Thinking through Personal Data

There are, when you think about it, at least a few different categories for what is often called *personal data*. There is, perhaps first, the stuff you need to have with you at all times, which can be various, but usually includes:

1. contacts, calendars, and tasks
2. email and messages

These are the basic pieces of data that lie behind most communication infrastructures: people with whom I need, or want, to talk; things I need to get done; how my time is allotted and spent. In terms of their appearance in my life life, these are things I use, or think I use, *constantly*.

Inevitably, of course, there is a huge swathe of material that we would also like to have with us or at least readily accessible. I use *swathe* here purposefully to indicate that not only is there a reasonable amount of material but that it comes in a variety of categories, and how you handle those categories is, in fact, the focus of a large number of life-hacking and productivity-consulting websites and businesses. A lot of this stuff is, especially for professionals, electronic versions of what was once paper:

3. documents, clippings, spreadsheets, drawings, images, etc.
4. blended versions that new media offers us — presentations with embedded media, links to websites, etc.

However you keep it, and keep track of it, what matters is that you need it and you need it ready-to hand. In terms of how these things matter in my life, these are things to which I need access *regularly*.

Pushing a little further away from being central to us every day are the kinds of materials that once lived in filing cabinets, photo albums, and boxes of various sizes in closets and attics — i.e., storage spaces:

5. materials not currently in use but have potential future use — this includes a wide variety of materials including proposals that have been submitted, plans and designs, media produced as stock, etc.
6. materials that must be kept as records, either for personal or institutional reasons.

The long tail makes its appearance in our lives, and it reveals things that it is increasingly easy, and inexpensive, to hold onto for long periods of time, because we use them *intermittently*.

In temporal terms, then, we have materials that are constant, regular, and/or intermittent. And some of this bears out in terms of the services we use to maintain their existence: as a Mac and iPhone user, I’m fairly happy to let Apple’s [iCloud][] help me manage my *constant data*. Apple’s 5GB allotment is room enough. For the slightly larger amount of stuff that is my *regular data*, I use [DropBox][], where my years of use have allowed me to grow my $10 for 10 gig allotment to something like 17GB. (Thank you DropBox!) But, like a lot of people, I struggle with storing the *intermittent data*. Right now, it sits in external hard drives either connected to a machine on my home network or sitting in one of those storage spaces away from everything else because, well, backup is important.

Data Store Size and Frequency of Access

Data Store Size and Frequency of Access

I will confess, however, that this arrangement is not as organized as I like. Yes, I keep some stuff Dropbox, not because it belongs there in terms of usage but because I can. Moreover, and running along a different axis than usage, I have some data that I would prefer to use more regularly, but because it is large in size, it tends to sit on those external drives at home. If you’re like me, then that’s stuff like your media library, e.g. [iTunes][] in my case; my [Lightroom][] library of images and (some video); and that catch-all collection of folders of audio, video, and images that haven’t made their way into some sort of management system or, like raw video of my daughter from when she was young, remain somewhat un-manageable, both in terms of file size but also in terms of software — does anyone really use iMovie to manage all the raw footage of their lives? (And is footage as skeuomorphic as it sounds or is it a sufficiently terminological word at this point?)

Right now, I live at the unfortunate convergence of usage and size: there are materials to which I would like to have easier access, like my Lightroom library, but I have not yet figured out a smoothly connected system. I am fairly sure [from what I read][] that I can place Lightroom’s library on a NAS device, the same as I can iTune’s library. I don’t mind them being only available at home, so long as they are reliably accessible and the access is not dreadfully slow. This was not the case with my previous NAS device, so I’m looking to upgrade. (And I’ll happily take suggestions!)

I know there are solutions out there that offer to store *all your data*, or at least some dimension of the *big stuff*, like Flickr and Amazon now do for photography and Apple now does for music, in a way, with iTunes Match. And that’s just the free and/or cheap options. I know it’s also possible with some of the backup solutions to access materials away from home, and I don’t mind paying for that option, except that a number of them require that everything exist originally on one machine on one drive, but I don’t have any terabyte drive-equipped machines. At home, everything is a laptop or an iOS device, save the Mini in our kitchen, with rather small SSDs. That’s what has us in this pickle in the first place!

I guess I am like a lot of people, then, wanting both centrality so that I know everything is at least in one place, which also would make it easier to back up, but that I want that center to be easily accessed from the many margins of my life.

[from what I read]:

I’m a Bond

INTERIOR – HOTEL LOBBY. People mill about. Our protagonist, a worn
professorial type, makes his way across the lobby and sits down next
to a complete stranger at one of several tables set up in the hotel
lobby. A waiter approaches and we see our hero order a cup of
coffee. The stranger, who has been reading a paper, folds it down and
looks over.


About time you got here. They told me to expect someone a little
different this time around. They did a nice job on the make-up.
You look like a mid-career soft-belly case.


I wear it well, don’t I?


What should I call you?


Bond, I’m a bond.

Things change over the years, but bonds remain a steady, low-risk, low-yield investment. And I’ve recently discovered I’m a bond: 3.55% is the annualized average salary increase I have received over the past fifteen years at my university. That means a net gain of 17% over inflation since I first began. In the interest of complete transparency, I am sharing the numbers, if only as a moment of truth in the history of one individual at one institution. How this might be an index of larger phenomena I leave to others for the time being.

First, the numbers:

Salary History Table. (Sorry for the image. I will make the data available as a CSV.)

Salary History Table. (Sorry for the image. I will make the data available as a CSV when I can.)

Then, the chart:

Salary History Chart

Salary History Chart

The chart is a reasonable summary of the table of figures. The particulars of the history here are:

* The jump in 2001 came from discovering that while I was hired at the same time as a Shakespearean scholar, we were not offered the same salaries. My department head was indifferent but my dean, and we had a great dean at the time, recognized the value of folklore studies.
* The increases that matter, and make all the difference here, came in 2006, 2007, and 2008 and were part of an attempt by the university, then under different administration, to bring UL-Lafayette up to something like the Southern public average (which is a low threshold with which to begin, but it made an amazing difference). We have since been under a different administration, both at the university and at the college level.
* In defense of the current administration, times have been tough for higher education in the state, with a net loss of 47% of state subsidies, I believe. Still, there’s been hiring and there have been raises during this period.
* A 17% gain over my original salary means that I am making $40,950 in 1999 dollars. Which means I’m finally making more than that Shakespearean, who later left the university for, er, other pastures.

What’s the takeaway here? 3.5 percent growth is something you expect from savings accounts and bonds. That means I’m a safe, but not particularly valued investment. Given my productivity over the first decade of my career, that is not an inaccurate conclusion to draw.

However, I am enjoying a bit of a professional renaissance. I’ve got two book contracts in hand, with one book already with its publisher and due out later this year and another manuscript due this summer. I’ve also given invited talks at both the Library of Congress and at the Chinese Academy of Social Science in the last year on the topic of my current research, and I’m pretty sure that’s a singular accomplishment not only in my college but perhaps in my university. (The university noticed the talk in China but apparently thought the talk at the LoC wasn’t worth mentioning. We won’t mention the fact that the talk in China was translated into Chinese and published last year, because, well, my university hasn’t mentioned it. *Sigh.*)

Unfortunately, as noted above, this renaissance comes at a moment during a nadir for funding of higher education in Louisiana. And it might come too late to save my family from having to make difficult choices: like does our daughter continue at the school she loves or do we get the roof repaired? (Yeah, it pretty much comes down to that.)

To be clear, when my wife and I decided, individually but eventually together, to launch careers as academics, we had no higher hopes than to lead the most middling of middle class lives. Unfortunately for us, we imagined that such lives would include being able to send our one child to the school best suited for her. And that we would also be able to afford things like home maintenance. Crazy, no?

We don’t lead extravagant lives. We drive a ten year old car and a six year old truck. We bought our current home five years ago when our old neighborhood was increasing the number of student rentals and was just less safe for our daughter to ride her bike. We take driving vacations to national parks! (We haven’t flown as a family on vacation since our daughter was two!)

Our only hope is that things are better elsewhere, and maybe we will have to go to one of those places, but that means taking our daughter out of the school she loves and out of the soccer team that has embraced her so totally. So, if sometimes if you detect a hint of despair in an occasional post here or on [Twitter][], you know it’s because we are facing decisions we never imagined we would face.


The Joy of Search-Customized Advertizing

In the midst of all the paranoia about how much data collectors like Google and Amazon and NSA (so, big business and big government) know about us, you do get the occasional reminder that they don’t have their act together as much as we might fear:

Amazon is now selling nine year old girls?

Then again, maybe they’ve tipped their hand?

No More Facebook

File this under your life is your data or your life is data and you should own that and if you choose to rent it out, you should profit from it and not somebody else. Or, put another way, apparently my own concerns about Facebook and how it displaces the promise of the web, are shared by the technorati. (I’m not saying I was the first; I’m just saying it’s nice to know others are worried too and that I’m not either paranoid or alone in being paranoid.) Jason Calacanis has put together a nice list of reasons in his own inimitable style. (I like the way Calacanis thinks: I don’t necessarily always like the way he acts, but that’s another matter.)