of a garage sign.I have taken about 250 pictures of buildings and assorted bits and pieces in my immediate (i.e. one block radius) neighborhood as the start of an on-going project of mine to document the state of the place in the middle of the really intense period of transformation we're going through right now. I'd like to do the same for about 30 or 40 other blocks in my broader neighborhood--but that will obviously take a while. Figuring out exactly how I want to present the thing will also take a while. In the meantime, this is one of my favorites so far. Pictures ongoing.

My new toy is a Palm m100. It's fun. It may actually turn out to be useful. I do not own any fancy-colored faceplates . . . . yet.

Abby lived a long and happy life, and will be much missed.

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