Archive for the 'Stuff' Category

The mystery of spreadsheet sizes

Posted in Stuff on June 30th, 2013

Thanks to Colorado’s Library Research Service, I found out on Wednesday (June 26) that the IMLS released the 2011 public library datafiles a little early. (I was expecting them some time in July, so “a little” is the operative word. Still: early is better.)

So I went to check the site, figuring I’d do my usual: Download the .zip file containing the .mdb (Access) databases, extract the database consisting of library data (as opposed to outlet data or state summaries), download the PDF documentation, then open the .mdb database in Excel, convert the whole thing to a table, and save it as an Excel spreadsheet for later use (assuming I do the Give Us a Dollar… project). The Excel spreadsheet would probably start at around 8MB, but once I peeled off the columns I actually care about, it would get a lot smaller.


First, the surprise: The data is no longer available in your choice of .mdb or flat (.txt) files, the latter requiring a form of string processing I’m not sure how I’d do.

Nope. Now it comes in SAS form (only for 2010 and 2011), .txt, and two other forms: .csv (comma-separated values, which Excel’s only too happy to open) and .xsl (Excel native form).

That’s not only true for the 2011 tables, IMLS has gone back and replaced earlier .mdb databases with .csv and .xls files.

Well, that’s one step I won’t have to include in the how-to chapter of “Mostly Numbers” if I do that particular project–namely, how to open the .mdb database and convert it to an Excel spreadsheet.

Oh, but look: The Excel spreadsheet is more than 21MB, about three times as large as I’d expect.


That was surprising enough that I went back and downloaded the .csv files. The .csv library file is about 7MB. When I open it in Excel, it looks precisely like the Excel spreadsheet (as it should, unless there are formulas hidden in the Excel version)…and when saved in Excel form, it’s about 7MB.

In other words, just about the size I would have expected.

What’s going on here? Unless somebody from IMLS reads this and sends me a note, I’ll either figure it out later or not. As things stand, I’m more likely to work with the .csv-to-Excel form (although I suspect that both would wind up shrinking to about the same size for the 15-20 columns I actually need out of the scores of columns that are there now).

This could be one of those Office mysteries, where if I delete and restore one cell in the 21MB Excel spreadsheet it suddenly turns into a 7MB spreadsheet. Or not.

Meanwhile, it’s just one of those mysteries.


One little note here on an entirely different topic. I’m generally not much of one for following memes, such as the idea of blogging every day in June. That’s a lot of blogging for an occasional blogger like me. I’d feel silly signing up for it and then not doing it (or having odd “post 23″ titles on daily posts).

Whereas not signing up for it, and then (accidentally?) doing it? That’s just fine.

[No, I won’t accidentally write a 50,000 word novel in November or any other month. I lack the personal observation skills to be a good fiction writer. Could I produce 50,000 words of decent second-draft material in a month? Yeah, I think so…but November’s not likely to be one of those months.


Another silly little post

Posted in Stuff on June 24th, 2013

I love good print magazines; you probably already know that.

I have mixed feelings about some magazines. You probably already know that as well. I gave up on Wired the first time around because the hypergraphic design made it nearly unreadable. I gave up on it (after a one-year essentially-free subscription that turned into two years for odd reasons) the second time around because, well, Wired: The editorial style just got to me.

Then there’s Fast Company. I subscribed to it years and years ago when it was one of several “new business” mags, including Business 2.0 and The Industry Standard (the best of them by a long shot, for its brief life). I gave up on Fast Company because it seemed to be a cult publication, pushing a specific and fairly peculiar point of view.

A little while back (maybe a year or two?), I picked it up again–for miles on an airline I don’t plan to fly again–and, this time around, rather liked it. Oh, not all of it, and certainly not the near-impossibility of separating advertising and editorial, but much of it. They offered really cheap long-term subscriptions, so I’ve got it until some time in 2016. (Hey, some magazines get so cheap on long-term that I have one or two through 2019…)

More recently, I’m finding both growing traces of, well, let’s call it FastCoIsm, not quite a cult but close to it. (That’s not unusual: there’s HBRism, to name just one more example.)

What engendered this little post, though, is a remarkably offputting Contents page for the June 2013 issue.

To wit:

  • The full page–really–is a “Contents” listing for the issue’s feature essay, “100 most creative people in business.” I already knew I’d approach the essay–like most of FC’s “creativity” lists–with some caution. But that’s for later.
  • Most of the page is taken up with a picture of a young woman. That’s fine.
  • But here’s the caption for the picture: “Fashion blogger Leandra Medine (page 144) finds the trends women love (and men hate).”

At which point–specifically those last three words–I went “Hunh?” There’s actually a blogger who claims to finds “trends” that women love “and men hate”?

If by “men” you mean what I’d call real men–people who have enough self-confidence not to need to put down women or treat them as objects, as opposed to (stereotypical) construction crews and jerks–I’d find such a concept difficult to believe. I have yet to be acquainted with a woman who I liked as a person–or, for that matter, just found unusually attractive–who wore anything she loved and I “hated.” If a woman’s comfortable in her clothes, that’s almost always attractive: Being comfortable with yourself is, well, hot. (Pardon the somewhat sexist language: I’m trying to make a point.)

So I went to Medine’s blog, “Man Repeller.” And found that I didn’t hate any of the images in the banner (although I suspected that one or two of them might be uncomfortable to wear, and I’ve never understood why any woman would wear something that’s uncomfortable, but that’s for her to decide)–quite the opposite in most cases.

And I read through some of the posts. And found interesting looks and well-written, frequently witty commentary.

What I didn’t find was anything that would justify the caption.

Looking at the About page, and spending more time in some of the categories most associated with “repelling men,” I see tongue firmly in cheek, lots of editorial and photographic skills and a lot of interesting choices.

I can easily see including Medine in the list of creative people.

But “(and men hate)”? Cute, a little irritating and wholly misleading.

Never mind. This is just a silly little post.


Over the

Rockstar librarians

Posted in Stuff on June 19th, 2013

Since I wrote a mild little snark about thought leaders yesterday, maybe I should say something about Rockstar Librarian.

Here’s what I have to say about that:

In 2013, the whole “rockstar” concept (for anybody except, say, The Rolling Stones) is so self-cancelling that, hey, if that’s what you want to be, or to call somebody else, more power to you.

I’d stay away from the cocaine and groupies, though: that stuff can mess you up bad.

No, this isn’t about Movers & Shakers. Had that discussion many years ago. Expressed myself badly. I’d admit to a tweak of envy for this year, given that the free lunch comes with a great speaker–but hey, if I was going to be ALA 2013, which I’m not, I’d make a beeline for the LITA Imagineering IG program, where–if I was early enough–I’d get a bag of free books including some by authors I admire, and hear from a bunch of them, including Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi. Oh, and David Brin: Maybe I could see whether his thinking has evolved any since the last time we met.

Thought leaders

Posted in Stuff on June 16th, 2013

Those looking for deep significance: Look elsewhere.

Thought leaders.

Doesn’t that just roll off the tongue?

I mean, you have your experts, your gurus, your bigshots…but none of them compare to thought leaders.

Because the rest of us are supposed to be thought followers, waiting for thought leaders to tell us what to think.

Or, I suppose, to lead us to a proper way of thinking?

The more I think about it, given the arena in which this wondrous term tends to get used most often (that arena in which everything is business, one way or another), I think the term’s slightly wrong.

Here’s what it should be:

Thought sellers.

We’re the consumers–we buy what they’re selling. If we don’t, they’re not good thought leaders.

(If you think you’re something more than a consumer, if you think you’re a citizen who forms his or her own thoughts, well, then, good for you. So do I. Which is one of several reasons I cringe every time I see library patrons/users/members referred to as customers. But that’s another post.)

Visual three (and an adjustment tool?)

Posted in Stuff on May 23rd, 2013

Consider this Bill’s post, if you like. Hey, I’m getting more non-spam comments than ever, so why not?

The image below is in some sense another test of visual differentiation–but this time, color differentiation isn’t involved. In fact, if you see colors other than white/off-white/gray in the image, that’s a sign your display could use adjustment.

Which might also make this image a good tool for display adjustment. To wit: How many different shades (or colors) do you see? I’ll provide the answer tomorrow or Monday–and this time I did check the JPEG after saving it, to be sure colors hadn’t somehow been averaged. (Admittedly, my sloppiness in selecting rectangles makes this easy–but still, I think, a useful tool for display adjustment.)


Service, part 1.

Posted in Stuff on May 22nd, 2013

A two-part post (if and when I get around to the second part) discussing two cases where I had a tricky situation–one involving a government agency and one involving a private company. Both ran over several months. One turned out very well, leaving me mostly feeling positive about the people involved. One turned out…well, unsatisfactorily or not at all.

I’m guessing some of you will make the wrong assumption as to which is which.

First, let’s talk about Social Security.

I postponed taking Social Security for a little over a year from when I was first eligible, because I thought it made sense to do so, based on sources I read and my own calculations.

Briefly: Just as you lose 8% forever if you start taking SS a year early, 16% two years early, and 24% three years early, you gain 8% if you start taking it a year late, 16% two years late, 24% three years late.

Taking it late is gambling that you’ll live more than 12 years past the point at which you do start taking it, since that’s how long it takes to make up for the payments you’ve missed. (Actually just a bit more than 12 years, but it’s close enough.) So, for example, postponing it to age 67 instead of 66 is gambling that you’ll live significantly past 79; at age 68, significantly past 80… Based on my own health and my family history, my wife & I thought the “significantly past 79″ was a good gamble.

Here’s where I should bitch about how terribly complex and tedious it is to apply for social security. Except that it isn’t–as with much of the Federal Government, the web site’s well-designed and the application process was remarkably smooth.

Not too long after sending in my application, I got the letter with the amount I was going to get. And, based on what I’d seen in the annual letters, it struck me that I wasn’t getting credit for the extra year–that the payment was somewhere between 7% and 8% below what it should be.

So I called the national number, waited for a while, and talked to somebody. Who basically agreed that it didn’t quite look right. A local agent called and, after some discussion, said “You’ll see the extra at the start of the new year.” That struck me as odd. I filed an appeal. Another local agent called, asked if I really wanted to appeal, repeated that it would probably show up at the start of the next year… and that I could then appeal after the start of the new year (2013). I looked carefully through the website again, and there was one place where the possibility of extra showing up in a new year was raised. So I held off.

When the new year began, I got another letter, indicating the cost-of-living increase. And nothing else.

So: Back to the national number. The agent did some calculations, once again said “that doesn’t quite sound right,” and said they’d flag my record, which meant the local office would get back to me–at which point I could appeal if I didn’t like the results. The agent also said something else I found telling: Basically, that they really didn’t have to deal with delayed applications very often…that, despite all the financial advisers suggesting that “if you can, you should postpone Social Security for a couple of years,” nobody seemed to be doing that. So, although this was never said, maybe the agents doing the local calculations just weren’t very familiar with the delay option…

It took a while–long enough that I once again called the national number again, and was told my account was still flagged. Then I got another letter. Which, as I did the calculations, raised my payments to within 1% of what I thought it should be. (And not paying the extra for the end of last year, which I still find odd but in this case truly trivial, but paying the extra for the first few months of this year.)

So: I’m happy. It took a little while and a couple of phone calls, but the people on the other end of the line always seemed polite, knowledgeable and out to help me, and in the end I was made whole.

Given the sheer number of accounts SSA has to deal with, the delay probably wasn’t unreasonable. I give them a Win on this situation.

[But then, I'm one of those who regard USPS service as nothing short of remarkable, especially given that U.S. postage prices are some of the lowest in the world; how they can handle Netflix cycles as fast as they do tells me a lot, and I'll choose them any time for package delivery as well. And I think CA DMV does pretty damn well, all things considered. So, you know, I'm a sucker for government services that perform well despite the obstacles they face, which I think is the case for most government services.]

This is the happy-ending story. The unhappy non-ending story? Maybe later. A little searching through the blog archives (“Panasonic” is the clue) may tell you what you need to know. And maybe no more–other than no, nobody ever did get back to me–is all that need be said.

Visual acuity redux

Posted in Stuff on May 21st, 2013

A visual acuity test (or something like it)” was prepared in conjunction with an essay on differences (I’d call it “discrimination” but that word’s been damaged) for the August Cites & Insights–and, sigh, I think I did the image wrong. There were supposed to be six rectangles on a pure-white background, with each rectangle differing by having one or two of the primary colors (RGB) reduced from #FF to #FE.

Somehow (still haven’t figured out how, unless JPEG is to blame) I wound up with only five colors–three of the six rectangles had the same color.

I did get some useful comments, including at least one person who apparently has extraordinary color acuity.

This time, I’ll give you the image and tell up front that there should be ten colors on it–nine off-white shades with two narrow bands of pure white between them. This time, I closed the file and reopened the JPEG version; Paint.NET’s color picker does show nine different values. If you’re like me, you may be able to see the bottom three rectangles if you look really hard. Some of you may see some of the center row.

This time, the top row should be one FD and two FFs; the center row was intended to be FCFFFF, FCFCFF, and FCFCFC respectively; the bottom row goes all the way down to FB for one of the three primaries in each box. I say “should be” and “intended to be” because reopening the JPEG version shows some shifts in the top two rows–still nine colors, but not precisely the nine I started out with.

Don’t think you can actually perceive 16 million colors? You may be right.

On the other hand, there are cases where–at least to my eyes–a one-digit change in one of the three primaries is visible if you put the two colors side by side. I have that example in the essay (which is mostly not about color acuity but about differentiation in general).

Anyway, here’s the ten-color image, for what it’s worth:


A visual acuity test (or something like it)

Posted in Stuff on May 20th, 2013


How many colors are in that image?

“What image, and why does the text start so far down?”

That’s a reasonable reaction.

If you see anything above my question other than an undifferentiated field of white, I invite you to answer the question (the “How many” one) in comments.

If you don’t, that’s OK. (Do I? That would be telling…)


A very silly post of consequence whatsoever

Posted in Stuff on May 14th, 2013

That’s right: Another post about video poker (which means comments are off because most of them wouldn’t get through filters anyway).

Not completely about video poker, though: Also about a silly statement in a pretty good book about statistics, one I read when I was first pondering the possibility of writing a book about coping with everyday statistics.

Still pondering, as a recent post made clear. No decision yet.

Anyway: The book said–accurately–that neither (honest) dice nor (honest) cards (nor, for that matter, honest slot machines) have memories, any more than an honest coin does. Therefore, getting, say, fifty heads in a row when flipping a coin does not mean that the next flip is “nearly certain to be tails.” Assuming the coin’s legit, it means the odds are even–50% chance you’ll get tails, 50% chance heads.

Similarly, if you’ve played 40,000 hands of draw video poker and haven’t received a royal flush (which should come up roughly one out of every 40,000 hands), the chances of getting one on the next play are, well, 1 in about 40,000. And if you get two royal flushes in a row, the chances of getting a third one are 1 in about 40,000–even though the chances of that three-royal-flush streak are truly small.

All of that’s accurate. Here’s the part that’s not: The author says that there are no such things as streaks.

That’s nonsense. In fact, the nature of random play means that there almost have to be streaks–periods during which the randomness doesn’t seem random. What might have been said honestly is that a streak can end at any time, because it’s just a series of random events.

But there are streaks. The last time I played video poker for money (which was quite a while back, the last time ALA Annual was in New Orleans), I had a hot streak: Although I was playing machines with roughly 96% payback (because I wasn’t betting five coins at a time, so wouldn’t get the Big Payout for a royal flush), I was probably averaging 105% payback. For two days (maybe three hours total).

It works both ways, to be sure. And therein hangs the tale of the current silly post, a long way of saying “Aarrggh…”, the non-wagering video poker site run by the company that produces most video poker slot machines, just added a third contest to its other two (a daily $50 contest and a monthly contest with several winners running up to $500): A monthly contest to reward those of us who win a fair number of rounds (a round is 100 deals; a deal is usually three hands but sometimes only one and sometimes 25-100) but rarely get lucky enough to get the day’s top score. The new contest gives you a point each time you win a round at all–and gives you another round when you want it (you’re normally limited to either 5 or 8 rounds a day, depending). Whoever has the most points at the end of the month wins.

I’ve played when I felt like it, and did so-so, and saved my extra points for games that I really like and have usually done well at. Normally, I can figure to win 25%-40% of rounds; that’s reasonable for games with 98.5% payback [full Nevada odds, varying slightly depending on the game]. These two variants have actually been somewhat better, typically in the 40%-50% range.

So yesterday was one of the “good” ones. I figured to win 2 or 3 of the eight standard rounds and keep playing those extra credits until they were gone. Played eight rounds. Three of the eight had >90% payback; two of those three had >97% payback. But not one round was a winner. I used two existing extra credits to play ten rounds. Not one winner. That’s exceptionally bad for this particular variant–for any variant, actually.

Today? Another good one. So far, I’ve done five rounds. Every round >90%. Two rounds at 99% or higher.

Not one winner.

So, yes, there are streaks. Hot streaks and cold streaks. Right now, if you suggested going to a casino, all housing and travel expenses paid, I’d probably laugh: At least with, there’s no possibility of losing money. (And no second-hand smoke, and no music unless I want it…) My cold streak could snap any time–possibly the very next time I play–but right now, it’s making it remarkably easy to write, read, weed (I hate weeding!), watch TV…

The only lesson here: Of course there are streaks. If there are no streaks, you’re playing a crooked game–one that has memory*. But, also of course, streaks are neither predictable nor meaningful in the long run.

*Real-world blackjack and table poker do, of course, have a form of memory–cards that have already been played can’t be played again until the deck’s reshuffled. Different issue.

Update 7:30 p.m.: It is, of course, entirely coincidental that after posting this lament I managed to win four out of the next six rounds, after having lost 16 in a row. Doesn’t mean I’m suddenly on a hot streak, only that the cold streak seems to have ended. For now.

What’s going on

Posted in Stuff on April 23rd, 2013

A little randomness that may help explain why posting’s been even lighter than usual the past couple of weeks.

And if you get Marvin Gaye as an earbug–you won’t get an apology from me, as there are few better songs/singers available.

Oregon and Washington Librarians

I hope to see a few of you over the next few days. Later today, I’ll fly to Vancouver, Washington for the 2013 joint Oregon/Washington Library Association(s) conference, where I’ll do a three-hour preconference on open access and talks on “Give Us a Dollar…” and micropublishing.

OK, so I won’t actually fly to Vancouver. I’ll fly to Portland. And will probably spend longer on BART getting to SFO than I spend in the air. I love Livermore, but for flights–much rarer now than in the past–it’s less than ideal.

Preparing for Oregon and Washington

I’ve been busy preparing for those talks. Other than one talk last year, I really haven’t done much of any speaking, and I’d like to do a good job.

Actually, I started preparing quite some time ago–and preparations included a special Oregon/Washington version of Give Us a Dollar…, which I think is a good model of what I could do for other states/regions if anybody wanted it.

The link is to the free, $0, no-cost PDF version–did I mention you don’t have to pay anything for it?–that can be turned into a neat little booklet using a duplexing color printer and quick instructions here. There’s also a color hardcover edition–the book has multiline graphs that require color–but so far my own copy is the only copy, and that’s OK.

Preparatory work for the OA precon has resulted in two offshoots…

Hot Times for Open Access: The June Cites & Insights

When I devoted 60,000 words to OA in the January and February Cites & Insights, I thought I was done with it for the year. But the last few months have been unusually active–so much so that the June issue will be almost entirely devoted to another OA roundup.

Look for it some time next week, probably right around May 1 or 2.

But there’s also…

The Big Deal and the Damage Done

Working on the precon and the issue, I ran into another of those statements asserting that the Big Deal was a wonderful thing all around and that it essentially solved the serials crisis back in 2004.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum also did a nice blog post, “Politics, Economics, and Screwing the Humanities,” which reminded me of what was getting damaged if serials prices were still rising too quickly: Namely, the humanities (which still depend on books) and the flexibility of academic libraries to be anything other than licensing agencies. I suspected that the damage was complex, and decided to investigate just a little.

The result will be an ebook (and paperback book–while it has lots of graphs, I’ve designed them so they’re workable without color if need be), probably out in the first half of May. Several of the graphs prepared in the process will show up in the OA precon PowerPoints.

Portions of the book will probably appear in the July 2013 C&I.

It will be interesting to see whether the response is as overwhelming as it has been for this year’s two previous library-analysis pieces, the March issue and the May issue, which so far have substantially fewer downloads than other issues.

Oh, as to the apparent random use of indented quotations: Think of them as asides. Or not.

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