Evolving Suspicions

I’ve become intrigued by how we’ve managed to evolve the complexity of the human being, particularly after reading the following: “The inner ear is where the receptors for hearing (and balance) are contained. Specifically, the cochlea is a liquid filled (snail-like) spiral structure that internally widens in the middle such that different vibration frequencies will have heightened energy at different (specific) locations along the structure that cause the membranes to be displaced. Inside the cochlea, liquid filled tubes (scala) are separated by membranes, one of which (the basilar membrane) contains rows of hairs (the streocilia) that cause neural activity when the membrane is displaced nearby.”

I thought it would be interesting to do a rough calculation of how long it would take for us to get from our originating bacteria to where we are today based on my top-of-the-head estimates of the number of mutations required and how many entities were contributing to them.

W: Number of mutations required: 10 million – 610 million: average 310,000,000

X: Number of generations required for a successful mutation on top of a previously successful mutation: 10,000 – 210,000: average 110,000

Y: Number of entities/couples contributing to generations: 1 – 100,000,000: average 50,000,000

Z: Number of years between generations: 0.01 – 20: average 10

Using the averages:

For W mutations to occur, taking X generations for each one, would take 310,000,000 x 110,000 generations

If there were Y contributing entities/couples, this would take (310,000,000 x 110,000)/50,000,000 generations

If there were an average of Z number of years per generation, the overall process would take     [(310,000,000 x 110,000)/50,000,000)] x 10 years = 6,820,000 years

Despite this being a possible result (considering the earth is apparently 4.5 billion years old), it is clearly wrong since the earliest microbes found in rocks are estimated to be 3.7 billion years old. Anyway, I’m feeling distinctly uncomfortable about all the assumptions I’ve made in the above calculations – essentially every element is totally flawed and the whole calculation is worthless. In any case, I’m still left with the feeling that, to have evolved such a huge set of such very highly complex and interworking physical mechanisms, completely by chance, seems to be highly unlikely. So, I’m left with a lurking suspicion that somewhere in the originating DNA, or early equivalent, was a programme of instructions….

POSTSCRIPT: Quite by chance I watched part of “Attenborough: 60 years in the wild” on the BBC this morning – the day after I posted the above material. The programme is highly relevant and I recommend it.

Google Scholaring

The book on Collecting in the IT era, is coming on; we now have rough drafts for all the chapters. So, over the last couple of months I’ve been doing a literature survey – and discovered that things are a bit different from when I last did something like this about 40 years ago. If I remember rightly, I got the corporate library to interrogate some online databases for me, selected various items from the resulting printouts, and requested the papers and books that I wanted through the inter-library loan system.

These days it’s a little simpler: you do a search of Google Scholar which produces loads of hits presented as a series of abstracts. You click on the items you’re interested in, and, if you’re lucky, the paper will appear either in your PDF reader or in a web page. If the full version isn’t immediately available, a further search of the net may turn up a copy. Failing that, if you have institutional membership of a publisher’s archive, that may give you access; or else you may be able to pay a fee to get a copy. For books, and for papers which you cannot obtain by any of these options, then it’s back to the inter-library loan system (well that’s what it’s called here in the UK – I assume other countries have similar services). In this case, I found versions of all but 8 papers, on the net; and my co-author was able to obtain 7 of the remainder through his institutional memberships. Of the 22 books I needed, I already had 3, I bought 7 on eBay for less than £5 each (and free postage), and I ordered the remainder through inter-library loans via my local library in Bedford.

Now, I don’t know what percentage of the overall canon of human scientific works is included in Google Scholar’s database; but my initial searches gave me some confidence that it was enough to be very useful. For example, a search for the word ‘Collecting’ in the title, identified 80,900 results. I duly conducted a variety of searches and identified some 270 papers and books, of which about 130 proved useful enough to include in the literature survey. From those items, I identified about a further 15 or 20 papers and books to add to the list.

The process of actually reading and assessing the material, was, of course, hard work; but the mechanics of actually conducting the searches and getting the material was extremely quick and easy – much, much easier than I experienced 40 years ago. And, while Google Scholar may not include everything, it’s likely that any key material missing from Google Scholar will be referenced in the material initially identified. I haven’t spoken to anyone other than my co-author about Google Scholar, so this short overview cannot be considered in any way a thorough assessment. However, for what it’s worth, I think it’s been very effective for my purposes, and I’d certainly use it again.

Practice Hierarchy writings

About a year ago I reported that my colleague, Peter Tolmie, and I were working on a book about digitisation’s impact on collecting, based upon all the investigations and writings already described in this blog, as well as auto-ethnographic investigations of a variety of collections that Peter and myself have been associated with. The book will expand many of the notions put forward in the OFC tutorial, and therefore I shall continue to provide updates on our progress on the book, within this Order From Chaos journey.

Since my last report, we have moved on from the auto-ethnographic investigations and derived a draft Practice Hierarchy for collecting, which has eight upper levels – Initiating, Equipping, Acquiring, Depositing, Using, Revealing, Maintaining, and Disposing. We are now in the process of fully verifying, describing and illustrating all the elements. Having done that we plan to analyse and describe how digitisation has affected all these practices – though it may take us several months to get to that next stage.

Placing PAWDOC

Construction of the book on collecting that I’m writing with Peter Tolmie, is now well underway. However, this Personal Document Management section of the OFC website doesn’t seem an appropriate place to report on the development of such a wide-ranging text. Instead, I shall record details of our progress in the Order from Chaos section of this blog.

This journey on Personal Document Management has nearly run it’s 40 year+ course. I summarised my findings on that extended trial in some entries a few years ago; and there is only one remaining aspect that I am actively investigating – to find a permanent repository for the PAWDOC collection. Its going to be challenging: despite contacting several possible institutions over the last seven years, and publicising my goal in various forums, I’ve had no success so far. Just to be clear, this is what I’m offering:

  1. The PAWDOC digital collection of 31,000 documents dating mainly from 1972 to the present day, fully labelled, and documented in 17,300 index entries; and all of them in Windows folders under the control of an established Digital Preservation maintenance regime.
  2. Two archive boxes of some 330 PAWDOC items that were judged worthy of keeping in hardcopy form, and for which the reasons for keeping were recorded in a spreadsheet and described in the unpublished journal paper ‘IV in PIM: The applicability of Intrinsic Value in Personal Information Management’.

  3. A few other associated documents that could be included with the collection, such as a leather-bound volume of 63 reports of visits to UK, European and US organisations during the period 1979 -1982;  a bound copy of the organisational documents, proceedings of, and delegates to, the first European CSCW conference in 1989; a bound copy of reports on, proceedings of, and delegates to, the first US CSCW conference in 1986; a signed and bound copy of ‘The Network Nation’ by Hiltz & Turoff annotated with notes for the 1983 book ‘Introducing the Electronic Mailbox’; and copies of the books ‘Sorties into the IT Hurricane’ and ‘Meteor: a story of stamp collecting in the eye of the IT hurricane’.

Anyone interested should get in touch with me.

Taking Stock and Set to Go

In 2019, I started collaborating with Peter Tolmie with the aim of producing some overall results from my 40 years experience of personal electronic filing. It wasn’t long before Peter observed that my PAWDOC filing collection was just another manifestation of my inclination to keep things; and he suggested I keep a log of my keeping activities. I realised then that whatever we produced would be about more than my PAWDOC activities, and that I might as well write up my latest thoughts on PAWDOC there and then in this blog. Peter and I prefaced this summation with a post about the impact of digitisation over the last 40 years. Since then, Peter has gained further insights into my activities by investigating my attempts at understanding knowledge development; and by reading my write up of comments I made when being reunited with certain documents after many years.

We both now feel it is time to get on and do what it takes to produce some outputs. Namely, a book on the subject of digitisation’s impact on personal curation of any assemblage of materials where the assemblage is premised upon not only current but potential future use. This will be based upon all the investigations and writings already described, as well as auto-ethnographic investigations of a variety of collections that Peter and myself have been associated with. The questions to be asked range from the Use, Curation and Searching of the collections, to the Security, Preservation and Loss of the contents; all considered from both pre and post digitisation perspectives. We now have the provisional list of collections listed down the left-hand side of a spreadsheet and the questions along the top, so we’re pretty much set to go.

Armchair living

I spend a lot of time doing things in my study – which is not a very sociable thing to do when your partner spends a lot of time in the lounge, particularly during lockdown times when we weren’t getting out much. I’ve often thought I could have been doing some of the things in the lounge – but it lacked a suitable work surface. Putting a desk in the lounge wouldn’t be acceptable; what’s needed is a work surface that can be concealed until you need it, and in a position preferably where you can watch the TV just like your partner. Clearly the answer is to build a folding desk into the back of a lounge suite armchair that you can either stand at (addressing the problem of too much sitting) or sit on a folding stool also incorporated into the back of the armchair. Maybe there’d also be space for a bit of stationery and paper storage.

Comments on reunions with old documents

My colleague, Clive Holtham, was instrumental in putting me in touch with suppliers who loaned me a scanner and document management software around 1995, to enable me to progress my mission to understand how personal electronic filing would work in practice.  Some six years later, in February 2001, Clive and I met up for dinner and a catch up on what we’d both been doing. I explained that as well as scanning new hardcopy as I acquired it, I was also trying to scan all the legacy documents I had acquired since 1981, when I started this electronic filing adventure. Clive pointed out that it would be interesting to see what I thought of each document in retrospect, as I carried out the scanning process. After all, the point of indexing and filing the documents, was based on the assumption that some of them would have some value downstream. Here was an opportunity to get an insight into what their downstream value might be.

I took Clive’s suggestion on board towards the end of 2001; but, to minimise the effort required, I decided I would only comment on those documents which prompted some particular thoughts. The comments would be recorded at the end of the Title field in my filing index; and they would be identifiable by being placed within a special set of characters in the following format: <<! Date: Comment Text here !>>. To make it easier, I created a script in my Indexing software to automatically place the delimiter characters with current date at the end of the title field, and assigned it the keyboard shortcut CTR-8. This seemed to work in practice, and I got into the habit of making my comments in real time as they occurred to me. After a while, I started to use the facility to record other information, such as a document being duplicated in another Index entry, or problems I had had with scanning a document. Now, in 2021, 20 years after starting to record these comments, I find that 584 records within my filing index possess such comments; and 20 of those have two comments.

This is an analysis of what those comments say. They have been placed into one or more of 5 categories:

  • Comments on the impact of the material (7% of the 584 records with comments)
  • Comments on the contents of the material (32%)
  • Comments which prompted questions and thoughts (23%)
  • Comments about memories forgotten and/or remembered (17%)
  • Comments about filing, indexing and scanning activities (46%)

The full list of comments and the categories to which they have been allocated is provided in this link. The comments have been further allocated into sub-categories  which are used in the discussion below. However, the following two salient points need to be born in mind when considering the results of this investigation:

Scale: Although 584 records with comments may sound a large number, in fact comments have only been made on a small subset of the contents of the filing system: 584 is only about 3% of the 17,350 records in the index. This could indicate that the sample size is too small to be generalised; though, I believe it is more likely to indicate that relatively few documents merited a comment. Unfortunately, there is no data to investigate which of these two possibilities is the case – the decisions to include comments were made in an arbitrary manner over many years.

Lag: The time between a document being included in the filing system and when a comment was made about it, has almost certainly affected many of the comments. Presumably, the more time that passes, the less likely the contents of a document are to be remembered, and this may make them more remarkable when they are encountered again. The actual lags that occurred have been calculated as a number of years by the difference between the Creation Date field in the Index, and the date recorded at the beginning of each comment. This shows that over 93% of the comments were made more than 10 years after the documents were included in the filing system; and over 50% had comments with a lag of over 20 years. Only 12 items had comments with a lag of less than 5 years.

Comments on the impact of the material (43)

These comments include remarks about documents which have influenced my thinking (8). For example, “This is a most important paper because it alerted me to the key insight that to get the most out of an OA investment the organisation must change the way it does business”. A further 9 comments relate to documents which were more generally important to my work, for example, “This was an important edition of EDP analyser and highly relevant to NCC’s OA team of which I was a part”. Finally, 26 comments were made about documents that are special in a variety of other ways, for example, “This is a great example of how to do brainstorming”, and “This is an interesting document to have from the early days of the net”.

Comments on the contents of the material (188)

Just over a third of this category is concerned with comments about a document I wrote or activity I was involved with. This is hardly unexpected given my intimate relationship with the events. For example, “Have just read the suggestions I made to Esprit about its CSCW program. I wonder if they made any kind of difference”; and “This was my one not very successful claim to broadcast fame – and I’m not even sure it got broadcast”. A quarter of the comments just remark on ‘interesting content’, for example, “This is a fascinating article because it represents a twilight period in the change from old style typists to individuals doing the typing all themselves”; and “This was worth another read – definitely food for thought…”. The remainder include comments in a range of other sub-categories – listed below together with an example for each one.

  • Comments on technology developments (16) – “Seems very advanced for 1978”
  • Assessments of predictions (8) – “The prediction of a day in the life of the CEO in 2013 didn’t get it quite right”
  • Comments on the author or other people (8) – “I’ve been thinking about getting in touch with X again”
  • Comments on photos in documents (7) – “While scanning this I discovered that it contains a photo of X”
  • Content which I thought I might find useful (26) – “This document is highly relevant to the assignment I am about to start”
  • Comments which provide a critique of content (5) – “I think this process missed out the key element of Improvement by Learning by Doing”.

Comments which prompted questions and thoughts (135)

The majority of these comments – some 60% – were general reflections and musings prompted by the documents concerned. For example, “I think it demonstrates that prior to the internet and the web there was a different way of thinking about information: in those days having the information meant having the actual item, whereas today, in the internet/web/mobile era, having the information is all about having a device and knowing where to look”; and “It would be interesting – amazing – to re-run this event with the same people”. The other six sub-categories are all specific questions:

  • Is this still around/available/the case today? (10 comments – for example “I don’t hear the term ‘Groupware’ much these days – I wonder if it has fallen out of use”
  • What’s a person doing today? (15 – “I wonder If X is doing anything related to this now – havn’t seen him for about 20 years”)
  • Is this still relevant today? (12 – “This might be interesting to read to see if 25-year-old advice about dealing with Info overload still applies”)
  • How does this look in retrospect? (4 – “There was a big fuss about X’s thinking on this – would be interesting to see how it all looks in retrospect”.
  • What was the impact of this? (5 – “This work on Teletel was ground breaking and was subsequently successful. How it affected the French use and take-up of the web I don’t know”)
  • How did these predictions fare? (6 – “The Booze-Allen Hamilton report was very influential. It would be interesting to see how its predictions fared”)

Memories forgotten and/or remembered (100)

70% of these comments are about things I’d forgotten either partially or wholly; and 30% about things I remembered about associated aspects, or about people. Examples of each are provided below:

  • Forgetting something about a document or a related activity (28 comments), for example, “I’d forgotten these details and didn’t know I had these notes”
  • Forgetting about the document or activity all-together (41): “Can’t remember giving this talk”
  • Remembering associated aspects or it prompted memories (19); “This was a pioneering machine – we really liked the Snake game, and the early type of remote access mail through the phone lines was relatively quite advanced”.
  • Remembering the author/other person (12); “That’s a name I haven’t thought about for years! – think I met him”

Filing, indexing and scanning activities (266)

Over a third of all these comments concern filing practicalities – not an aspect which was envisaged when I established this comment facility. Recording information about the operation of a filing system is definitely an overhead, so there is a natural tendency to minimise the effort spent on it. Consequently, the fact that it was quick and simple to create comments in a form which was tightly coupled with individual documents and their index entries, made this facility an obvious choice for quickly documenting issues or important observations. The 22 separate sub-categories of comment listed below together with an example for each one, illustrate the extensive range of topics that were encountered as the PAWDOC collection grew and aged (note that over 93% of these comments were made at least 10 years after the document concerned had been included in the collection).

  • Practicalities of using PAWDOC (5) “Must force myself to search for stuff even if I don’t think it’s in this index!”
  • Deciding what to include/remove (5) “Artefact removed for inclusion in PAW personal collection”
  • Notes about where items originated (6) “The Quick Reference Card was included in Nov2018 when I found it inside the WGEM starter pack”
  • Notes about what version is filed (8) “This Aug86 version must have replaced an earlier version in my collection”
  • Notes about artefacts (6) “Specified this as an artefact at this late date because it’s the first issue I have in this new format”
  • Notes about cross-references in the collection (7) “See also PAW/DOC/0110/145”
  • Notes about duplicates in the collection (87) “Some of these documents are duplicated in PAW/DOC/7971/01”
  • Notes about Archiving (6) “This was in an archive box but archive status had not been specified in the Movement field”
  • Comments on Reference Number (16) “This document has the number PAW/DOC/0005/03 at the top – but that number is for something else”
  • Comments on Title field (9) “Inserted the info about the abstract when I was scanning because there was no reference to it in the title”
  • Comments on Creation date (12) “Don’t understand how the date on this paper is 1986 but the record was created in 1984”
  • Comments on Publication date (3) “2019 properties of the word doc say this was modified on 31May1985 so this was probably the publication date”
  • Comments on Movement field (10) “Don’t know why this says it was scanned and paper destroyed in 2004 – in Feb 2006 there was a full envelope of material in the box”
  • Losing/deleting index information (4) “I deleted the title text of this accidentally when scanning so this is a replacement title text”
  • Lost or misplaced documents (17) “Found the electronic version of this filed in FISH under PAW/DOC/4052/01”
  • Relationship with Personal files (8) “I found these PAW/DOC papers in one of my personal home files”
  • Notes about physical characteristics of items (17) “This printout had almost completely faded so it was a challenge to see if the scanner would bring the text to light – and it didn’t do a bad job!”
  • Notes about disks in the collection (6) “This included a disk containing a DOS version of the ITSforGKProposal”
  • Management of the FISH DMS (8) “This seemed very necessary at the time when disk space was short – and very complicated. Now in 2006 with 40Gb on my PC it doesn’t seem to be an imperative at all”
  • File formats & Digital Preservation (7) “No longer able to read the floppy disk when it came to take this material out of archive to scan it in 2006”
  • Notes about loading electronic files to FISH (17) “The Word version doesn’t have the appendices so I PDF’d the Word version and then scanned the appendix pages from the hardcopy. Unfortunately, the pagination of the Word document is slightly different from that of the hardcopy – but the words are all the same”
  • Notes about Scans and Scanning (49) “These pages were too thick to go through the duplex scanning process so I had to do one side first and then the other side”.

Conclusions

No great revelations have emerged from this investigation. However, it’s clear that reviewing old material in this way provides an opportunity to reflect, and perhaps to rediscover potentially useful material. These are luxuries that are hard to come by amidst the pace of modern life. Whether such activities actually provide any tangible benefits is hard to say: I can’t remember if any of the rediscovered documents made a difference in my subsequent assignments; and the benefits of reflection are difficult to pin down at the best of times (though I personally feel it is always worthwhile).

The one practical finding that has emerged from this exercise is that there are significant advantages in being able to quickly and easily annotate a filing index with any relevant additional information, be that extra detail about content, or factual information about the way that content has been filed. The former augments the information provided by the filing system, and the latter assists in its smooth operation. In fact, the latter is more than a mere nicety. My experience has shown that, as this type of personal filing system grows and ages, the number of imperfections it possesses increases substantially. The long list above of sub-categories of ‘Filing, indexing and scanning activities‘, and their associated examples, provides an indication of the range of issues that can arise. Having the ability to quickly note details of those issues in a place where they are likely to be immediately visible to the user, is of great benefit.

Rethinking the Table Present

It’s been a tradition in our family to have table presents at the Christmas lunch, but this year we didn’t; it had all become a bit difficult and expensive, and, in this year of pandemic lockdowns, there were only three of us at the table. However, it’s quite a nice thing to do, so I got to thinking there might be an easier and cheaper way. Maybe the present could just contain a piece of paper describing something you think the person concerned might like but didn’t know about. For example, a holiday destination, or a hotel, or a book, or a hobby, or a restaurant, or a walking trail, or a type of pet, or a band, or a piece of clothing, or a voluntary job with a particular charity…. or almost anything really that you think the person might enjoy. Might also work for New Year meals as well.

Getting a dry grip

During a wet round of golf last Wednesday, I was reminded again of the problems of slippery wet golf club grips. In a previous wet round, I’d tried putting the club handle up inside the front of my waterproof jacket: it kept the handle dry but was fiddly. Last Wednesday, however, I tried putting the handle underneath my arm on the outside of my waterproof jacket which I found much easier, and just as effective at keeping the rain off the grip. Now, if waterproof jacket manufacturers could put some towelling or other drying device on the underside of one of the arms, which would dry already wet handles, I think we might have a solution to the problem.

Time for Structure Substitution

The TED talk I’ve just listened to by Yaël Eisenstat (Dear Facebook, this is how you’re breaking democracy, Aug2020), is important because it explains how Facebook’s business model is dependent on creating constant interest and emotion in its users. This ultimately leads to the system essentially promoting extremism. As I was listening, it occurred to me that it is Facebook’s structures (the extra functionality provided around a simple messaging system – such as adding a ‘like’ button) that dictates this result. A Social Media system with a different set of structures could avoid such harmful effects. Perhaps it’s time for competitors, or an Open Source operation, to create a messaging system with structures that promote a society with people who listen to each other and work together; and to draw users away from Facebook. In the meantime, the more people who listen to Ms. Eisenstat’s talk the better.