CUNY IT Conference, debrief

My presentation yesterday at the CUNY IT Conference went fine; surprisingly I was not particularly nervous, which was unusual for me, and very welcome. The CUNY IT Conference is a bit unique, because while it is decidedly aimed at technical people, the talks are usually not particularly technical. But I just went for it and explained a bunch of production code in my slides. I wasn’t sure how this would go over, but based on people’s reactions, my guess is that about half of the audience followed the coding parts, which is pretty good, I guess!

I did have one non-coder tell me afterward that although he didn’t understand much of the technical part, the presentation still made sense. This was reassuring, because I obviously did not want to lose anyone in the details; I just wanted to talk about how things work. If the message of the talk was communicated in spite of the technical hurdles, I am happy.

Afterward, I had a nice long talk over coffee with a fellow librarian, about all kinds of technical and CUNY-related things, which was very nice.

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CUNY IT Conference

On Friday, I’ll be presenting at the CUNY IT Conference on our library’s efforts to apply some features of Vue.js to our library webpage. It’s a one-hour session, which is really a lot of Vue (maybe too much?) for one sitting, but I’ll do my best.

It’s interesting that there’s a lot to say about this topic, especially because this presentation is really centered around Vue’s v-for directive, which is not a super complicated bit of functionality. But such is the nature of modern JavaScript frameworks that you can spend most of an hour talking about what is essentially a for loop.

I’m building in a lot of time for questions and comments, because I’m really super interested in what people think of this project. It has been mostly in my head (and in the code) these past few months, so I’m really looking forward to hearing from others.

If you’re at the conference, I hope that we get a chance to say hi!

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A strange month for Mastodon

Last night, I tried to start a post about the current state of Mastodon, but I couldn’t really formulate anything that wasn’t overly emotive. I tapped out a few words, looked at the screen for about an hour, and then gave up and went to bed. Others have done much better than I could: Hugh Rundle has captured his (very resonating) feelings much better than I could in his own blog post. That post went viral (by Mastodon standards). I hope that the emotional labor that Hugh put into that post resonated with some of the new Mastodonoians.

Mastodon is in a strange place right now. The people who are running the infrastructure have mostly been on the fediverse for a long time. Yet most of the users on a lot of the servers are very new. This seems like a recipe for conflict. Some of us admins have deliberately kept our servers small and invite-only to manage the dissonance. Honestly, I feel that may be the only plausible coping mechanism in the short term. The longer term is going to require a lot of flexibility from everyone involved. Making new ties as well as maintaining old ones are both necessary for the future of the network. Let’s see how this goes.

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Break everything day

Since our library has had LibGuides, there has been a long-simmering desire among the librarians to standardize the layout of our guides. In fact, a few years ago we attempted to do this by building a standardized template that the librarians were encouraged to use. But this voluntary standardization did not work at all. The librarians continued to use whatever guide template they wanted to. It was a big flop.

Now, we’re going to try again, but this time the standard template will be non-optional. I expect this to be effective, in a somewhat brutal way. If we insist on one style, existing guides will be shoehorned into that style. This will not be seamless, because some things will invariably break in the new layout.

What I’ve proposed to the librarians is that we have a “break everything day”. We’ll switch all of the guides over to the new layout all at once, and then collectively fix everything that we broke. Of course, I’m going to try to minimize the surprises: I’ll do a test run in advance, to see exactly what we’ll be dealing with. We can identify what guides will be most affected, so that we can better plan our response.

We’re planning to have our “break everything day” this winter. As a bonus, it’s a great opportunity for me to clean up some legacy CSS. If we’re breaking the guides anyway, deleting some old CSS won’t be a big deal; it will all get fixed at the same time, in one big group effort. Win-win.

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Avec le temps

Dramatic news about Twitter, like we’ve seen in the past week, always drives a big influx of people to Mastodon. Mastodon, part of a larger decentralized federation of communities called the fediverse, is my social medium of choice. On a superficial level, Mastodon is very Twitter-like. The culture though, is very different. New arrivals to Mastodon are of course very welcome. I hope some of them stick around, so that they can help Mastodon thrive.

But things inevitably change too. The characteristics of Mastodon that I find so appealing today will probably eventually fade, either slowly or quickly. It is unavoidable that almost any community will evolve and change. What is a mistake is to assume that because a forum is good today that it will always be good, or that it is good for everyone. You could call this misplaced optimism “the communalist mistake”. For example, at one time (2008) I was really positive about Twitter too, although that enthusiasm has long since vanished. While I’m super excited about Mastodon now, I know enough to know that it’s not forever. In my experience, communities, especially online ones, never are. The hard lesson learned is not to over-invest yourself.

For now though, the sun is shining, and Mastodon is a great place to be. Let me know if you want an invite.

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Debian on a Chromebook

I recently (and very unexpectedly) bought a Lenovo Chromebook. The reason was that my Dell XPS laptop fell apart rather spectacularly and I was without a computer. The Chromebook is a cheapish stop-gap until I can afford to buy another “real” laptop. To be clear, I wasn’t too excited about the prospect of using a Chromebook. My preconception was that it would be too locked-down and limiting by design.

But as it turned out, I was pleasantly surprised. It can run Debian! Moreover, I didn’t need to pave over ChromeOS or resort to any particularly hacky solution; the Chromebook came with the built-in capacity to run Debian. I’m a bit hazy on this, because ChromeOS explains itself very poorly, but it is definitely Linux running on some kind of container or virtual machine. Very useful!

For now, it’s just a terminal (no GUI), but that’s really sufficient for me. I can run git and vim, and do bashy stuff. I am mostly placated and, for the most part, can keep up my usual workflows. It’s a better outcome than I expected!

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Smashing

Last week I attended Smashing Conference, which is apparently a conference of somewhat long standing in the field of front-end development, or so I am told. I opted for the online version, rather than in person, because it was cheaper, and because I was out of town on the conference days.

So I logged in from my hotel room and watched two days of talks. The ones I enjoyed the most were those that were more focused on code. For example, I learned a whole lot about new features of CSS from the first talk of the conference. But some of the talks featured no code whatsoever! To be fair, all of the talks were good; I just liked the detail-oriented ones more.

Lastly, there was a DJ, which seems a bit excessive when it’s 9am, when you are more inclined to focus on your morning tea. But the vibe they were going for was a bit festive and enthusiastic, and I am not so grumpy that I am going to fault them for that :)

The upshot is that I took away some actionable improvements for the Kingsborough Library webpage. I would consider attending this conference again.

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In which we puzzle over what is a “framework”

As I move more of our website’s code to the idiom of Vue.js, I wonder how to best explain this to my colleagues. Vue is commonly referred to as a “framework”, but this is not super enlightening to a non-programmer. It can be a bit hard to explain what Vue does, because it deals in abstractions (in the computer science sense) that we generally don’t have a point of reference for unless we are already up to our eyeballs in the code.

I think that it is helpful to frame Vue as a way to organize the code and provide structure. And while that is true, it is only part of the story. More broadly, Vue provides tools that help us build with JavaScript. That’s a bit vague, though, and I’m not sure if it’s a satisfying answer for our non-programmer friends.

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In which, undeterred, I try to figure out what to write next

One never-ending challenge for faculty is finding things to write about. The problem is especially acute for those on the tenure track, but it really applies to almost anyone in a faculty role. Moreover, coming up with the wrong idea can be a real setback. It’s possible to spend months working on a topic before realizing that it’s not viable. I’ve done this; it’s not a good outcome. Sometimes it’s best to cut your losses and move on.

One strategy I’ve tried is to reapply the same methodology in various iterations. It can be reassuring to take an approach you’ve used before and apply it to a new topic. In my experience, the problem with this approach is that it can lead to boredom. Boredom can quite easily doom a paper too.

Specializing in a specific tool is another strategy. For example, working with Python provided me with a bunch of ideas. They didn’t share a methodology, but they were all built with the same infrastructure. Being knowledgeable about infrastructure can be productive. The boredom may seep in eventually, but maybe a bit less quickly.

I honestly don’t know what the answer to this problem is, but I will determinedly try to figure out what to write next.

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From the archive

I recently dug up an old paper about indexing that I never published. It’s pretty brief, but I think the main argument still stands, so I’ve shared it on CUNY Academic Works.

Maybe of interest if you’re interested in indexing, or the politics of software. Here are the details:

Title: Automation, Abstraction and Building It Ourselves
Link: https://academicworks.cuny.edu/kb_pubs/219/
Abstract: This paper argues that indexers should work collaboratively to build software tools that support our profession. As technology automates the procedural aspects of our work, we need to respond by building tools that support the conceptual labor of indexing.

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