Phil Sexton

Phil is a State Park Interpreter in California. He's had over thirty years' experience with the US Forest Service, National Park Service and California State Parks. His so-called expertise interpretively lies in how transportation across the Sierra Nevada in the 19th and 20th centuries influenced the development of California and the nation, but he also does consulting for film and video projects, tries to stay current on technology in interpretation, and is banned from playing Trivial Pursuit in six states.

Yeah, Pokemon Go Is A Real Virtual Thing


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A photo of a gravel street in Old Sacramento with a cartoon figure superimposed on it.

Rhydon has been seen near the Eagle Theatre in Old Sacramento State Historic Park. Beware!

A screenshot showing the Pokemon character "graveler" in front of a steam locomotive

Graveler in front of a steam locomotive at the California State Railroad Museum.


The social media landscape changes so quickly that it’s been difficult for the Media Platypus-ers to keep up with the rapid pace of things. Mostly it’s incremental– changes to Facebook algorithms, reading the extra ninety six pages of the latest ITunes Terms of Service Agreement, and wondering whatever happened to the first part of 2016.

But then comes Pokemon Go, and this seems to be a game changer. A silly game app with ridiculous characters that for many of us harken back to early childhood (or early parenthood) has come back, not to haunt us with memories of bad animation, but to get us out of our chairs and into the real world while searching for a virtual one. What a concept!

For the two or three people who have not heard all of the babble, Pokemon Go is an app for Androids and the iOS platform that puts you in a virtual reality platform on your device. Using your camera and the device’s GPS capabilities, you hunt for various creatures from Pokemon (Sand Shrew, anyone?) and in the right place you’ll find them and have various interactions, battles, and all sorts of nonsense that to the people around you who aren’t playing, will look really, really weird.

This really isn’t the first app that puts virtual reality aspects into historic areas. My historian friend

screenshot of the Ingress app, showing green and blue abstract polygons over a streetmap of a portion of downtown Sacramento California.

Ingress activity in downtown Sacramento. Who knew that there was such turmoil in our State Capital?

Kyle is addicted to Ingress, from the same developer, and in fact the Poke Stops in Pokemon Go are really the same thing that portals are in Ingress. I’ve actually used Ingress and as a result I understand even less of it (and it drains my phone battery,) but it involves portals and power sources that are constantly being seized by either the green or blue guys, and it just depends on what side you’d like to be on. The “adults” who are into Ingress can be also seen exploring historic areas and places they might not have otherwise explored, but rather than chasing silly cartoon characters, they are much more intelligently looking for portals and power centers to seize from the other entity.

I’m officially old these days, so it makes no sense to me, but with age comes perspective (I made this part up) and as an observer and a person who specializes in communication and enlightening people’s worlds, I’m delighted to see these things, even if I think they’re stupid. Why? Because they corollate with a theory I developed about geocaching in the early 2000s, about using technology to get geeky people away from their screens and into the outdoor environment that I think that everyone should be intimately acquainted with.

Without going into detail, I have tech-obsessed relatives who began geocaching, accidentally went outdoors, and without even knowing it, developed walking muscles, got tans, and learned about the natural and cultural environment while finding caches. Today I have a brother-in-law who is a world-class cacher, with thousands of caches to his credit, but he’s still very much a geek, and proudly so.

Pokemon Go is doing the same thing in a much more socially engaging way, or at least it’s really caught critical mass in a way that geocaching just hasn’t. It’s both funny (go to to read people’s complaints about sore legs from too much walking while playing Pokemon Go) to experiences that are directly useful for interpreters ( in that Pokemon Go (and Ingress, and even another app called “Tour Guide” can help you learn about the cultural environment you’re in.) It seems to me that the opportunity to link Pokemon Go and other players with our parks and historic sites is just an opportunity begging to be exploited.

This isn’t to say that these are appropriate everywhere, and indeed, the administrators of Arlington National Cemetery and the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. have asked people to respect the character and purpose of their sites by not engaging, and honestly I think that it was really stupid for Niantic and Nintendo to populate those sites with Pokemon characters (plus I wish that there was an opt-in/opt-out choice for businesses and landowners) but I’d prefer to dwell on the positive.

On the Facebook Group #diginterp, I asked the question of whether Pokemon Go was a problem for interpretive sites. Overwhelmingly, the answer has been NO! I think that a lot of interpreters and social media types are embracing the opportunity to engage with a new audience segment, sometimes even when they bump into you while staring at their device.

As always, I don’t know what will come of all this, but it’s a great new avenue into engagement. I just hope that we can come up with something that’s a bit more attractive than gravelers, sand shrews, and rattata!

Why Do We Always Need to Change?


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Photograph of a sign in a store window that reads "FREE WIFI & INSPIRATION"

Seen at the REI Store in Roseville CA

Back in May, I talked about some of the hyperbole that constantly surrounds social media trends. If you follow these trends at all, you’re always hearing that [fill in the blank] is now the hot platform, what you know already is obsolete, and there’s something magical that will answer all of your needs just around the corner, especially if you’ll fund my kickstarter account!

In the meantime, the most popular and commonly used platforms are constantly changing things, seemingly to maintain hipness and interest plus deal with constant lawsuits over privacy violations and patent infringement. Less popular ones do the electronic equivalent of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.

I used to think that a lot of this stuff is done just to tick me off. I really loathe it everytime a platform innovates, and Facebook is the nadir of this annoyance, I guess because it’s the most pervasive platform out there. I hate it for the same reason I hate video games. I never get the doggone thing totally figured out! Just when I feel like I know what’s going on, here comes a shift; a new reality.

Much as it might annoy me, though, these platforms have to innovate constantly. Part of it is litigation. It’s common knowledge that Facebook, Instagram, Google and other platforms are constantly being sued for privacy violations. As a result, they change the way they collect, display and use information.  It’s not benign or necessarily corrective, by the way. Rather than really address privacy issues in a way that most people would be happy with, the changes often just provoke frustration and tick people off. Most recently, privacy settings have changed on personal pages. This and several other things have been explained by Information Week.

They like to change how information is laid out on the platform too. It was just a couple of years ago that Facebook did a major redesign to incorporate cover images. and switch over to a two-column layout. Milestones also appeared, allowing you to highlight significant dates. Nearly everyone I talked with about these things hated them, but we adapted.

Another reason for this constant innovation is to better monetize the platform. It’s one of the things that virtually all of us, I think, totally disregard about social media. Regardless of whether we’re providing content as an individual or on behalf of an interpretive site or business, we are performing unpaid labor for the platform’s owners.

Let me rephrase that. Without our content, Facebook, Instagram, Google +, Foursquare, Tumblr, or whatever has no content to draw viewers. No viewers, no eyeballs, no advertisers, no Silicon Valley, no Mark Zuckerberg, no… Hey, wait! This could be just great! I’m going to set up a Meetup group so we can plan this, and then send out evites, and…


Al Jazeera has a great opinion piece written by E. Alex Jung called Is It Time To Quit Facebook? where he makes his case pretty well. You may have heard about the research project that Facebook used us as Guinea Pigs for, Emotional Evidence of Massive Scale Emotional Contagion Through Social Networks. You can read the “editorial concern” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for yourself to learn some of the details, but essentially Facebook played everyone who uses the platform by selecting post types that you and I would receive, determining (duh) that happy posts make us more engaged, while sad or non-happy posts decrease our engagement. This might sound kind of silly and obvious, but it’s not if you understand that we are not only an audience, but also unpaid content providers for some of the richest and largest content providers in the world. The study, while verifying something that seems obvious, also gives license to social media platforms to target what we will see, to drive more engagement and therefore sell and charge more for ad content.

How does this concern us, aside from the obvious? Well, for those of us who provide content on behalf of an employer or a beloved interpretive site, perhaps some of our most intellectually important posts are not “happy” enough, and won’t be seen by a large part of our desired audience.

The work we do as interpreters is not at all related to feeding tame deer and reveling in nature’s beauty. Well, part of it is, I guess, but in addition to the “happy” stuff we also interpret tragedy, death, greed, horror, accident and natural disaster. If we don’t, but they are part of our story, we do a disservice to our audience and stakeholders. Who is the world is Facebook or whoever to censor or diminish distribution of what we feel is important to get out to our audiences? Who gave them the right?

I’ve previously opined that social media is the equivalent of a public utility. They are pervasive, ubiquitous, and necessary for a lot of people to keep up in a fast-paced and modern world. I was wrong. A public utility normally provides a level of service commensurate with our ability to pay for the services. My water service won’t be diminished by my mood or the colors of the flowers in my garden. My electricity won’t be cut off if I like to burn lights all night, and my satellite provider won’t change my channel lineup based on what they think I should see. How can social media providers then, filter what I see versus what’s put on the platform and offered for viewing?

They are the owners. We are the unpaid employees, and we are at least partially, suckers for agreeing to be in servitude to them.

I’m not quitting social media; it’s simply too much a part of my life, and it’s definitely a part of my work. I’m not happy about it though.

Facebook Isn’t Dead, And Ethan Rotman Should Not Be Coroner


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Last month, Ethan Rotman delivered the Saturday keynote for NAI’s Region 9 workshop in Chico, California. Ethan is the principal of iSpeakeasy, a communication consulting firm. He spoke about the need to embrace innovation in Interpretation, and how if we are to succeed and remain relevant, we need to understand and take advantage of innovation and new technology, to meet our audiences where they live in a communications sense. During this really great and fascinating talk, Ethan casually mentioned “besides, Facebook is dead…” and then continued on.

I really like Ethan, and in fact, I treated him to lunch the day before, partly so I could pick his brain for free or at least for only the cost of a BBQ chicken. Ethan is whip smart, he’s quick, capable, and I suppose he makes a decent living by helping to teach both interpreters and non-interpreters how to communicate well. He’s also very confident and has the certainty of knowing things, when I would probably not be nearly as certain. Doubt is a very important part of my life and my worldview. For instance, although I firmly believe that the Cubs will win their division, grab the NL pennant and go on to a well-deserved World Series sweep in four games, I’m plagued with doubt. This is also true with Ethan’s pronouncement of death on the world’s dominant social media platform.

We’ve alluded to constant change being a given in social media and technology here on Media Platypus many times, and even for old-timey technology such as Facebook, a lot of things have changed in its ten-year history. Targeted ads, selective posts, a seemingly slow but inevitable march toward ‘pay for prominence’ in posts, apparent disregard for user privacy, the stupid layout changes, all of these things seem to tick people off. A Princeton study claims that Facebook will lose 80% of its users in the next four years. They compared the growth curve of Facebook with that of an infectious disease, and that based on their methodology, Facebook peaked in December 2012 and has been declining ever since. This makes logical sense– after you’ve captured nearly everyone in a very short time, your growth potential is severely limited. So, maybe Ethan’s more of an epidemiologist than a coroner. Hmm.

The Deadspin blog is a lot more certain and bombastic. In their piece, Facebook is Dead, Drew Magary is just as certain as Ethan, but I discount a lot of this because Deadspin is one of those smarmy trends-blogs where writers seem to confuse being clever with being insightful. Saying “I don’t use Facebook anymore because anyone with a brain knows that Facebook is terrible” really doesn’t help me understand anything except why I don’t read Deadspin very often.

A much better article is available at (sure hope I spelled it correctly,) The End of Facebook, that discusses FB’s most nefarious problem, the truly weird relationship between ‘likes’ and actual engagement. It’s been pretty well established that for many pages, many of the ‘likes’ are phony, particularly for paid promotion. This is why on some of my agency pages we often see that we have 35 likes when only 26 people have seen a post. Over time, whether you know it or not, your posts are going to fewer and fewer of your friends, on purpose. I won’t take your time here to try and explain it, but take a look at the videos on the blog page. If Facebook is dying, this seems like a type of suicide. It’s also a poor model of communication.

I’m trying to insist that Facebook isn’t dead, because I think that it’s reached the functional equivalent of a public utility—an awful lot of us use FB not only to keep up with our friends and let them know what we’re up to, but also to learn about news and current events, make shopping and lifestyle decisions, and plant our own feet in a virtual public square. Still, I’ve got that nagging doubt that Ethan is blissfully deficient of. If I want and need Facebook to help me understand the world around me, yet it’s filtering what I see based on what I already like, am I putting myself in an echo chamber?

I have several friends who have consciously stopped using Facebook, mostly because it takes up too much of their time. I’ve had relatively long periods when I’ve consciously stopped posting just to see if the world ended (hint: it does not,) but still, FB overall is a convenient place for me to see a bunch of stuff, most of which is unimportant. As I’ve mentioned before, I really don’t care what you’ve had for dinner, and I generally don’t care how your doctor’s appointment went unless you coughed on me last night. I really do care what those rascally politicians are lying to me about, I’m very interested in a clever and droll turn of phrase (which, oddly enough reminds me of the wag who dogged the tale,) I love seeing really great examples of the wonders of science, and I greatly appreciate seeing a lot of life’s minor miracles and truly generous things done by everyday people. I’m also incredibly interested in the season’s first sighting of a red flicker at Sutter Buttes, or a short video of spring melt in Yosemite Falls, and finding out a wonderfully superlative yet unknown historic tidbit at an historic site. For me, Facebook and other social media help make my life more complete because of these things.

A list of things that people want Facebook to do, and not do

A griping Facebook meme found on the KMPH 26 Facebook page.

Ethan concentrated his talk on innovation and embracing change. Facebook is definitely NOT innovative these days, and it lost it’s edge years ago. We know this because we see t-shirts with the thumbs-up logo on them and sitcoms often have Facebook jokes. Plus, our moms have accounts, and every doggone business you’ve ever seen has a Facebook page, most of which are useless. It’s this ubiquitous nature of Facebook that I think means it’s still relevant to us in the communications business. It’s a lot easier for me to send someone a Facebook message than to open my email program, sort through all of the spam and then find my friend I need to contact, and I’m pretty sure that he or she will see FB before they’ll see my email.

If I’m doing these things, it’s likely that many of my park visitors are doing the same thing too. This is the public utility function of Facebook. Like it or not, FB is still the most obvious place to engage and reach out to our visitors for the time being, and that’s why it’s still important, as least for me and my employer. There are many other amazing platforms that do amazing things—Pinterest, Snapchat, Vine, Twitter, Tumblr, Kik. Google + (yes Paul!) and on and on. All of them have advantages, plus all of them have the same obsolescence factor going on. To remain relevant, to remain interesting, and to retain users, social media platforms need to continuously innovate and change, but the very change that’s required to attract users and “enhance” our experience is also alienating to many users. Chicken, meet egg.

Each one of these tools can and will become obsolete. Ethan is right—we need to understand, search out and embrace innovation, and at least some of this is technology related. We still need to be intelligent and skeptical and back out once in awhile just to see if we’re still in the forest or just looking at a lone tree.

Oh, and just in case you’ve heard the hype about YouTube being the second most-used search engine in the world, try not to suffer through this:

Musings on Amazing Technology


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Edited Jan 23 to fix broken link

If there’s one thing that we like to emphasize with Media Platypus, it’s that technology is just a tool for interpretation. Technology is never a substitute for good subject matter and development, and it isn’t a substitute for using good principles—being thematic, being factual, connecting with the visitor, and being relatable to people’s lives and experiences.

Having said that, learning about and playing with technology excites my inner geek. Publicly I love to work on my little farm and eat the fruit that we grow, to mill lumber from the trees I fall. I love to make sawdust in my shop, and both delicate mechanisms (such as pocket watches) and brute force engineering (such as steam locomotives) seem to fit my desired ethos by being both visually interesting and a form of problem solving—to tell the time, build a mechanism that counts regular intervals that you can understand. To travel several hundred miles, create a contraption that uses the expansion of boiling water to make steel wheels rotate on strips of steel. Very kinetic, very direct, very understandable, even if both are awe-inspiring in their physical ingenuity.

Technology seems, in contrast, to be a bit like junk food. It’s fun and intriguing, but ultimately to what end? Just how many interpretive sites have you visited where the “high-tech” stuff is mostly broken, or seems to have been jammed in whether or not it seems appropriate? I’m guilty of this myself. I really like using QR codes for “added value” interpretation, but generally I’m light on adding the value. In a current exhibit that I have something to do with, we have a so-called interactive where a visitor pushes a button to show a graphic tracking the development of railroads in the 19th century, but we used an old junky laptop that doesn’t allow the display to work in quite the way it was quite intended. We are, in effect, using technology for technology’s sake, rather than using is to properly communicate what we would like to say. It does the job, but not as well as we would like.

With all that as prologue, I recently ran across several genuinely astounding examples of technology being used in advertising to captivate, provoke and amaze. I have to credit Robert Krulwich, who writes the NPR science blog Krulwich Wonders, for writing about these ideas. Mr. Krulwich is a science writer, not an interpreter, but what he discusses here are advertising ideas that use technology to reach four interpretive goals:
• Provoke the viewer’s interest
• Using drama, uses wonder, uses the viewer’s imagination in artistic ways to captivate and enthrall them
• Using fantastic, virtual experiences to relate to the viewer’s everyday life and experience, or perhaps their dreams for the future.
• Goes way beyond mere information, but conveys valuable information in compelling and thought-provoking ways.

Take a look at the three videos that Krulwich highlights. I’m not surprised that they are all British—there are many astonishing examples of brilliant British advertising. They are amazingly creative, often edgy, and nearly always fun. As communicators, the creative people who developed these campaigns are simply brilliant.

However, closer to home, I was blown away a few years ago when I traveled through the Hartford Connecticut airport on the way to the NAI National Workshop. Those of you who flew in just have to remember the wonderful interactive video display for Traveler’s Insurance. It has no point except to reinforce their brand name, but it does so brilliantly. Take a look at the engagement of passers by:

At the time, I just filed this away as a cool moment, but just a few years later, interactives such as this, or this really interesting (and again, British) McDonald’s interactive

get me excited about logical possibilities because they are are getting simpler and less expensive to create for interpretive sites.

Things like these specific examples may be still a bit more sophisticated and involved than many of us might want to conceive of or implement, but the same technology that I still think is sort of mental junk food is often astonishingly inexpensive and rapidly advancing, and this will benefit many interpreters and institutions that need to stay relevant and vital to successfully communicate with our visitors. What used to cost a fortune now is within everyone’s reach, and the trend will continue. Just consider what your smartphone can do today compared to the cost and complexity to do the same things in 1991:

We’re Heading Towards A Jetsons World, And I’m Worried About It.


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image of the robot C-3PO from Star Wars

I have a package for you!

In the past week, there have been several technology announcements that you may or may not have heard of; with one exception, they don’t seem to have gotten the exposure that it seems to me that they should have.

On the December 1 broadcast of 60 Minutes on CBS, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talked about a prototype delivery system where packages weighing five pounds or less could be delivered by an Amazon drone, right to a customer’s doorstop. According to Mr. Bezos, delivery could happen within 30 minutes of placing an order. On December 4, Google let the world know about a project where Googlians are playing with the concept of robots delivering packages using self-driving cars.

Neither of these things are possible today; there are huge practical and regulatory hurdles to overcome; for instance, I’m sure that the FAA would have a fit with drones flying all over Washington DC or Los Angeles, and I can’t even visualize the double takes people might have at having a driverless car with a robot in it pull up to their grandmother’s curb to drop off a fruitcake.

Human-robot interactions have been conceptualized and explored for over a century. Writers such as Isaac Asimov (I Robot,) Ray Bradbury (I Sing the Body Electric! The Pedestrian and others,) Television and film writers such as Rod Serling (Twilight Zone,) Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek Next Generation,) Michael Crichton (Westworld,) William Goldman (Stepford Wives,) even Hannah-Barbera with The Jetsons have postulated fictional human environments where we interact with robots in daily life, generally with unintended consequences. In most cases (even the Jetsons,) the result is dystopia. The phrase “unintended consequences” is, to me, inadequate for most of these examples.

After I saw the Google robot story, I did a search for  ‘Robots in Museum’ on Google. Thank goodness that most of what I found involved exhibits ABOUT robots and robotics, but I did run across a paper available at describing the results of an experiment involving a robot guide at the Smithsonian. “Minerva” is actually a second-generation robot used for a limited trial as a guide in the Smithsonian’s National Museum for American History way back in 1998. The paper primarily describes the mechanics and theory that guided how Minerva was built to navigate and interact with people and its space, with nothing substantial about how the bot communicated or shared information with humans.

More importantly, how does this tie into interpretation and technology? Hopefully not very much at all, but one never knows. As I’ve pondered this idea, it occurs to me that we’re already interacting with artificial intelligence, and most of us hate it.

Have you ever spoken with ‘Julie’ at Amtrak? Try calling 1-800-AMTRAK and you have to speak with ‘Julie’ no matter what your issue is. ‘She’ will ask leading questions and then try to interpret your response using speech recognition algorithms. There’s really no way to directly call an actual human at Amtrak; ‘Julie’ is the gatekeeper. ‘She’ is particularly annoying to me when I’m trying to get train status info, because no matter how late a train may be, ‘she’ will cheerfully remind me that “late trains can and do make up time!” Such trains may exist, but none that I have ever ridden.

In addition to ‘Julie,’ there are many companies where your interaction is limited to a silicon chip somewhere, and it’s difficult or impossible to speak to a human. As a species, we hate them all, yet they continue to proliferate. Our other common option for these common business interactions is probably through an app on a phone or tablet device.

And this is where we’re getting into the interpretive realm. We have apps for travel, for banking, for dealing with our utility company. We also have apps that will guide us through Museums, along historic byways, and help us understand history and nature. The success of both business and interpretive apps ultimately depends on public acceptance, which is partly based on what I call “user ergonomics,” i.e. how easy and intuitive and logical these are to use, as well as the usefulness of the content. A couple of years ago, I worked on evaluating some tour guide apps for a professional group. Some of them were great, and I was really pleased to learn about them, but a couple of them were about as useful to me as the tourism books I find in hotels; full of ads for crap I would never be interested in and high cost attractions that I couldn’t care less about. Once again, my maxim that content is far more important than technique (in this case, technology) was proven true.

The third tech news announcement in the past few days that interpreters really should be more aware of involves iBeacon from Apple. A “beacon” is a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) transmitter that can send information to your phone and act as a sort of micro-GPS signal to pinpoint your location relative to itself, feeding you sales (or other) information. Though it’s being promoted primarily for commerce, what about using this to trigger interpretive content? This might sound similar to NFC (Near Field Communication) technology that’s used in some Android devices, but it has some important differences.

NFC technology uses a chip in an object that is sensed by your device when you’re close to it, with a maximum range of about eight inches. By contrast, BLE transmitters transmit data up to about 150 feet. In use NFC technology involves passing your device near a sign or object containing the chip to receive the information. With BLE technology, you could be “greeted” by your device and it could direct you to the object or feature in question when you’re within about to 150 feet of it. In an airport or a baseball stadium or other large indoor space, beacons could help you navigate an unfamiliar setting much more accurately than a standard GPS, because it can pinpoint the location of your device (and presumably you) in relation to itself. The downside to all this is that, without a good and complete understanding of what information is being exchanged between the BLE server and your device, you might not have any idea of what information you’re providing to the provider, and who knows where the information goes from there? By the way, these beacons were apparently activated in all Apple stores last week, but they’ve already been in use in other locations, such as Citi Field, home of the NY Mets.

So what does this all mean? I’m generally a fan of Google culture. I’ve been able to work with some Googlians regarding mapping and geospatial issues. Google Earth is a wonderful research tool for history, nature, geography and culture. Google maps are my go-to navigation technology. Yahoo and Bing are poor relations in the search engine realm. The Chrome browser is so much slicker to use than Firefox or Safari. I have a more nuanced relationship with Amazon. My personal ethos is to purchase things locally from physical vendors, even at a slightly higher price, because it helps make a healthy economy, but Amazon is my go-to for basically anything that I cannot find locally. That’s becoming more and more common for me these days. I also appreciate and value technological innovation.

But the drone and robot ideas make me more than a little nervous. I can’t help but compare Amazon drones with military drones. I can’t help but wonder about how they could be hacked, or shot down by unhappy people being buzzed. I can’t help but be creeped out by the thought of having C-3PO ring my doorbell and ask me to sign for a package (worse yet, do a fingerprint or retinal scan!)

Honestly, I think that these are colossally stupid ideas. I’m a bit more sanguine with the thought though, that these are merely PR puff pieces. It’s not lost on me that the 60 Minutes story aired on the night before cyber Monday, and that the Google story was just a few days later. These two notoriously closed-mouth companies never, ever really talk about upcoming innovation that they’re working on.

Apple’s iBeacon idea is something I think I need to digest some more. I always worry about my privacy online, and I do check privacy policies for social media sites I use. I’d like to know more about what a beacon gleans from my device. On the other hand, as a content provider, I really like the idea of having my visitors have the opportunity to get enhanced interpretive multi-media information simply by coming into proximity to the feature I want to interpret. Done properly, again concentrating on content and a simple interface, the possibilities really intrigue me.

But what will ideas like these lead to for interpreters? Have we lost ground professionally by adding more apps and technology to the list of interpretive tools? Will we, or could we eventually be replaced with robotic interpreters? Content and talent is always more important than tools. Regardless of whether we are interacting with a visitor one-on-one or whether they are viewing an exhibit on-line or listening to a phone tour, themes and well thought out material will always enlighten, inform and enthrall in a much better way than any flash or fancy technology can do on its own.

Still, this all just makes me a bit nervous.

Digital Dysphoria, or I Use Both An iPhone and Android, Sometimes Simultaneously


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photograph of two cell phones
photograph of two cell phones

iPhone 5S and Galaxy SIII

I have to admit that I’m a huge Apple fan. Not as big as I used to be, since I’ve lost about seven pounds in the past month, but I really like Apple products. So it was with a lot of geeky delight when my brand-new iPhone 5S arrived in the mail. It replaced my three-year old iPhone 4.

The 5S is the one with the fingerprint sensor, where you can get it in gold (mine is grey) and it has a blindingly fast processor that most of the current apps can’t utilize. I’m really glad that I have it, but when I paid the Visa bill, I had more than just a bit of buyer’s remorse. These things ain’t cheap, you know.

Coincidentally, about three weeks ago, my employer replaced my nearly five-year old Blackberry with a Samsung Galaxy III running the Android OS. It has a huge touch screen, seems a bit thinner than the iPhone, and has the feature that lets you ‘bump’ music files or other data to a friend on the same platform. I think that this is an NFC (near field communication) chip, but I’m not sure. It also runs flash, which is verboten within the Apple iOS. The change from a Blackberry with a physical keyboard to this sophisticated smartphone when I’m getting used to both a new iPhone but also Apple’s new iOS7 has given me what I can only describe as a bit of digital dysphoria (hey! look it up!)

I don’t want to be drawn into a pointless debate about which phone is “better.” If you like one platform over the other, that’s great, and perhaps I’m even interested in your opinion. You’re certainly entitled to it, but I wanted to share some of my personal observations. I’m thinking that outside of people who review these things for a living, there probably aren’t many people who regularly use both platforms., so here’s my very unscientific review of both.

“Wait a minute!” you cry, “what does this have to do with interpretive social media?” Quite a bit, I think. Here at Media Platypus, we’ve gone into many odd places, from talking about ceramic tiles used for QR codes in Brazil to analyzing Facebook metrics, to 3-d printers to our outright fawning over the genius of our patron saint, George Takei. I think that in this case, knowing something about the end user experience on different platforms should be considered by app developers and interpreters who use or utilize social media. So again, here’s my anecdotal review:

The Galaxy III has a larger screen, 4.8″ versus 4″ for my iPhone. However, it generally doesn’t look as crisp and sharp as the Apple Retina display. Turns out that this is due to something called “pen tile” display. According to engadget, Samsung believes that you’ll put the phone farther from your eyes than you would an iPhone, so the difference would not be readily apparent. To me, there is a difference in crispness. Additionally, Samsung is kind of cheating on screen size by incorporating the ‘home’ button into the screen. It is so small, and with a similar sized Samsung label on top, it’s difficult for me to tell which end is up when I pull the phone out of my pocket. The visible, round ‘home’ button on the iPhone makes this a lot more obvious.

The Galaxy III is louder than my iPhone, for ringtones, voicemail on speaker, and .mp3 files, but the speaker is pretty crummy compared to my iPhone. I’m not sure how a speaker half the size of a fingernail can have any fidelity, but my iPhone has better low-end response and resonates a bit more. I would call a draw on the included ring and alert tones, though I really love the Sci-Fi ringtone on my iPhone for my crazy friend Robert. On the Galaxy, I really like the default mail alert ring of a bell. It seems just right.

Ergonomically, I definitely like my iPhone better. There are a whole lot of bells and whistles on the Galaxy SIII that add more richness to the user experience, but things like a vibration when I go from landscape to portrait orientation, or a tactile vibration as I type on the virtual keyboard just annoy me and constantly make me wonder if something is loose on the phone. On my iPhone, there’s a resonant click when I use the keyboard, which seems a lot more suitable for something the size of a phone.

This goes into how users interact with technology generally, and frankly I like Apple ergonomics generally better than other manufacturers, whether it’s my Macbook Pro, my iPad or my iPhone. I also use a Lenovo laptop and of course the Galaxy phone, as well as a Dell desktop on occasion, but the Apple organization, tactile feedback and sounds just seem more organically appropriate, EXCEPT for Apple’s stupid refusal to adopt a two button mouse for computers, but even that is mitigated by the wonderful trackpad experience compared to any PC trackpad I’ve ever used, but I digress.

photograph of a cell phone and user's manual

The Galaxy SIII with its owner’s manual of 34 pages and safety information for 61 pages.

Closely related to ergonomics is the concept of intuitive use. How simple is it for you to divine how to use technology? Here, it seems pretty close to me, but again I’ll have to side with my iPhone, if for no other reason than comparing the instruction manual. The photos ought to show you which one the manufacturers believe to be more intuitive. For me, the most glaring disconnect with the Galaxy is that re-arranging the icons to get my most-used apps to come up first is just complicated enough that I haven’t really done it yet, and it’s disconcerting that my home screen seems to show different icon screens every time I unlock the phone. I’ll assume that this is probably user error. Ditto with my problem with apparently turning off the ringer at least once per day as I put the phone into its case.

photograph of an iPhone

iPhone 5S with its owner’s manual of zero pages

Just to make it weirder, I still have trouble figuring out how to shut down and re-boot the Galaxy. In fairness though, I also had to figure it out for my iPhone, but now that I know, it still seems more intuitive.

I’d like to be complimentary toward the Android keyboard, but it just doesn’t work for my style, though that’s probably because I am better used to the iPhone spacing, which is slightly different. My typo rate is probably 25% versus 10%, and the Android OS doesn’t do auto-correct, but instead suggests alternate spellings, if you’re smart enough to actually look at them, which I’m not. All things being equal, I honestly preferred the physical buttons on my late Blackberry, but that was pretty much the only good thing about it. By the way, on the Galaxy, the voice command button sits right next to the spacebar, and it’s hard to talk to something that you don’t really have much in common with, but in fairness, Siri and I are only mildly acquainted as well.

Apps are one place where there is a clear difference, certainly in app production and sales. In a certain way, I do like the freedom of Google Play compared to Apple’s App Store. As of July, Android apps (roughly one million) beat App Store apps (roughly 900,000) but I’m not sure if quantity is a good metric of what is “better.” I’ve tried to set up the same apps on both the Android and the iPhone when possible, and frankly Google Play seems just a bit more easy going when searching and downloading apps than Apple’s app store does. Maybe it’s because I’m not rigidly locked into the Appleverse. In any case, though I’m not really a gamer, I’ve been impressed with all of the apps I’ve seen. Just to be fair, my tendencies are toward social media, productivity and apps that play old radio shows, and this probably isn’t a fair comparison to sophisticated gaming apps. In any case, the apps all seem to work well on each platform.

I could go on pointlessly for quite a while, but perhaps not. I’m learning to peacefully coexist with both platforms, even though there is some intermittent confusion. Both are good phones. I’m aware that the Android seems to drain the battery more quickly, but if I turn off location services on some apps I’ll get a longer battery life, but that might allow more people to call me, so I’ve gotta think about that.

I’d really appreciated (constructive) feedback about your experience on either platform, so feel free to let me know what you think. All in all though, I think that I’m pretty happy that I didn’t get a Windows phone:


How Does One Say “QR Code” in Portugese?


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Those who know how truly boring my thought processes are understand that I like QR code applications. Some people may study sunsets, or varve cross sections in sandstone, or the sociology of the poor unfortunates who don’t know how tasty peanut butter and dill-pickle sandwiches are, but I’m stuck with QR codes and a love of old films. Heck, some people even seem to focus on sports trivia. Can you imagine that?

A qr code set in a tile mosaic on a sidewalk

A qr code set in a tile mosaic on a sidewalk

A while ago, I ran across an article about the city of Rio De Janeiro embedding QR codes into sidewalks in tourist areas. In the photos I’ve seen, they are mosaics made of tiles, and in my limited knowledge of Rio, I think they look kind of cool. Perhaps more importantly though, they provide a somewhat reliable and obvious and presumably easy to spot information source for tourists and visitors in an unfamiliar place. Frankly the idea of embedding these in a pathway seems like such a great idea that I’m surprised that I hadn’t heard about it earlier.

two women holding ipads over a qr code in the sidewal, trying to scan it with ipads

Here’s one problem when you’re not nine feet tall.

In the work I’ve done using these codes in signing or brochures, we’ve always been concerned about how they would fit in with the design and not detract from the written or photographic content, but those Brazilians went in the opposite direction by embedding it literally underfoot, making them hard to ignore.

I really, really like this idea. It’s a variant of hiding something in plain sight. Contrast this with the “PoP” or point of purchase display for popcorn that has a qr code linking to product information:

popcorn POP displayBy the way, I’m not unaware of the slightly amusing nature of a “PoP” display for popcorn. If you can’t see the QR code, it’s in the middle right, above the text. It would be easier for store visitors to see than you might think, but it’s not nearly as bold as Rio’s sidewalk placement.

So why is this important? Several reasons. It gives further legitimacy to the impact and persistence of QR codes. When I first started promoting use of these about three years ago, one of the adoption fears was that they might be transitory technology, soon to be eclipsed by Microsoft Tag, or RFID chips in phones. Today, QR codes are pretty common. I see them in ads, in technical documents and instructions, and I’m very pleased to see them in many interpretive sites. As for the competing technologies, Lowe’s Home Improvement Centers seems to be nearly alone in using Microsoft Tag, and RFID chips for commercial transactions haven’t really seem to have gained traction in the US, though they are more widely used in Europe and Asia. No one other than me seems to worry out loud about id theft from RFID chip sniffers, but I noticed last week that some phone case manufacturers are advertising their cases as “RFID shielded” so that must be a problem after all.

But back to Rio– this is also important because Rio de Janeiro will also be hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics, bringing in even more people to visit her beaches and spectacular scenery. Though English and many other languages are spoken down there, Brazil’s language is Portugese, which isn’t nearly as common as English or German or even Russian. QR codes (and the necessary blanket of wifi, long-range wifi, mifi or good cell coverage) can act as sentinels to people from around the world in a very kinetic and confusing place. Smartphone deployment worldwide continues to be astounding. Since I just ordered a new iPhone to replace my iPhone 4, I’m well aware of the sticker shock of a high-end smartphone, but the saturation of low cost smartphones is very high, and nearly all of these devices can read QR codes.

In reading about Rio’s deployment of these codes, people have worried about vandalism of the tiles– what if someone changes tiles to link to inappropriate content? Who would want to look at the sidewalk near those glorious beaches, the tanned and fit Brazilians on the beach? How do these fit into the overall aesthetic of Rio de Janeiro? These are really the same concerns we have with any use of these codes, or really any use of technology. We used to worry about anarchists putting “bad” qr stickers on our interpretive signs, but then again, every parent in my mom’s generation used to gripe about us watching the Three Stooges. “You’ll put your eye out!”

Oh yeah? Where are all the one-eyed people of my age then?

(By the way, since I don’t speak Portugese, I have to rely on Google Translate. According to them, “QR code” is translated as….. “qr code.”)




Heresy or Sanity? I stopped using Social Media for Awhile


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screenshot of an iphone

Iphone screenshot

Over the past few weeks, I’ve virtually ignored and neglected any social media that I’ve been using for the past few years. This is what I’ve learned in this experiment.

First of all, I didn’t start out to do this. I got busy with my work life, involving a new docent class, a collaboration with UC Davis, deconstructing some exhibit design, writing a budget, etc.. I also got busy with my personal life, involving a new roof, solar panels, the Sacramento RiverCats, and the Sierra Club, among other things. The next thing I knew, I hadn’t logged on to Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter in over a week.

“Cool! I wonder what would happen if I stayed away longer?” So I merrily went on my way, living what seems to be my life. Now, I’m trying to pick up again with social media. I’ve regularly used Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo Messenger, and occasionally play around with G+, Foursquare, LinkedIn and Formspring, plus dealing with Yelp and Groupon on rare occasion. Frankly, it’s been difficult to pick things back up and check my accounts, not to mention being able to add pithy and prescient content. It’s also been difficult to just add the usual crap, too. I’ve also missed some birthdays of people I really care about, I haven’t kept up with some environmental and political causes that are important to me, and I’ve probably missed a few relatively important issues among some friends. Anyway, here is some of what I’ve learned by staying away from social media.

1. No One Cares Whether I’m There or Not. Now keep in mind that I’m not complaining (much) about this, but I’m a bit surprised that no one has either asked or emailed me to check on my status.

2. The World Goes On Without Me. This really isn’t much of a surprise, but I’ll never have the time to look at a couple of weeks of posts from I’ or The Onion or HuffingtonPost or even BloggersToBeNamedLater. There are others, including good friends whose wit and personal journeys I value and enjoy keeping up with.

3. There Was No Way To Make A 100% Break. First of all, I didn’t set out to do this. Secondly, I have actual paid work responsibilities that involve social media. But even with my personal materials, there were three instances I remember when I made an isolated post or comment. The odd thing is that none of them seemed particularly important. It was sort of like an obsessive-compulsive thing. One was really unimportant, when a wonderful friend of mine commented that she thought that a generally untalented personality seemed to have talent, based on a fluke of a movie. Trust me, the personality is really a one-trick pony, but because I value my friend so much, I

referred them to some additional material about the hack in question. A couple of Saturdays ago, when I went to a Sacramento RiverCats game, I just couldn’t resist posting a couple of photos of the field at sunset.

photograph of Raley Field, home of the Sacramento Rivercats

Raley Field at Sunset

Baseball does that do me, I guess. It’s just so American and so emblematic of summer that it’s one of the best universals that I know of.

4. I’m Not More Productive Without Social Media. This one surprised me. I’ve never audited how much time I spend with social media and associated things, but it’s a bit of time nearly daily. I thought that I would get some project work done or at least moved along, do some more carpentry, perhaps some (wall) painting, but no, not really. I did do a lot more hiking than normal, but I was hired for several guided hikes with various groups. I did do some serious writing and research, but again, this was in connection with paying gigs. I learned a lot about roofing, because we put a new high-tech roof on the house, and I was able to spend a bit more time outdoors than usual, but I’m not sure if there is a correlation.

5. I Genuinely DON’T Care What You Had For Dinner. This didn’t surprise me; on occasion, I don’t even care on some nights what I have for dinner (example: tonight’s dinner was popcorn.) Oh, sorry. You don’t care either, I’m sure, but among my Facebook friends, there are a few who seem to think that I care about their meals, or the errands they’ve run (or are planning to run) and other genuine nonsense. I may be guilty of that on occasion as well, I think, but I’m not going to check and you can’t make me.

What is this human characteristic that if we seem to have a platform, some of us feel the need to use it, whether or not we have anything to say? It might be easy to say “Hey Phil, just ignore that stuff,” but to get to the posts that are important and interesting, invariably we need to scroll past this nonsense.

6. I Think That Sometimes I DO Care What You Had For Dinner. I’m not necessarily rethinking my previous thought, but I have at least two friends who may have foodie tendencies, and they will sometimes post info about these amazing combinations of food that are creative and fascinating. In that case, I do care. What I don’t care about are people saying “I had a burger on my way to an oil change, then I bought socks at Target, ending up at the Doctor for a hernia exam.” True story, and TMI.

7. In Spite Of All This, I Think That Social Media Is Vital For Most Of Us To Communicate In 2013 And On Into The Future. In spite of my observation that no one cares whether I contribute to the conversation, I care about my friends, and I care about the causes that I feel passionately about. Social media is a great and pretty-near ubiquitous way for me to check in on my friends (albeit combined with filtering out a lot of crap) but isn’t that also how real life works? How many of us shop for groceries without passing by most things in the store to get to what we actually want? How many of us go in and strictly stick to a pre-defined list, and absolutely do NOT wander the aisles, even a little bit, just to see what’s around? No one? Bueller? Bueller?

I thought so.

8. I’m Not Against Silliness, But I Am Against Stupid Stuff. To those who know me, this statement is probably unnecessary, and some may challenge me on claiming that I don’t like stupid stuff, but I just don’t want people to think that I’m trying to be a puritan or an actuarial-type.

Social media, whether personal or interpretive/business in nature, should probably by and large be light hearted with a dash or two of silliness and humor and nonsense. Without social media, there would be no memes. They aren’t all that important to me, but they are very popular and some of my colleagues spend enormous amounts of time creating them. It might be okay for me to imagine, say, Paul Caputo sitting on a curb on Cherry St. in Fort Collins, holding a properly lettered sign that says something like “Will Meme for Food” [spoiler: Meme idea!] but there are actually a lot of things that I see that are wonderful– O. Henry-type self-deprecating stories, charming photos of family life where the love and genuine affection pops off of the screen, astounding scenes of nature and human endeavor, or even ridiculous historic vignettes to remind us of just how odd our species is, and this doesn’t even take into account photos of people in Walmart.

I was hoping to have at least ten relatively intelligent observations, but eight will have to do. So where do I go from here?

I’m not going to recommend that you take a break or a sabbatical from social media. I’m not going to give up on my interest in social media as an amazing form of communication and interpretive media. I’m going to continue to look at emerging technologies and modes of using social media, and I’m going to continue to follow my friends and colleagues. I’ll be both delighted and frustrated with the content. I’m going to get back up to speed about posting, but I may not post as often, at least for awhile.

I’m not sure what this all means, but it sure is an interesting ride. What about you? Are you slavish in checking your social media? Do you think “Hey, I can quit any time I want! I enjoy the time I spend with my phone/tablet/computer on Facebook. Honest!” Okay. No problem.

No problem at all.

In Praise of Dr. Monica Stephens and Social Network Analysis


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segments of visual analysis maps based on twitter and other social media content

A few weeks ago, I was browsing a news site that I read occasionally. “Occasionally” generally means that I have a tight deadline for something and can’t think, so I read some arcane news or comment, hoping that it will trigger some creative thought before I wander too far into the weeds. ANYWAY…

I saw a reference to an infographic that mapped hate speech based on twitter content. Using phrases and words associated with racism, homophobia and discrimination against the disabled population, the volume of this kind of twitter content was plotted over a map of the US:hatemap


My first visceral reaction was focused on the point of the infographic. Why? How in this day? Who? This is a very powerful graphic. Then I started marveling at the idea behind this and the power of asking these questions, as well as having the talent to ask them and use technology to generate answers. This is not only a powerful graphic, but a powerful tool.

While we fret and discuss our privacy and what the government might be listening to and reading that we hope and assume should be our own, private content, there are people such as Monica Stephens who are trolling for information to ask questions that need to be asked. Dr. Stephens is an Assistant Professor of Geography at my alma mater, Humboldt State University in Arcata CA. Her work makes me even happier about the money that I give the University annually, and it will probably influence my future giving. This particular graphic attracted some media attention, as shown here, here and here.

This is really a very powerful tool, but not unlike Tim Taylor in the TV Series Tool Time there is a very human desire to use this power for perhaps some not-so-serious uses. My favorite, because the mere word is a meme at my workplace, is a graphic showing mention of zombies in the Google Maps database:

zombie-distributionWell, there you go. For my friend Robert, who seems to both fear and welcome the coming Zombie Apocalypse, this will further his ambivalence, if that’s possible.

Oddly enough, the map shows that the former Soviet Union, Africa, most of Asia, and South America are much safer than the United States, and sorry Sarah, but New Zealand seems to have significant risk as well. Cal, if I were you, I’d head for the Northwest Territories or the Yukon. Also, stay away from Japan! I’m not even sure that Gamera can save them. For some of the rest of us, we may spend more time in Google Maps trying to find some of the zombie references. You know, of course, what this really signifies though, don’cha?


Sorry. I couldn’t resist, but really, it does signify brains! Whether it’s specifically Dr. Stephens, or one of her students, or someone at the Oxford Institute, who host lots of visualized data from Dr. Stephens and others, this is a brilliantly simple idea. In a certain way, it’s very similar to creating a word cloud that you sometimes see on blogs. They visualize how often words or phrases are used in a document, much like the Visualization Project uses color or icons to indicate density of speech or resources or references to something. For those of us who are visual, this is an easy way to understand the answer to a question. In fact, this kind of display is something that I used to know how to do within the GIS interface at a former employer. We could plot tree density, wildlife population and habitat, basically anything within our database. This is just another GIS application.

So my hat’s off to Dr. Stephens, her students, and others who work on developing the technology to find data, ask the questions, and plug in the data in a way that can be visualized by people like me. This is a fabulous communication tool, immensely compelling and easy to understand by nearly anyone. This is one of the truly great outcomes of our increasing use and reliance of social media. In the Geography of Hate graphic, we find a disturbing reminder that we still have a lot of work to do to educate, enlighten and rethink who we are as a society, but we could also plot a graphic of tweets based on kindness or good deeds done, or even mentions of the Phillies, just to keep Mr. Caputo engaged.

There are some really fascinating infographics using this general idea at Take a gander when you get a chance!

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