Hanging up the keyboard

So happy birthday to me; I’m 37 today. Gonna be a scorcher, apparently, though my age seems to have outstripped even today’s Celsius thermostat, which is frownworthy. I had vague thoughts of theatregoing, but in this heat even Shakespeare loses a certain amount of appeal.

Another gift for myself, then… I could do with a new carry-on, the one I trashpicked five years or so ago getting a bit long in the tooth. (Squeaky in the wheel, actually; I know what the problem is, but unfortunately it’s not one that a bit of oil will solve. I’ve hauled that thing on so many city streets and through so many airports that one axle has gone twisty and eaten away some of the rubberoid wheel-well, against which the wheel now squeaks piercingly when it’s a mind to.)

No, I woke up early this morning—rather painfully early, in fact—and knew what I wanted to give myself: this post, in which I hang up the keyboard on old CavLec for good. Not a spangly gift, or an easy one to wrap, but what price peace of mind?

This blog started because I needed a public space to inhabit, a space clearly and unequivocally mine. I expected it to be a small space—it was a big ol’ Internet even then—and for a long time it was, and I was fine with that. I never expected, wanted, or consciously worked for one of the big spaces. Too many strings, and far too much to be afraid of. Big spaces do not set free; they confine.

What the last year or so has taught me, and more shame to me for not realizing it sooner, is that CavLec has outgrown itself and me. It’s just too big, a second-grader pretending that her favorite play outfit isn’t skin-tight and out-at-elbows. I could, if I were a more graceful person, find it something new to wear… but grace is not and has never been a hallmark of mine. As it is, writing here has come to feel like getting my photograph taken, and we all know how I hate that.

(And that very dislike draws some people to get their cameras out when I’m around, you know what I’m saying?)

CavLec is, in various eyes: a bellwether, a pawn, the voice of the otherwise silent, a liability, a town crier, a bogeyman, a headache, a nine-days’-wonder, fodder for gossip and fodder for anger and fodder for fear. It wasn’t supposed to be any of that. (Well, maybe a voice.) It was supposed to be a blog. But I have to get my Stanley Fish on every once in a while and remind myself that I am not the only maker of the text here; that’s how text works, and sometimes there’s not much an author-function can do but steal a few moments in the critics’ throne to survey the landscape.

I’m not happy about this decision. I’m not unhappy about it. It is a gift to myself, much though I’ll miss the magic textbox.

It’s a good time to take off the rat-hat, too. For quite some time, I’ve been just about the only specimen of Rattus repositor to poke much more than a nose out of the wainscoting. Funny thing is, I shall shortly be a rat without a repository; in a decision I wholly endorse and in fact helped instigate (in my small way), the repository I run is going to be folded into the digital library on top of a new technology platform and a rethought service suite.

I’ve bemoaned the lack of a proper rat community for a while, and taken a few futile stabs at creating one. What I’ve had to confront is that perhaps CavLec and I are part of the problem. If you’re a rat in a threatened position, cats everywhere about, and there’s one damfool rat holding forth in plain sight on top of a coffee table, what are you going to do? Hunker down in the wainscoting, of course! Let that rat get et by cat.

Well, you know, I think CavLec and I have done our bit by you lot, you repository-rats, and I’ve got plenty of scars to prove it. So CavLec is going dark, and I am moving on from ratdom one way or another, and you? If ever there were a time for repository-rats to stop lurking behind the baseboards, this is it. Don’t wait on me; this here rat has finally come to its senses and is scarpering. Bell the cats yourselves. It’s time.

Traditionally this is the place where the author-function graciously thanks all the readers who have made the whole endeavor worthwhile. I think I’m ungraciously bucking tradition. If I love you, and there are a lot of people I’ve met through CavLec that I love, I hope I’ve told you other ways. If I’m grateful, I hope I’ve said so already. Here is the wrong place, and now is the wrong time. Too many cats and cameras.

What’s next? I don’t know. Some things are right out; I’m not going to go pseudonymous and pop up in another corner, for example, because I just don’t roll that way, never mind that my writing style and subject matter are distinctive enough that I’d be outed in no time flat. I’m not taking all my Internet toys and going home—as childish as I can be, I’m not that childish. I might start another blog, or even more than one, but if I do, it’ll be for a different reason than old CavLec, and have much narrower parameters.

Mostly, I think, what I’ll be doing is looking for a space that’s the right size, that I can inhabit comfortably. With luck, by 38 I’ll find it.

How I make slides

“Wow, those are great slides!” I do hear that with some frequency. I’m not sure, myself, that the visual vocabulary I’ve settled on is all that, because I have the visual sense of a drowned rat and the graphic-design training of a three-year-old, but… that just means that if I can make pretty slides, anybody can, right?

So here’s how I do it. How I currently do it, I should say; if you look at my SlideShare you can pretty clearly see my slide-design sense developing, and… it’s still developing.

I start with a flat black background. I used to do gradients, and even further back I used to do those template things, but even in Keynote, templates take up space and—well, to me they just clutter things for not very much return by way of visual impact. In fact, return decreases over time during the talk, because people have seen the template already and edit it out mentally as though it were a web ad-banner. (I do, anyway.) There is certainly value to a sense of unity and rhythm in talk visuals—but there are other ways to achieve that, which I’ll talk about in a bit.

The key advantage to a dark background with light text is that your slides will hold up better in a venue with too much light. Dark text on a light background will be attenuated into illegibility by excess ambient light; I’ve squinted too many times myself! Another advantage is that you can use opacity control on a background image to darken it up; that makes type work a lot better on it (though the Keynote “shadow” control is your friend, and sometimes I wish Keynote had an outliner as well).

So then I think about my talk title. I go for jokey (sometimes hokey, I admit) talk titles, but there’s method to my madness: they usually contain or at least imply a visual that I can build slides around. “Le IR, c’est mort” gave me the white Academy Engraved and the red Zapfino fonts. “Save the Cows” and “Even the Loons are Licensed” are obvious. I have one coming up (uh, should probably start working on it, in fact) on IRs called “Rebirth of the Phoenix,” which by some utter Internet miracle yielded me this image of amazing awesomeness.

Ah, yes. Images. Flickr Storm and Flickr’s own Creative Commons search, set to CC-BY only, yield wealth undreamable. There are even image-search engines out there that will match a specific color or color palette; their one drawback is that they don’t tend to be license-limitable. I’m changing my practice on crediting images; I’ve tended to put a credits slide at the end, but that makes slide reuse more difficult for others, so I’m starting to put the image URL right on the slide, somewhere I hope is inconspicuous. (Tip: if you always put it in the same place on the slide, it becomes “visual furniture” and the mind’s eye edits it out.)

I’ve done an image-themed slideshow at least once. Worked okay—it helps that at least one of those images is iconic.

What I do with images tends to be cut-and-dried and can probably be improved upon. I do image backgrounds, as many people do, though I think I’m more careful about font readability than most. I’ll deopacify a smaller image and tilt it a bit in the center of the slide. I’ll do an image centerpiece for images that are strong enough; “Save the Cows” has a lot of these (the pic on slide 28 still makes me laugh). I’ll make collages, though I go easy on this tactic because I don’t think I do it well. I’m still learning how and when to use Keynote’s picture frames and shape masks; the only advice I have is that pictures don’t need to be pointy-corner rectangular, and often don’t want to be.

Fonts. I am not really a typographer, despite having been a typesetter. I sling some of the lingo, and I have gut feelings about some fonts, but true font geeks awe me. Here are my plain-Jane rules of thumb about fonts:

  • Don’t use widely-reviled fonts. Comic Sans, Times New Roman (which is bad for other reasons), Arial, Papyrus, (yes, even) Helvetica. You never know when you’ll have a true font geek in the audience.
  • Don’t use program-default fonts; they’re overused. This means no more Gill Sans, Keynote users. I would avoid super-common Web fonts, too, but that’s me.
  • Sans-serif and humanist fonts are generally better than serif. Serif is okay for big text such as headers, but…
  • Pick a font with some weight, to help a bit more against the excess-ambient-light problem; this is especially important for serif (and monospace, if you have a use for it) fonts. It’s a good idea to use a font that has a built-in semi-bold face. I’ve been liking Diavlo lately, though it’s rather wide. Futura is nice, too—and it has a condensed variant that I really like for smaller-text bullets. Optima Bold works, but don’t even bother with the non-bold face; it’s too thin.
  • If you’re using more than three fonts in a single presentation, shame on you. I make an exception for “font-art” slides (see slide 2 of What’s Driving Open Access?), which is a technique I use when I have to throw a lot of jargon at people at once.

Fonts have personality. It’s fun to work with that, and it can also set a mood. I use Futura for teaching-heavy presentations because it has that elementary-school chalkboard feel to it. I ended up with Bank Gothic in “Save the Cows” just as a lark the first time, but when I revised and expanded that one, I thought the dialogue between strong, formal, admonitory Bank Gothic and lighter-hearted Bradley Hand ITC turned out rather well. “Font-art” jargon slides are a beast to put together because they practically demand a ton of animation work, but people seem to enjoy them despite my ham-handed layout approach.

Animation. Effective when used gracefully, distractingly bizarre when abused. For the body of any talk I give, I pick one or two animations and stick to them religiously; that helps give the slides that sense of visual unity I talked about. I intentionally keep these animations simple and unobtrusive (“dissolve” is my favorite). On top of that, I’ll use flashier animations for effect, tailoring the animation to what I’m trying to get across. Font-art slides are a favorite flashy-animation target, but I’ve sprinkled it over other things too.

One thing to remember is that at least in Keynote, you can de-opacify slide elements as an “animation.” This makes them recede into the background visually (at least on my black backgrounds). This is a great trick for slides that have a lot of elements on them, such as my talk-bubble slides (see slides 4-6 of “Le IR, c’est mort;” I did this on slide 11, too, but I cut out the intervening stages when I posted the deck, sorry).

If you’re going to get into animation, you need to learn how to do automatic transitions between slides and slide elements. Keynote users, this is the rushing-diamond tab in the Inspector, and always have “More build options” open. (Oi, Apple? The mystery-meat tab navigation in the Inspector is frustrating; please fix it. Acorn’s tab palettes have words.) If you don’t learn transitions, you’ll wear out your space bar in addition to making your presentation all herky-jerky. Word to the wise: even when you get good with transitions, review a slideshow before you give it—I have been known to overuse the space bar in presentations I haven’t given for a while, trying to space over something I have an automatic transition set for. Oops.

(The awesomest animation/transition I ever did was for UPEI’s Island Scholar opening: a slow crossfade between Alice holding the Red Queen and Alice holding the kitten. It was a beautiful, beautiful thing. Took some fiddling, but so very worth it.)

I am the first to admit that I have a bad, bad time with color and wish I used it more effectively. One thing that sometimes helps, especially if I’m theming a talk around a few images, is to grab a dominant color from those images. Another trick is to use a web color-palette generator. Once you have your colors, don’t be afraid to use color contrast for text emphasis; in my experience, that works better on a slide than bold or italic text in the same color. One thing I want to try (and may with the upcoming IR presentation) is holding everything in a presentation, including images, to a strictly limited color palette.

Visual unity. If you’re holding yourself to a few fonts, a few animations, and a few colors, you’ve already gone a lot of the way. For presentations shorter than half an hour, this may be all you need to do, honestly. For longer presentations, I tend to use transition slides, all in the same visual style, to move between talk sections while unifying the whole talk; “Le IR, c’est mort” did this moderately well, though in hindsight, I should have held that deck to a smaller visual vocabulary. Typically, a transition slide has very little text on it; it’s a title, after all.

Slides with very little text can be striking and beautiful, in fact. I think slide 19 of “Save the Cows” may be the best slide I’ve ever done. Six words, one image, made the entire audience wince and nod. Some people will tell you that this kind of slide is the only kind you should do, in fact. I disagree; I think repetition makes it gimmicky. Still, it’s a good tool for the arsenal.

I hereby admit that I still use bullet points; Tufte can draw-and-quarter me whenever he’s a mind. The longer the presentation and the more abstract the material, the more likely I am to. I do try to put visual interest on bullet-point slides some way or another, without drowning out the text, and I don’t think I’d ever do a presentation now that was all bullet-point slides. (Even “Even the Loons” wasn’t all bullet points, though it was pretty close!) Bullet points are particularly putrid for telling stories, which is something I like to do; I far prefer illustrative quotes or images for that, or even the timeline in “Le IR, c’est mort.”

How all of this comes together… well, I dunno, I just do it. I do a lot of slide duplicating-and-editing once I get rolling, which helps keep things visually consistent. I occasionally (and with regret) kill my darlings, when I make something beautiful that just doesn’t fit into the presentation. I rearrange slides a lot, until the narrative makes sense in my head.

So that’s what I know about making slides. Hope it helps somebody.

Opportunity in opprobrium

So the Bentham thing is getting a fair bit of airplay, and it raises a lot of questions in my head that I would like to see wiser heads than mine work through. Because I do see a time-sensitive opportunity in all this madness, I’ll venture forth with my half-formed thoughts.

Am I particularly surprised that there are skeevy publishers on the OA bandwagon? No, not particularly. It’s not like there aren’t any skeevy toll-access publishers (or, perhaps better said, publishers with skeevy practices, on both sides of the aisle). Not to mention that novelty business models tend to attract the skeevy for a while, precisely in hopes that people’s anti-skeeviness heuristics won’t have caught up to the newness. Besides, we knew Bentham was skeevy, just as we have been pretty darn sure Scientific Journals International was up to no good.

I am a little surprised that Dr. Parmanto seems genuinely not to have had any idea what was going on until it hit the news. A doctor of info-sci doesn’t know how scholarly knowledge production works? But then again… from Googling around, it looks to me that Dr. Parmanto is fairly new to the profession. As such, he’d be a logical target for a skeevy publisher: less-developed heuristics (to put it kindly) and a voracious need to prove himself professionally. An editorship is a pretty plum service gig. Taking a wild stab in the dark, I’ll adduce Bentham going above and beyond to hide the skeevy, combined with a failure of professional socialization on the part of Dr. Parmanto’s teachers and mentors. Bluntly, I harbor strong doubts that Dr. Parmanto is the only new scholar, in info-sci or in almost any field you name, who might lack a solid enough understanding of what a journal editorship entails to be able to deal with Bentham’s problems.

So one way to look at this unpleasant situation is as an information problem. If that suggests to you that I think librarians have a role in solving it, you know me entirely too well. In fact, I think we have to get a handle on it, because we are and will continue to be some of the organizations funding gold OA. Imagine the mess, if a well-regarded academic library funneled money to a Bentham! Even by way of (presumably) well-intentioned but (apparently) not-fully-informed individuals like Dr. Parmanto!

Not a mess I would want to be in. But taking a stand gets sticky, too, because (as the wrangle at Maryland demonstrates) the last thing any academic service center wants to get involved in is telling faculty where they can and can’t publish. As gold OA takes on increasing importance, anyone with funds to disburse toward author fees may well land—or be perceived as having landed—in precisely that position. How do we even begin to think about that?

Well, one way is to think of ourselves as research funders, not unlike the NIH or the Wellcome Trust. If we’re paying the money, we deserve a say in where it goes, and we’re well within our rights to say that the like of Bentham or SJI is right out. As librarians, we make collection-development and purchasing decisions based on assessment of information quality, right? (Yes, yes, “when not prevented from doing so by Big Deals and similar less-than-savory practices,” granted.) This is the same thing, just at a different point in the process. It shouldn’t be a problem.

Of course, I’ve just begged a huge question. How do we know about the like of Bentham or SJI? Or, to make the question less black-and-white, what about double-dipping hybrid journals, the ones that will cheerfully take your money to make an article OA, but won’t adjust their subscription fees by a single penny in proportion to uptake of the OA option? Arguably, libraries have a survival interest in not funding those!

I think OASPA’s response to the Bentham situation points to part of the way forward. If OASPA membership becomes a seal of approval for all-OA publishing operations, then it’s dead simple for any library that funds author fees to hold to a policy of “if it ain’t OASPA, we ain’t paying.” This puts a significant burden on OASPA, I grant you—if nothing else, they have to have the guts to kick out a bad apple—but my sense from that post is that they’re at least willing to consider picking up this gauntlet. If so, good for them.

I’m not sure that OASPA membership solves the entire problem, unfortunately… and I don’t know anything about OASPA’s membership structure or finances, so I apologize in advance if this line of thought is completely misguided. What about the legitimate shoestring OA journal charging author fees? Will that journal have the wherewithal to become an OASPA member? If it doesn’t, how is OASPA going to police it? Will OASPA have the wherewithal to take a serious look at every shoestring OA journal, especially ones that aren’t paying members? (The prospect certainly alarms me; that’s a lot of journals. Even limiting the program just to those journals charging author fees leaves a lot of journals.) If OASPA membership becomes the seal of approval, how will shoestring OA journals who need for whatever reason to charge author fees be able to bootstrap themselves?

(This may become an issue for library-hosted OA journals as well. While my current sense is that academic libraries who host journals don’t want to involve themselves directly in questions of quality, preferring to leave that to the sponsoring faculty, that’s not going to stop a library developing severe heartburn if a journal they host turns out to be a dud—or worse, a fraud. Verbum sapientibus. Maybe journal-sponsoring libraries should consider becoming OASPA members? What about journal-hosting platforms such as BePress?)

OASPA probably can’t fix the double-dippers’ little red wagons, either, as double-dippers are unlikely to become OASPA members. It would be nice to have an authoritative list of double-dippers—or, really, a list of hybrid-OA programs that aren’t double-dipping would do just as well. Again, the goal for libraries is to be able to make sensible policy based on trustworthy lists.

Even with all these caveats, I think an OASPA certification program represents a tremendous opportunity for the OA community. Gold OA is still small. It’s much easier to put meaningful quality regulation in place over a small, emerging, prestige-hungry industry. If gold OA manages to do that, then it suddenly has another competitive advantage over toll-access, which hasn’t done so and (given its extent and decentralization) very likely can’t.

If squashing the Benthams and SJIs of this world also results, then hurrah! I certainly won’t shed any tears. One less information instruction burden—because really, who is going to educate new scholars about the publication landscape they inhabit if not us librarians? Clearly there are some information gaps to be filled now!