Maitri Erwin (@maitri / LinkedIn) is a geoscientist, blogger and all-around technology geek. After almost a decade in the oil industry as geologist and geophysicist, Maitri is now technology director at TechniGraphics, where her research focuses on the visualization of 3D geographic and engineering data. Maitri is the author of Maitri’s VatulBlog and also writes for VizWorld, a weblog dedicated to the latest in computer graphics, animation and visualization. Made in Kuwait of Indian parts, Maitri has lived in Illinois, Wisconsin and New Orleans, Louisiana. She now makes her home in Ohio and various world airports.
Loki: So technology is both your livelihood and your recreation. Could you tell us how you got started on that path? Any advice for people, particularly young women, on dealing with any gender/racial bias while taking that course?
Maitri: As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a scientist. Hailing from a family of scientists surely has something to do with it, but while they are primarily biology-focused, my interests run towards the physical sciences, which include geology, physics and engineering. So, I am a scientist primarily and technology is a natural set of tools with which to discover, analyze and share. One must never lose this focus because it’s very easy to create and foster technology for its own sake. How does this process move people and communication forward? The same question goes for hard science as well as online social media.
You will not believe that I was afraid of mathematics as a child, preferring dental work to it, until one instructor cared enough to teach me mathematics in a way I could understand, not the way the textbook prescribed. Once mathematics is unlocked, physics and engineering are easy, just application. Most schools worldwide are extremely rigid in their teaching styles and teachers are not encouraged to cater to the various ways their students’ brains are wired. Luck also favored me with concerned parents, but they thought I’d end up a doctor, not an earth scientist. My advice: 1) Math isn’t hard because you’re dumb, you just have a bad teacher, 2) You are dumb only if you give up on yourself or your kids, 3) Young women are particularly suited to the logical framework of mathematics and science, but 4) It requires ignoring authority, hypocrisy and “the way things are.” If folks say you can’t do something because you’re a girl, brown, poor or too stupid, they don’t want you to succeed. Stay away from these people.
Loki: Tell me about your work with Project Gutenberg and why you feel it is of such vital urgency. How does this relate to your idea of how the web should operate?
Maitri: Project Gutenberg is the first producer of free electronic books (eBooks). Free, as in public-domain or creative-commons free; the eBooks are text or HTML files that are yours to download, read, mark up, etc. Founder and good friend Michael Hart and I share the philosophy that the more the folks around us are enlightened, the better our world becomes to live in. How better to realize this than getting maximum books to maximum people via disc, internet or telephone?
We live in an age of publishers viewing books as little more than sales units, be they free-standing, dead-tree editions or marked-up eBooks plugged into proprietary readers accessible only by those with the disposable income for such disposable gadgets. Obviously, most booksellers don’t share our goal of increasing global literacy. My aim for Project Gutenberg is to keep it in the business of file formats that have as little proprietary markup and DRM as possible, which can be read from the oldest and most ubiquitous computing on the planet, i.e. old computers and cellphones. This is why Michael and I go on about “plain, vanilla ASCII.” Ultimately, I want .txt versions of every one of our books, now up to 30,000 in over 20 languages and growing, so an American city dweller, Indian fisherman or African schoolchild can plop it onto a cheapo cellphone and read immediately. Books are words, ideas that can do without the growing amount of infrastructure and bars placed around them.
The web, a very democratic medium with the potential for unlimited good, is similarly hampered by those who see huge dollar signs where I see a free flow of ideas, news and technology. Fighting access control technologies, net neutrality, privacy, surveillance self-defense, etc. are all very crucial steps in maintaining freedom and competition as we become increasingly digital entities.
Loki: I know we went through this together, but I’d love your perspective on the early days after Hurricane Katrina when the NOLA Bloggers were first starting to meet and mobilize. Why is what we did important?
Maitri: Quite honestly, I would have completely fallen apart without us. I turned VatulBlog over to reporting about Katrina, the Federal Flood and the recovery to stay sane and properly informed in the months after August 29th, 2005. We then banded together virtually to get information out, to do good with what we were good at, and that made all the difference.
Loki: As a digital native what are your thoughts on the evolution and exploitation of social media that we are watching occur? Any thoughts on grassroots vs. corporate use of these tools?
Maitri: Social media thrills and scares me. As someone who has lived all over the northern hemisphere and did not get the opportunity to visit Kuwait or close the door on it after the Iraqi invasion of 1990, Facebook, Orkut, etc. helped put me back in touch with folks I haven’t seen or heard from in two decades. Many survived the invasion and are safe, sound, living their lives all over the world and such a basic thing means so much. Twitter helps me receive and disseminate emergency, technological and esoteric information and that I am, for example, part of a geospatial community of folks in America, Europe, Australia, India, is unprecedented and fantastic. It’s the web on steroids. But, as I said in a recent post on Google’s privacy philosophy, anyone from government to corporation to psycho can find out anything about me, even if I didn’t put it out there, and this frightens me to no end. The private information we enter in good faith and with trust should not be used against us. Additionally, social media abuse by spammers and companies, like impersonal corporate Twitterbots or folks marketing products directly to users in del.icio.us or LibraryThing based on those users’ tags, is irksome and really dilutes the internet experience.
Loki: What are your favorite new internet / social media tools and how are you using them? I know you’re on Google Wave, what’s your opinion so far?
Maitri: I’m experimenting with Foursquare as a way to increase the visibility of small-town America and its venues, which do not seem to share in this social media explosion to the same extent as large cities. Almost everyone has email or a Facebook account with which they stay in touch with their existing circle of friends and family. But, how does a small town – the people, communities and venues within it – break into the larger technological conversation currently dominated by metropolises? Still, since Foursquare is location-based, privacy is once again a concern and I have a strict policy of friending only people I know in real life when using map-based apps.
Google Wave strikes me as a big marketing whoops. The cool folks who got the exclusive first round of invites sat there talking to themselves and quickly lost interest. Now when many more are onboard, we remember to go to the Wave website approximately once a week. Co-workers, fellow bloggers, academics, proposal writers and I have discussed that it can be a great tool for collaborative writing, but it lacks a certain interface something. Perhaps if it were integrated into Gmail?
Loki: So now the time has come, please hare one of your favorite recipes with us. Having had Indian food at your place I cannot wait to see what you decide to share!
Maitri: My family is from the south of India, which in my opinion has the world’s best food, but North Indian food is quicker and easier to make. A fan of garbanzo beans, one of my favorite dishes from the north is chana masala. I’ve cooked and served it at work potlucks, krewe gatherings and our famous New Orleans geek dinners and it’s always been a big hit. As a service to those who have requested the recipe as well as for this interview, I posted it (as a set of mind maps) to VatulBlog where you can download it and start cooking away!
George “Loki” Williams is the owner of SocialGumbo, LLC