Saturday, November 21, 2009

More on patterns in swarms

Shortly after my last post I wound up chatting with my good buddy Nick about swarm behavior. Radiolab did a fun ep on swarm intelligence their last season, totally worth checking out if you're interested in more info (or if you're more of an aural learner).

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What Do Art, Open Source, and OTB have in common?

Last night the Arts, Culture and Technology Meetup group did a fabulous panel discussion on Creative Commons and the Arts. CC has always been a fascinating idea so I was particularly keen on catching this one.

I wasn't disappointed. The event opened with a brief presentation by Michael Sarff of MTAA citing some examples of pieces they chose to CC license and those they didn't. He made the point that art is valuable because of its rarity, comparing a Warhol to a photo of a Warhol. Although I appreciated the point, I personally thought this was a bad example of it because Warhols aren't particularly scarce. The high sale price of a Warhol might be a better example of artist self-branding in a way that creates demand for the brand rather than the prestige of the object itself.

But when you create digital art, the valuable bit isn't the object, it's the idea. Sounds a bit open-sourcey, methinks. And this is where things get interesting from an information science standpoint.

The important thing here is the idea, the data, the abstract thing that really doesn't exist apart from the representative symbols that we choose for them. I use letters for my symbols, hackers use code, the gentlemen of MTAA use images and video and a whole host of symbols to present their ideas. But the cool thing that CC lets all manner of creative types do is open source their ideas. Just like Google is pushing a model wherein data and not physical software is the commodity, CC – if used right – can encourage people to have control over their intellectual assets while allowing them to potentially gain value with contributions made by others.

One of the philosophies behind open source is the idea that having a host of people contributing to a project's development can improve the efficiency of the end product. (Bet you didn't expect to see "efficiency" and "art" in the same blog post.) There's a theory of how multiple independent entities operating in apparent chaos can still create an optimal solution: swarm intelligence. One of my favorite examples cited by the National Geographic article on the subject is off track betting. When a large number of people are putting in bets, the odds still generally seem to fall along the probable lines of the race's outcome. While art isn't (usually) striving for optimal anything, the principles of swarm theory can still apply here. Rather than seeking efficiency, other cool things can happen like Public Enemy.

But the important and exciting thing about CC is that it allows the idea's originator, or the benevolent dictator to use the open source term, to determine how involved they want the swarm to be. It's all about flexibility, and that's one of the things open source does best.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Meet Amanda

Hi there. If you had asked me six years ago what the most likely topic would be for today's incarnation of blog, technology would be the last thing I would have told you. In retrospect it shouldn't really, considering my first exposure to web development was screwing around with the layouts on my earliest blogs from circa 1999.

Through a series of confluent events pushing me in that direction (as well as taking an unusual opportunity when I saw it) I’ve wound up on a vastly different career path than that which I had originally set out on, an art historian and freelance curator. I now work in quality assurance for an art-related website analyzing risks, creating test plans and cases and making sure they get implemented.

Speaking as someone who has been told for years that “girls aren’t good at math” and “it’s too bad you’re not strong in math,” it’s doubly fulfilling to find a job so empirical in nature, and do well in it. While it's initially scary to depart familiar professional territory, at the end of the day I’m finding it infinitely more fulfilling to learn new things, especially things I've had a layperson’s interest in since time out of mind, than to continue in a field which required the same kind of thinking that I’d been doing since the beginning of college.

As an aspiring curator and art historian/critic, I was constantly thinking about content and context in the larger cultural gestalt. I learned to think in the realm of the abstract while communicating those ideas with reference to specific works of art and writings. I learned to work with, and learned to love working with, words and language.

As a QA analyst with tech support and testing experience, I’ve honed my ability to think systematically and empirically. I pride myself on naturally analyzing the elements of a given system to isolate possible causes and consequences of the interactions of those elements. Though my applied experience has been primarily from an end user, black box oriented approach, I’m continually taking joy in discovering new tools and new ways of testing and determining potential problem areas in a given system that I’m responsible for QAing. A couple of mathematically inclined friends of mine have said before (independent of each other) that, in a nutshell, the joy of math is the joy of the “click,” the excitement of figuring it out. This precise quality is what continually draws me into my work.

But there are other “clicks” associated with my new field. The “click” that yes, skill sets not traditionally associated with IT can be very useful to application in a web development environment, like good writing and verbal communication. And perhaps that because of those qualities I might offer even more value as a QA analyst. I don’t think like a coder, I think like a customer. And perhaps best of all, I excel at verbally communicating technical ideas in easily human-readable English (and on occasion, French)- rare qualities in the IT world.

All of which keeps bringing to mind Dee Dee Myers’ Why Women Should Rule the World. I suspect the title was chosen more by a focus group than her personally, because her premise is not that gender privilege should not be reversed or that men and women are the same, but rather that the working world has much to gain by utilizing the different set of inherent skills and thought processes that women offer with the purpose of diversifying their resources. It’s much the same line of thinking that landed me in IT. I’m sure this isn’t close to coincidental in light of the relatively low ratio of women to men in IT.

IT does need more women. We are, if Louanne Brizendine and others are to be believed, better communicators and more empathetic ones. I’ve found this quality to be particularly helpful in QA. Considering it’s my job to find people’s mistakes and make sure they are aware of them, empathy and delicate yet honest communication is an asset. (Perhaps this explains why 2/3 of my QA team is comprised of women?)

Which leads to another interesting question: what roles in IT are male dominated, in an already male dominated field? Why is this? Are the roles themselves gendered or is there something more closely related to the enculturation of men versus women that subtly impel us towards those roles? For that matter, and this is a question that many have asked and could still remain unanswered satisfactorily after many volumes have been written on it, but why are there so few women in IT anyway?

I have my own experiences and thoughts on the matter, and unsurprisingly, I’m keen on researching it. And of course, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on the subject. So stay tuned for my notes on women making it in IT in the greatest city in the world. And of course my comments and observances on such topics as web development; QA methodologies, practices and tools; database technology; open source and intellectual property issues; and the ultimate point of it all- human communication.