Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Desk Set Drinking Game

After hearing that Amy Buckland had never seen Desk Set before, I vowed to rectify this situation. She then proposed the idea of the Desk Set Drinking Game.

So, we need some rules. I've got a basic set, but I'm sure there are plenty of other ideas.

The Rules

Drink Every Time:

  1. somebody uses the word "Brain"
  2. somebody answers a reference question (right or not)
    • make it a double when Bunny answers question
    • chug when Richard Sumner answers a question
  3. somebody names Santa's reindeer (since this counts as a reference question, you need to drink twice)
  4. you see Richard Sumner's socks
  5. the staff go on "break"
So, if you have any other suggestions, please leave a comment!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

July Book a Month Challenge: Independence

Doctorow, Cory. Little Brother. New York: Tor, 2008.

Doctorow has responded to the United States' gradual increase government surveillance of the civilian population and the federal government's use of "terrorists" to clamp down on speech with Little Brother: a short novel describing what happens after San Francisco's Bay Bridge is destroyed. By focusing on a small group of tech-savvy teens, Doctorow shows both how the government might co-opt existing billing and security systems to quickly create a police state, and what domestic resistance to that police state might look like when when mobile phones are portable computers and everybody has access to good encryption technology.

While I enjoyed Little Brother, It had several flaws. The most minor of these is the main character's screen name, or alias: when the novel begins, Marcus goes by the name "W1n5t0n", but soon changes it to the more commonplace "M1k3y". If he had only used the names in the opposite order, giving him the name "Winston" for the majority of the novel, and all of the time that he was running his resistance operations, it would have created a stronger tie to Orwell.

More seriously, Doctorow seems to be trying to do three different things at once with this novel and, as a result, is not as successful at telling the story as he might have been. The story of Marcus coming of age and maturing both emotionally and politically against the backdrop of the "terrorist crackdown", and his resistance to that crackdown are the two parts of the story that work very well. Unfortunately, Doctorow weighs the novel down with a lot of technical detail that slows the pace. I found the "how to hack" and "how it works" sections of the novel interrupted the flow of the narrative, and I suspect that the readers of this book will either already know this information, or not care about the details. It might have been more appropriate to cut down on the explanations in the body of the text and provide an afterword explaining that much of the tech is possible today and pointing to the 'net for details.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

June Book a Month Challenge: Knowledge

Yeah. I'm late. Get over it.

Tuchman, Barbara W. The Guns of August. New York: Macmillan, 1962.

Tuchman covers only the first thirty days of the Great War in this five hundred page book: that time when all the players were moving into the positions that they would then hold for the next five years. Mining archives in Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany, she is able to go behind the scenes of all four governments and show not just what happened on the ground, but how important the personalities of the various players were in setting up foundation for a static war.

The first chapter, "A Funeral," shows us how different the world was during the first decade of the Twentieth Century from that of the 1950s and beyond. At the funeral of Edward VII we are introduced to Kaiser William II who, more than anybody else, is responsible for war. Tuchman portrays William as neurotic, desperate for the respect of others, paranoid about how King Edward was "encircling" Germany as he visited all the countries of the continent.

The main action begins in chapter two, on August 1, runs through various diplomatic and military alliances to lay the groundwork, and then on to war, which begins with Germany's violation of Belgium's neutrality as it marches through that newly created country on its way to France. Tuchman very clearly shows that at any instant during that first thirty days, if things had gone even the slightest bit differently, the outcome could have been very different. Anything from a swift German victory, if the different parts of the army had followed through on the original plan, or taken advantage of opportunities that they were unaware were available; to the French and British throwing back the German forces and ending the war, if only they had been more willing to cooperate and coordinate their forces, might have been possible.

This book clearly shows the effect of the "fog of war" on the plans of men. That fog is not just problems of terrain and the difficulty of communication, though. It is also the internal politics of the armies, and the clash of personalities throughout the chain of command and between commanders of different units. If the aristocratic German generals had been able to suppress their historic design for blood and glory, they might have been better able to retreat in front of the French, leading them deeper into a trap, for example.

Tuchman goes into exquisite, and to some extent necessary, detail about the movement of the various units, and the relationships between them on the ground, but it can be very difficult to keep track of who's who and where they all all at any given time. There are a few maps, but with modern printing processes, more maps, and perhaps some colour to ease the reading of them, would make following the action easier. She also shows how a war can seem "inevitable," and how everybody can see that it is only a matter of time before the combat begins (of course, that that is possible should be clear to anybody reading today's headlines).

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Anthony Hope and the Triumph of the Public Domain

While in a local independent bookstore last weekend, I discovered that Penguin has reprinted The Prisoner of Zenda as part of their Red Classics series. While it looks like not everything in the Red Classics series looks like it's in the public domain much of it is.

But reprinting classic adventure novels isn't the triumph of the public domain. Everybody knows that Kiss Me Kate and West Side Story are reworked Shakespeare, and that when Disney's not fighting to eliminate the public domain, it's raiding it for plots and marketing opportunities. Of course, there's also Alan Moore's Justice League of Public Domain Victorian Characters, which was made into an execrable movie. That reuse and recycling of older material is the triumph of the public domain.

So how does Anthony Hope, the author of The Prisoner of Zenda, fit into this triumph of the public domain? Well, even if you'd never heard of it before today, you've probably seen one of the movies based on it: two of the most faithful adaptations of Zenda starred Richard Dreyfus and Kevin Klein. I also seem to recall the same plot being used for episodes of sitcoms over the years as well. And of course, the fictional European country of Ruritania is almost as famous as the British university of Oxbridge.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

May Book a Month Challenge: Mother

Jackson, Shirley. Life Among the Savages. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Young, 1953.

Shirley Jackson is best known today for her sophisticated horror novels, such as The Haunting of Hill House, but in the late '40s and early '50s she was writing light domestic comedy for the likes of Good Housekeeping, Harper's, and Mademoiselle. These columns were gathered together and published as Life Among the Savages, which tells of an urban pair of writers with two children who move from a New York apartment to a house in suburban Vermont. In 1997, a review in Library Journal described it as "good fun of the Erma Bombeck kind," which, while useful for identifying the genre and most likely readers, does not do it justice. Jackon's work in the antecedent of the rest of the American domestic comedies: Bombeck is good fun of Jackson kind.

While Life is well written and entertaining, it has two flaws that made it difficult for me to read at times. The first, and larger, problem for me is the tone of voice with which Jackson tells her stories. She frequently invokes a "cutesy ironic" tone, which might have been amusing in the '50s for her target readership of homemakers, but often grated for me. For example, while I can understand the humour inherent in a mother of three suddenly having to learn to drive, the naivete exhibited while the characters are car shopping is far broader than necessary ("We lacked only a car. This was adjusted by a gentleman who, saying he acted only from pure friendship, sold us one of his cars.").

The second flaw is that the stories feel slightly dated. Tales of the problems of hiring and dealing with mothers' helpers, the challenges of getting together for a night of bridge, and running short of money because one forgot to cash the cheque from one's husband do not resonate with the modern reader. I found it particularly difficult to accept the idea that Jackson was so dependent upon her husband for household cash while at the same time being a successful writer with her own income. Another example is Jackson's description of packing to go to hospital to deliver their third child: the idea that one plans for a relaxing getaway of a week or so in hospital following a normal childbirth is, today, inconceivable.

Over all, Life Among the Savages is an amusing light read, but not up to the level her other writing.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Eric S. Raymond on Proprietary ILSs

There's been a discussion going on recently on the code4lib mailing list about Innovative Interfaces' plans to remove some functionality from the terminal-based interface to Innopac/Millennium, nominally due to a security hole in that interface. The problem is that many site have written specialized programs, which interact with the terminal interface, to automate certain common operations, and those programs will no longer work. Eric Raymond, a prominent open source advocate, wrote a paper entitled The Magic Cauldron (collected in The Cathedral and the Bazaar) that directly addresses the difficulties that we are starting to become more aware of and vocal about:
Suppose you go the conventional closed-source route. If you do, then you put your firm at the mercy of a supplier monopoly—because by definition, there is only one place you can go for support, bug fixes, and enhancements. If the supplier doesn't perform, you will have no effective recourse because you are effectively locked in by your initial investment and training costs. Your supplier knows this. Under these circumstances, do you suppose the software will change to meet your needs and your business plan...or your supplier's needs and your supplier's business plan?


Contrast this with the open-source choice. If you go that route, you have the source code, and no one can take it away from you. Instead of a supplier monopoly with a chokehold on your business, you now have multiple service companies bidding for your business—and you not only get to play them against each other, you have the option of building your own captive support organization if that looks less expensive than contracting out. The market works for you. (cite)
I do think that he was overly optimistic about the marketplace providing "multiple service companies bidding" for our support business, but that is beginning to happen. And we're also starting to see the creation of the "captive support organization[s]" that he predicted as larger library systems begin to recognize that it is cheaper to build a new, or adapt an existing, open source ILS than it is to pay for even one year of a license and support contract with the larger proprietary ILSs.

I can only wonder how long it will take the large ILS vendors to recognize that the only way they can compete is by opening up their systems and simplifying access to our data, which they are merely storing. Continuing to restrict access and block innovation will only drive more libraries to systems that let librarians, and their users, be creative.

Friday, May 02, 2008

One Big Library Unconference in Toronto

The Emerging Technology Interest Group at York University Libraries is hosting an Unconference (I think that's just the academically acceptable way to refer to a barcamp) looking at idea originally voiced by Dan Chudnov Wendy Newman (updated: thanks to William Denton for correcting my misattribution) that
"It seems like there are lot of different kinds of libraries: public libraries, school libraries, university libraries, college libraries, law libraries, medical libraries, corporate libraries, special libraries, private libraries. But really there's just One Big Library, with branches all over the world."
which is certainly the way that I wish things worked when I'm using the various libraries that I have access to.

Join us in Toronto and see how close we can get to One Big Library!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

April Book A Month Challenge: Beauty

Fables: Legends in Exile. Bill Willingham, writer, et al. New York: Vertigo, 2002.
Fables: Animal Farm. Bill Willingham, writer, et al. New York: Vertigo, 2003.

Hundreds of years ago, the lands of fairy tales and fables were overrun by "The Adversary" and the characters of our favourite stories, forced into exile in the real world. The human fables live quietly in New York, ruled by King Cole, the Mayor of Fabletown, who is merely a figurehead. The true power behind the throne is Snow White, Director of Operations, who is supported by her Sheriff, Bigby (i.e. "Big B.") Wolf, transformed into human shape somehow. That is the premise of the Fables series of graphic novels, which are collections of the Vertigo comic books of the same title. Each title in the series is a complete story arc from the original books.

Legends in Exile, the first novel in the series, is a standards murder mystery, solved by the traditional means of the genre, with no dependency on the special skills of the characters (beyond the fact that Bigby can ID the crime-scene blood by smell). All the usual suspects are dragged out to solve the mystery of the murder of Snow White's estranged wild sister, Rose Red: her sometime boyfriend, Jack the Giant Killer; the wealthy and mysterious Blue Beard; Snow's ex-husband, Prince Charming; and there's even a cameo by the witch of the Black Forest, last seen dining on children in her gingerbread house. Legends is a light take on the noir hard-boiled detective genre, and Bigby doesn't disappoint, solving everything while managing to piss off everybody.

The second volume in the series, Animal Farm, is, as suggested by the name, a tale of political upheaval and revolution. In Legends, we get glimpses of a talking pig, one of the "three little" tormented by the big bad wolf in the homelands, wandering through the scenery as a bit of porcine stage business. At the beginning of Animal Farm it is revealed that Colin has escaped from "The Farm," a sanctuary for the non-human fables in upstate New York. Snow White, and Rose Red leave the city for the Farm to return Colin and to check in with the manager of the Farm. While there, they discover that many of the animals are unsatisfied with they're lives for forced seclusion and dream of returning to the Homelands to fight off The Adversary. This dissatisfaction has risen to the level that many of the animals are considering armed revolt against the human government of Fabletown merely for the chance to try to recapture the Homelands. Because of the animosity of so many animals towards Wolf, he's banned from visiting the Farm, so White and Rose are on their own in the middle of the conflict.

These stories are well-told modern tales featuring the characters we remember from childhood (with a few obscure, or more modern references to pique our curiosity). Because of a small amount of sex and slightly larger amounts of blood and violence, the books are not suitable for younger children, but should be fine for young adults (if they're watching CSI, they can read these).

Oh, and Legends in Exile opens with Snow White trying to explain to a couple why she can't help them with marriage counseling: Beauty and the Beast.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Thinking About Dates on To-Do List Web Sites

The great thing about reading time management books and comparing task management websites is that it's not really procrastinating.

David Allen's book, Getting Things Done, is the current hot time management textbook (and has been for the past few years). Like many of these books, it's common sense distilled into a "system", and sold at management consulting rates, with much talk of "next actions", "workflows", "processes", and "models". But it all boils down to to-do lists and a process for reviewing them. While I wouldn't pay to attend a workshop on the method (nor would I send my staff to one), I do think that the book is definitely worth the $15 cover price and the day of time it would probably take to "implement" the system on one's own.

Because Allen is the current hot property in the time management sphere, task management web sites all claim to support the "GTD" system, and all claim that their competitors are lacking in some way, providing partial support for GTD, at best. I have a couple of pages of notes about two of the more prominent to-do list management sites (Remember the Milk and Toodledo), and will be posting my thoughts on them later.

But all this reflection on to-do management, and my experimenting with two different systems for accomplishing this fairly simple task, has got me thinking about the problem of dates. When I write out the simple sort of to-do lists that I use, I tend not to assign dates to the items on the list, for the simple fact that everything on the list needs to get done now. Of course, this can lead to things getting deferred indefinitely, since there's are no deadlines attached them. Some web systems don't display tasks on their default screen unless they're due "soon", and undated events are never due, according to those sites. So, I put dates on all my tasks on these systems. And that led to the problem: there are two ways to interpret the dates.

A Date is a Deadline. I think most of us think about dates on lists of tasks as deadlines: "My taxes are due on April 30," "I have to write a book review by the end of the month," and so on. Unfortunately, most automated task management systems that I've experimented with over the years (including Palm PDAs and various desktop calendar programs) don't work well with this model. Once you've associated a date with task, the task is tied to that date.

If a date is a deadline, then I have to be able to tell my task management system how long I think that the task will take, so that I can be reminded of the task in time to be able to finish it by the deadline (a task manager that tells me on Thursday morning that my taxes are due today is basically useless). Ideally, the system would also provide a way for me to track progress toward completion, so that tasks slide up and down the list relative to each other depending on their deadlines and how close I am to completing them, relatively speaking.

A Date is Almost an Appointment. Most of the time, the date associated with a task is a deadline, but sometimes it is the date on which we should, or must, perform the task. This is subtly different from an appointment, I think: "go to the optometrist next Wednesday" is an appointment, but "put the garbage out Tuesday evening" is a task to be done at a particular time.

While this sort of date is much less common, it is the type of date that most automated systems handle well. Online to-do management systems are, primarly, rich systems for managing the old-style "tickler" file.

Computer people like to talk a lot about the Sapir-Worf hypothesis that the language one speaks limits, or at least affects, the way that one thinks about the world. This is probably because in computer programming, that's true: if you're programming in Fortran, you won't be thinking about object-oriented control structures. It seems to me that the same thing can happen in task management. If your task manager associated dates with tasks in a very concrete, way, then those dates will stop being deadlines and become pseudo-appointments.

I recently ran across a quotation about computer usability:

Using a computer should be simpler than not using a computer.

For the kinds of things that I need to accomplish with my task management, I think that the computer's not quite ready to beat the pad of paper yet. But that won't stop me from trying to figure out how to make it work.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Most Important Programming Language I've Learned

I've programmed in a lot of different languages: BASIC, Pascal, Cobol, Fortran, WSL, C, perl, icon, and more. I've been paid to program in C, perl, Bourne shell, and others, but it turns out that the most important language I learned was one that I picked up on my own, to play with: Scheme.

I'm just learning Javascript now, as part of the next phase of Evergreen development, and it was pretty easy. I just flipped quickly through the first part of the book to get a flavour of the syntax and learn the rules for scoping, and in about thirty minutes, I was ready to get started. The last new language that I learned was Python (which I started working in last year). It took a bit longer to get into Python, because it's a much richer language that Javascript, but it still didn't take long, and Python has become my favourite programming language.

But Scheme is the most important language I learned because so many other languages have adopted some of its core concepts. Modern Perl, Javascript, and Python books all spend a great deal of time talking about "lexical scoping" and what this means for variable access, and how one can define functions inside of functions, and what that all means, and they usually give the same tired example of writing a function that returns a function (usually a function that adds 5 to its argument).

Yeah.... Like Scheme did back in the '80s (except Scheme calls it "statically scoped"). Everybody keeps reinventing Lisp (and Scheme is just a specialized educational dialect of Lisp), but nobody's managed to do better than Lisp at so many things. The Evergreen guys are regularly doing sexy dynamic function creation stuff without even realizing that they've successfully recreated very-high-level programming methods that Guy Steele considered normal back in the early '80s.

Start by learning Common Lisp or Scheme, do some continuation-passing programming, and after that, everything new is just syntax.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Building Systems that Support Librarians

I've said in the past that one reason why the ILS vendors build the systems that they do is because their customers are librarians, not library users. Unfortunately, that doesn't explain the failure of our ILSs and other systems to support the work that we do as librarians.

Imagine this scenario: We have some money left at the end of the year, so we're looking at what we can spend it on. One option is to pay the one-time fee to purchase electronic access to journal backfiles (and yes, this is "purchase" for us; it will be loaded on the consortial server to which we will have ongoing access). Of course, in order to decide if buying the backfiles is worth what the Large Dutch Multinational (LDM) is charging, we need to figure out how much the backfiles might be used. One would think that it would be easy to use a list of ISSNs to generate data from the various sources of usage data that are available to us.

Unfortunately, that's not the case. Part of this is our own fault, for creating internal processes that are not conducive to gathering statistics as we go, and part of it is the fault of vendors who don't provide convenient access for "small bulk" access to data to which we subscribe, or just don't give us easy access to our own data. For example, given a list of one hundred ISSNs, how hard would it be for you to find out how many ILL requests were placed for each one?

As a programmer, I'm willing to accept a certain level of data format inconsistency between systems, since I can write my own tools to even out such problems, but my programming background also makes my sensitive to the data that's just not available, or demands inordinate amounts of manual (ie, typing and browser clicking) to reach it.

We must begin to take notice of how all the systems we use professionally fail to mesh, and demand that vendors make it easier for us to gather the scattered data we need for decision-making into a coherent format: a librarian's decision support system.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Book A Month Challenge for March: Craft

Morris, William. 1894. The Wood Beyond the World. A facsimile of the Kelmscott Press ed. New York: Dover, 1972.

Although Morris was a late-Victorian contemporary of Conan Doyle and Kipling, he affected a 17th Century style of English in this romantic fantasy about a young man driven to a quest by misfortune at home and by visions of a beautiful Lady and her two mismatched servants.

Golden Walter, our Hero, is an honourable and handsome, but common, young man. Cursed at home by an unfaithful wife, he leaves on a trading ship to avoid causing a feud between his father's family and that of his estranged wife. While trading in far lands, he sees visions of the Lady, her beautiful maidservant, and an ugly dwarf, but resists the natural urge to hunt for the source of these visions out of his sense of duty to his father's ship. In the farthest reaches of the empire, he receives word that his attempts to avoid a feud have failed, and that his father has died, so he sets out to return home. Unfortunately, the elements conspire against his honour and drive him into strange heathen lands and the country ruled by the Lady of his visions and the maidservant with whom he falls in love. The novel has a strong episodic structure, with Walter moving (or being moved) from encounter to encounter, meeting all of the usual fairy tale tropes until the typical "happily ever after" ending.

A note on the edition: While many libraries have The Wood Beyond the World, my copy is a photo-facsimile of the Morris's original Kelmscott Press edition, which takes some time to get used to reading for the modern reader, but is very pleasing to the eye.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Social Aggregators

With Google's OpenSocial API, we're starting to see hints of the social networking interoperability I talked about a while ago, but the idea of "social aggregation" seems to accomplish some of the same goals. Feed aggregators, which gathering together information about updates to websites and present them all together for the reader's convenience have been around for a while, but these new social aggregation sites provide a simple way to gather together information about social network participation and online identity into one place.

There are two basic models of social aggregation services:

  • I aggregate my identities into a portal, which might be a public site I can share with friends as a "portal to all things David", or a private starting point for tracking and accessing my online activities;
  • I aggregate all my friends' identities into a portal, so I only have to go to one place to go to see what they're all up to, taking stalking to a whole new level.

(I came up with the name "social aggregators" independently, but it's pretty obvious terminology.)

Aggregating oneself seems to be a fairly basic way of handling online identity management, especially if one has a broad portfolio of online content and a common name (not a problem for me). The simplest example of this kind of aggregator is the site ClaimID, which doesn't provide information about updates to sites, but just gathers together all of your information into something like an online CV.

Aggregating all your friends is the more useful service: I don't have to go to every social network that my friends are on to find out what's going on with them. The service that provides the creepiest example of this is Spokeo. Once you create an account, you can either upload your address book, or, more simply but much less secure, give it your hotmail/yahoo/gmail userid and password and allow it to harvest your address book directly. Once it knows who's in your address book, Spokeo will go out and harvest all the social networks it knows about and reports to you what your contacts are doing on those networks. Spokeo goes to great lengths to explain that it is only accessing information that is publicly available on the net for anybody to see, and thus isn't an invasion of your privacy. But having Spokeo trawling the net for everything about oneself just feels qualitatively different from connecting with friends as one becomes aware of their activities in the various venues.

Between services like Spokeo and google alerts, the possibilities for Total Information Awareness aren't limited to just the government. Maybe privacy really is dead.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

On Keeping a Reading Journal

I'm usually not very good at keeping a journal or diary (see, for example, the regularity with which I write in this particular venue). I've tried several times over the years, because I think that I should, and I never last for very long. At the beginning of the year when so many blogger were posting various stats about their reading habits last year, I decided to keep a log of what I read. "Nothing could be simpler," I thought, "it's just data gathering!"

And so it is. I've got a spreadsheet on google docs. Whenever I start reading a book, I fill in the author and title, whether it's fiction or nonfiction, and the date I started reading. When I finish, I fill in the end date. And I get to do some simple spreadsheet programming to keep various statistics, which is always fun (no, that's not sarcastic, although some people may think it ironic).

There are some operational problems. Whenever I start reading a book, I have to remember to record it, at least within a day or so, so I get the start date right. For some reason, recording the end of a book is easier for me to remember. And, of course, I need to be near a computer; I foresee this causing problems during my summer reading binge, when there's not a computer in sight on the upper reaches of the Ottawa River.

More interesting than these mechanical issues, which are fairly obvious, I've already started to notice some effects on my reading behaviour. I normally read quickly: for my vacation I usually plan to read one book a day (if nothing else, that means I won't run out of books), but so far this year, it's taken an average of six days to finish a book (of those I've completed). The book I just finished yesterday took seventeen days to complete, but that has nothing to do with the difficulty of the book or my lack of interest in it, and everything to do with the fact that I've started a big project, and don't have as much spare time to devote to reading.

Which leads to the biggest effect of keeping a reading journal on my reading habits: I am loathe to start a new book until I know that I'll have time to devote to it. It seems that the incomplete books on my list (two right now, one dating from Christmas), impart a certain weight, and that, for me at least, recording data has moved me from "always have a book on the go" to "promptly finish the books I start." I suspect that I'll read the same number of books regardless, it's just that I won't start them until I have some spare time, so I'll have short reads with large "illiterate" gaps, rather than continuous slow reading.

Of course, if I really wanted to rack up the numbers, I'd just stop reading The Economist every week (but then, I'm falling behind on that too).

Saturday, March 01, 2008

BAM Challenge: Heart

Bennet, Alan. The Uncommon Reader. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

Bennet starts with a simple premise: "What would happen if the Queen suddenly developed an interested in reading for pleasure?" This short novel, a mere 120 pages, is a light exploration of that question, and shows how reading leads to neglecting one's duties and avoiding human companionship.

But it also shows how she grows through her reading. The Queen, after even just a brief exposure to fiction, seems to think more about the people around her, and show genuine concern for her staff in small ways that she never did before: reading, and exposure to the human condition, has given the Queen more of a heart, made her more compassionate.

(Sometimes it can be a stretch to fit a book into the theme, but I know I can do it!)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Where the Users Are

Two of the technology trends that I talked about at OLA this year are really parts of one over-arching trend: making it easy for our users to integrate the library and its online collections into their normal workflows. That is, going to where they are, in an online kind of way.

Over the Christmas break, I started playing with Google Gadgets as a way of incorporating the library's catalogue into my home page at iGoogle. It was surprisingly easy. In fact, it was surprisingly easy to set up a prototypical "Western" iGoogle template. Shortly after I started working on this, I discovered, via the Panlibus blog, that the Dublin City (Ireland) public library is doing something similar with a different service called Pageflakes. Netvibes is another service that does the same sort of thing. Google and Netvibes both claim to provide programming interfaces that allow their gadgets and widgets (respectively) be incorporated into all sorts of different sites. Then, just a few weeks into January, Proquest announced their widget builder, which simplifies creating Proquest search boxes in library (or other) home page. Of course, this sort of embedding is more about making the starting point more convenient, since it's not hard to get to the catalogue, or to a database just by bookmarking them.

The more interesting way, for me, of embedding our services into our users lives and workflows is the newer area of mobile web access. With the launch of the iPhone in the US last year, and the much rumoured launch here in Canada (supposedly any day now), with it's large screen, it suddenly makes sense to search the web standing wherever one might be. Just before Christmas, Bell Canada launched the new HTC Touch smartphone with the option of unlimited web browsing on the phone for a mere $7/month (this should not be confused with unlimited data, which it probably isn't). Suddenly, surfing the web on your phone isn't really geeky, but is actually useful: I have actually searched Amazon.ca's mobile interface while standing in my local Chapters store, just to see how much cheaper the book might be online. The Thunder Bay Public Library has purchased Innovative Interfaces's "AirPac" mobile web interface for their catalogue. If my local library had a mobile interface, I'd probably use it instead of Amazon's when looking for books in Chapters.

Discovery happens everywhere. We need to make sure that when our users discover something, that we're there too, to deliver it to them.

My Top Technology Trends Slides

I've already written a bit about my top tech trends, and I have a couple more posts to make about them that will go into more detail, but here's a slightly modified version of my slides (only modified to make it simpler to see what's going on without me rambling).

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Library Technology, Cable-Actuated Excavators, and the Collapse of Bethlehem Steel

Imagine that you are a senior executive in a successful company selling high-end equipment to all the major consumers in your market. Now imagine a product manager approaches you with the following suggestion:
"We aren't selling to the smaller, niche, consumers. Why don't we create a new, stripped down product so we can move into that market segment. It would take a year or so to create a new design that would be underpowered, lack significant functionality that our major accounts consider critical, and fail to conform to industry standards. Oh, and because the target market is made up of smaller players, we'd have to be satisfied with a lower profit margin."

You probably wouldn't react to favourably to this idea, now would you? But that could be a problem in the long run, according to Clayton Christensen, who first explored the idea of "disruptive technology" in his 1997 book, The Innovator's Dilemma.

When hydraulic excavators were first introduced after World War II, they were were too small to be used by the mining, general, and sewer contractors who were the major users of excavators, so the big manufacturers ignored the hydraulic technology; they were focused on supporting their primary market. So the makers of the new “backhoes” sold them into the agricultural and residential contracting markets. From 1947, when hydraulics were introduced until 1960, when the transition from cable-actuated to hydraulic excavators was complete, the power and reach of the hydraulic systems gradually improved until they were able to do the work that the mining, general, and sewer contractors needed. They still weren't as strong as, nor could they reach as far as, the cable-actuated excavators, but they were strong enough and could reach far enough. More importantly, they broke down less often, and when they broke down, it was less dangerous: “[T]hose who had experienced the life-threatening snap of a cable while hefting a heavy bucket embraced reliable hydraulics quickly, as soon as it was capable of doing the job (p. 72).” The cable-actuated excavator manufacturers were doing great the year before hydraulics were “good enough”. After that, sales of new excavators went exclusively to the hydraulics and the old guard was gone.

Christensen finds the same pattern in the steel industry: when minimills were introduced, they could be built cheaply and they used scrap steel for inputs, but they were limited to making poor quality steel, suitable only for concrete reinforcing bars. Concrete rebar is a very low-margin product, so the major steel manufacturers with their integrated mills didn't particularly care if the minimills took over that work: they were focused on high-quality steel products for major clients like the automotive industry. Over time, the minimills kept getting better at producing steel, and kept improving the quality of their output until they were producing steel that was good enough for the high-end customers. And because the minimills were born in an environment that demanded low profit margins, as they moved up-market, they were producing equivalent quality steel with lower margins than the integrated mills could manage, allowing the smaller companies to charge less and still make a higher profit. The large integrated mills lived in an ecosystem of suppliers, labour relations, and investors that required a certain level of profitability to sustain the mills. When that business model was undercut by the minimills, the big steel companies collapsed.

These examples don't match the current situation in the ILS marketplace exactly, but there are some interesting parallels, which will have to wait for another day.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

How Not to Deal With an Epiphany

If you suddenly connect many different strands of thought and figure out a wonderful new idea while standing on the podium as part of a panel discussion at a conference, don't try to explain it right then and there. It doesn't work as well as you may think.

It's been extremely crazy here since I got back from Toronto late Saturday evening, but I will definitely posts some notes about top technology trends, cable-driven cranes, and the collapse of Bethlehem Steel, but it may be a few days.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Book A Month Challenge: Changing Times

Phillips, Julie. James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006.

In recent months, I've begun to notice that the movie studios are creating different trailers and ads for the same film, each with a different emphasis. So we have the "comedy" trailer and the "chick flick" trailer. I even once saw "chick flick" and "action" trailers for a film, which was a bit of a stretch. This biography of Alice Sheldon could easily be promoted the same way, but more honestly. One could write the proto-feminist review, the Lesbian/gender identify review, or the literary biography review. In keeping with January's theme of “Time ”, I read the biography of someone who lived through much of an extraordinary century and saw amazing changes in world around her.

Sheldon led an adventurous life from the very beginning: when she was six, her parents took her with them on safari to unexplored Africa. She was literally one of the first white people the Kikuyu tribe of Kenya saw. She was one of the first WAC officers in World War II, interpreting spy-plane photos of enemy territory, and she worked briefly for the newly founded CIA. She earned a PhD in Psychology. Her accomplishments were also regularly dismissed because she was a woman:

When [she] got an all-time high grade on a qualifying test, the county agricultural agent who wrote to congratulate her pointed out, "Your husband didn't do bad either. I expect Mr Sheldon could have really beat you but wanted to be real gallant and diplomatic and let his wife win (p. 151).
She saw the birth of modern feminism and corresponded closely with Joanna Russ, but she watched the movement from the outside and did not benefit from it. She was working as a man at the time (that's the "Lesbian/gender identity" review breaking through).

Her experience among the Kikuyu in 1922 informs the headlines we've been seeing out of Kenya for the past month. Imagine living in central Africa and being transported from an isolated village that has seen no change in hundreds of years into the 21st century in just three generations.

Phillips has written a well researched biography with extensive, though unobtrusive, notes. This is not a "popular" biography, but an academic one. The early chapters are focused primarily on Sheldon's parents, and are slow-going, but they lay important groundwork for later discussion of Sheldon's relationship with her mother, who was famous in her own right.

The back matter includes a bibliography of Sheldon's works, the notes, a bibliography of published sources, and an index. Unfortunately, the index is not as strong as I would like: there are no entries for "Army" or "Intelligence" (the latter is listed under "World War II, intelligence work in"), nor is there a cross reference from "WAAC" or "WAC" to "Women's Auxiliary Army Corps" or "Women's Army Corps". The index does include entries for significant text in the notes, which are indicated by italic page numbers. (This use of italics is not explained in the index.)

For most readers, these issues are minor and will not detract from the reading. For an academic studying Sheldon or the science fiction of the 1970s and early '80s, they will make referring to the text more challenging, though.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

How to Consume More Books This Year

The personal productivity blog Lifehack.org has published some tips for squeezing more reading into a year, Literary Gluttony. It starts with a list of why one might want to read more, including "knowledge", "keeping your mind sharp", and, interestingly, "pride".

The tips for reading more are mostly sensible, although I would argue about "speed reading" as a first thing to do. I also doubt that any but the most committed of readers will be following the author's lead by getting up at 5:30 to squeeze in reading time before work.

Nothing on the list will be too surprising to a librarian or regular reader, but this looks like a good list for those people who feel that they should read more, but want some tips for how to fit it in.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy 2008 Public Domain Day

Canada is part of the "Life+50" copyright club, so the published works by anybody who died in 1957 fell into the public domain as of today, January 1, 2008. Highlights include Dorothy Sayers, John Von Neumann, and Lord Dunsany.

The complete list also reports on who's entered the public domain in the "Life+70" countries and some of the strange situations related to the United States and government publications in some Commonwealth countries.