Archive for the 'Technology and software' Category

A Social Network/Social Media Snapshot

Posted in Technology and software, Writing and blogging on February 18th, 2010

How much (and how) is each of us involved with social networks and social media?

You can get glib answers from a number of sources–answers that I always find a little suspicious in their specificity and broadness. But those answers are only for some large group as a whole–and, increasingly, I think it’s clear that “large group” is both a virtue and a problem for social networks.

Yes, I think Metcalfe’s Law is fundamentally wrong–and always have. For social networks in particular, there’s strong evidence that there’s a crossover point at which more linkages cease to add value and start to dissipate value and relevance. That’s a much more complicated issue, one that others are looking at, and certainly way too complicated for an ‘umble post.

There is one thing I’m reasonably certain of: If there’s a crossover point, it varies by network and by person. How could it be otherwise? What I might consider a maddening flood of chatter might, for you, be a pleasantly active set of conversations. What I might consider a reasonable flow of activity might seem to you like nobody’s quite bothered to turn out the lights (but the tumbleweeds are rolling across the stage).

Avoiding the Big Picture

So any generalized statements I might make would be even more suspect than usual. Heck, I don’t even think everyone else should be like me–I certainly don’t believe other people are like me.

And yet… I’ve found it interesting and, in some cases, worthwhile to see how others handle their virtual lives and how that correlates to what I understand of their personas. So maybe one or two of you will find this breakdown useful.

Incidentally, I’m talking about both social media and social networks. Here’s the distinction as I see it:

  • A social medium is a publishing medium that encourages direct feedback and interaction–but that typically involves some significant multiple of readers to those providing feedback. I’d put blogs and wikis in this category. (Realistically, lists also belong here. I think Google Reader and Bloglines also do, but aggregators are tricky…)
  • A social network is a conversational medium–one that is fundamentally about interaction, not about messages as such. I’d put Twitter, FriendFeed, LinkedIn and others in this category. Ditto Buzz, if Buzz becomes anything other than a botched experiment in opt-out implementation.
  • Yes, you can use a social network as a social medium (I’d say that’s the case for any Twitterer with more than 10 times as many followers as follows, or any FriendFeed participant who just feeds in stuff from other sources and never participates in threads.) You can use social media as social networks, sort of, but with considerably more difficulty. (Some wikis might be crude social networks, but not most.)

And that’s way too much overhead for a simple exercise (that could yet turn into a piece of a C&I essay, a ways down the road…) (Oh, and speaking of Cites & Insights: It’s neither. It’s an online publication, impure and complex–impure because in its PDF form it’s really a print publication distributed via the web, which is what I’ve said since its founding.)

So here’s where I think I am, today–noting that I’m a fairly extreme introvert, but that I also write a lot.

Where I Am Right Now (I Think)

Here’s where I believe I am with regard to social media and social networks as of today–including what I believe to be the typical time I spend on each, and how I feel about it.

Social Media

  • Walt at Random: My primary social-media outlet. I’ve been here just under five years (really? sometimes it seems less; sometimes much more). My long-term goal has been “roughly two posts a week,” but that was before the automatic post-a-week from my day job. This appears to be post #1,226, so I’m actually averaging just under five posts a week. I’ve had 3,144 comments so far (plus more than 34,500 spam attempts!), which is just about 2.5 comments per post: Terrible for a Name Blogger, not terrible for a liblog. Of course, if I turned off Spam Karma 2 (and extended the time limit for comments, or turned that off as well, and maybe even accepted linkbacks), I’d have more than two dozen comments per post, but the comment facility would also be useless since it would be almost all crap. Let’s see: the blog has a Google Page Rank of five, which is neither strong nor weak. Checking Technorati, I see an Authority of 495 (wow: that’s a lot higher than I expected–but I no longer have much sense of what Technorati Authority actually means); Popurious says I have an Alexa rank of around 2.26 million and some 30,000 Yahoo BackLinks. Of course, it also says I have zero Bloglines subscribers, where Bloglines shows either 104 or 479 (two different feeds). Feedburner (which I’ve learned never to check on the weekend, as numbers seem to dive, then return) shows 827 subscribers, which is astonishing from my perspective. As to measured traffic–well, it depends on who you believe. I added Google Analytics code to track pages (because that’s what’s used for the new Drupal Library Leadership Network, and I’m a little surprised by the low numbers)–and, after a couple of days, I seem to be showing maybe 100 visits and 130 pageviews per day. But Urchin, which actually analyzes server logs (I believe), shows an average of 1,700 visits and just under 5,000 pageviews a day for the past week. So is the site rarely visited at all, or does it have fairly robust numbers? Obviously, I’d like to believe Urchin…and I really do wonder what’s going on with GA. (Maybe I added the code incorrectly?) All in all, I’d call it moderately successful (decent posting frequency, decent level of conversation, more than adequate readership), but then it’s really secondary to C&I, my primary publishing outlet. How much time to I spend on it? This post will take more than an hour to write (it actually took almost exactly two hours); I’d guess I average 15-30 minutes a day on the whole.
  • C&I Updates is my oldest blog, but has only one purpose, described in its name. (It’s not actually oldest by much: The oldest post appears to be from August 12, 2004.) 99 posts to date, just a little more than one post per month. No comments. 295 Bloglines subscribers, so I’m guessing maybe 400+ overall? No GPR. I probably spend two minutes per month on this one, since I create the issue announcements in Walt at Random, then copy-and-paste the HTML into C&I Updates. For its very specific purpose, it works just fine…but it’s sure not very social.
  • Oh, there’s a “blog” in LISNews too, but that’s almost entirely a mirror of C&I Updates. And LLN Highlights is my “work blog,” just as–until today, when I finished moving the last article to the Drupal LLN–the MediaWiki LLN was my “work wiki.”
  • What else? I’ve contributed (rarely) to Library Success Wiki. I’ve contributed (even more rarely!) to Wikipedia. I’m on some unknown but small number of lists–PubLib, Web4Lib, LITA-L, JESSE, and probably a couple of others. Other than issue announcements on the first two, I’m mostly a lurker on these.
  • As for aggregators, I’m still using Bloglines and now find that I have even less desire to turn over more of my virtual life to Google tools. As of today, I see 510 feeds in all, of which roughly 470 are library-related. I probably spend 30 to 45 minutes a day going through the aggregator and reading posts as needed, also tagging some in delicious. (My use of delicious doesn’t qualify as social use.) Part of that time is work time. So I read a lot of blogs and comment whenever I think it’s appropriate–I’d guess maybe 2-4 comments a week?

I think that’s it for social media. By and large, I’m OK with the time involved, and I know I get a lot out of the blogs I read. I’d like to think this blog contributes something; I’m certain C&I does.

Social Networks

Here, things get more confusing. Here’s what I believe to be the case–but, just as I’m a permanent ghost in Second Life (you can’t actually delete your account) and probably have a ghost account in Orkut and Ning, I may be a ghost in several other venues…and some people would consider my presence in one other network essentially ghostly.

I’ve almost always used my full name (as one word) for all social networks, and I’ll probably keep it that way.

  • Twitter: I’m not there now. I was once upon a time, but it didn’t work, for me, for then. I might be back: Anyone who says “Walt Crawford thinks Twitter is useless” has a reading comprehension problem.
  • LinkedIn: I’m there–sort of. Says here I have 140 connections and one recommendation. I’ve treated it as a passive involvement–if people ask me to join their network and I have some vague idea of who they are, I’ll usually accept. LinkedIn didn’t work at all for me when I was looking for a new job, but I wasn’t using it properly (I guess). Best guess: I spend five minutes a week on LinkedIn matters, and that may be too high.
  • FaceBook: Sure, I’m there. “Isn’t everybody?” is still grossly off the mark, but the behemoth of social networks is about as universal as they get. I probably check FaceBook twice a day, but I rarely have anything to say–my current status is from February 5. “Checking FaceBook” is tricky, because I’ve also been reasonably passive here–that is, if anyone asks me to friend them and I’m vaguely aware of who they are (or they’re a library person), I’ll probably confirm the request. That means I have 215 “friends”–and that’s just nonsense. Since I don’t spend more than about 10 minutes on FaceBook at a time, I just glance at the first page of Home, then check two “Friends” lists (you know, the actual friends among your friends): one family list (currently eight people) and one “libclose” list (currently 19 people). Those lists, I actually check. Oh, I’m apparently also one of 7,842 members of ALA Members and 10.747 members of Library 2.0 Interest Group: I never check those at all. I never, ever, ever respond to games, suggestions, applications…that “let us bug all your contacts” message always stops me cold. I’m pretty sure my FaceBook network is too big for me to handle, possibly because it’s symmetrical.
  • FriendFeed: I spend way too much time here–probably 15 minutes in the morning, but probably over an hour in total during the day–but I also find this one valuable and workable. Let’s see: I currently subscribe to 101 folks, and 157 people subscribe to me. I’m in three groups: LSW (427 people), Librariology (?) (268 people) and LITA & Bigwig (121 people). I’ve made 2,599 comments; I feed in titles of blog posts but nothing else (as far as I know); I offer direct comments once in a while (usually to deafening silence), but mostly take part in existing conversations. I like FriendFeed a lot, but I can’t have it “unpaused” and I can’t have it running if I’m trying to write, to think clearly, to read…but that’s true of any online medium. (Yes, I always run FriendFeed paused: it’s easy to hit Home if I want to refresh it. The “running” version just makes me crazy.) So “I spend way too much time here” has to be balanced against “I find this one valuable and workable”–which I do. It would take a lot to get me to leave FF; it’s a source of valuable pointers, even more valuable ideas, some inspiration and some virtual friendships.
  • Meebo: I probably still have an account in the LSW room, but haven’t actually been there in a long time. When it’s active, it’s just too real-time for my asynchronous/introverted nature… (Another way of saying: I realized I was spending as much as an hour at a time there, and that I was getting less done elsewhere. Maybe making the wrong choices, I had to let Meebo go.)
  • ALA Connect: I joined early on (I think). It seems like a great idea. In practice, I might touch base here once or twice a month. I’m not sure what the problem is, and I’m willing to believe I’m using it wrong.

I think that’s it…and even looking at that short list (explained in an absurd 2,000 words), I’m getting tired. (If I’ve left things out, maybe someone will remind me…)

For me, that’s just about as much virtual interaction as I can deal with. But that’s me. It’s partly my lack of multitasking competence (I really can’t write well or read deeply with social stuff going on). It’s partly that I really sort of like being truly offline most of the time.

Note again that I’m not offering advice. This is just my own snapshot–partly because others might find it amusing, partly so I can check back in a few months or years and see what’s changed.

Technology signposts

Posted in Technology and software on November 27th, 2009

A few quick items worth noting, not necessarily all connected:

  • Last month, Toshiba introduced its first Blu-ray Disc player…and some months ago stopped pretending that its upscaling DVD player was “almost as good as” BD. This is a signpost comparable to Sony’s first VHS recorder…
  • On Black Friday, you can buy a Blu-ray player for less than $80 (from Target or another chain that shall go unmentioned)–or a name-brand Blu-ray player for less than $100 (LG, from Amazon). And Blu-ray movies are showing up for $10 or less…
  • Also on Black Friday, you can get flash drives for $2 a gigabyte (in 16gb and 32gb sizes, sometimes in 8gb sizes)…
  • But, just to keep making life difficult, you can also buy hard disks for less than seven cents a gigabyte: $60 for a 1Terabyte USB-powered external drive (Western Digital, but admittedly 5,400RPM, again at Target) or $90-$100 for 1.5TB internal drives, $130 for 2TB internal drives (also name brand, 7200RPM).

What you can’t do, as usual: Buy a seven cent/1GB or $7/100GB hard drive (except as some kind of fluke old-hardware closeout) or a $2/1GB flash drive.


Admission: This is a postdated post. We host our family on Friday this year–16 in all–so I’m highly unlikely to be on the computer “today” as this appears.

How do you define “big”?

Posted in Technology and software on November 8th, 2009

Full disclosure: There are several library-related topics that I simply don’t write about, for one reason or another–inherent conflicts of interest, various agreements, total ignorance…

One of those is integrated library systems, so I have no direct comments to make about a set of conversations currently taking place within various blogs, FriendFeed and probably other venues.

I do have one side comment, though.

One of the parties in these conversations says there are three “big open source applications”–Firefox, Apache and Linux. (The discussion that follows leads me to believe that there’s an implication that these are the big open source applications.) That statement makes me wonder how “big” is defined–setting aside the question of whether Apache or Linux are “applications.”

I’m posting this on my blog, which uses WordPress software, which is open source software. WordPress software runs millions of blogs. Is that big?

My part-time job is as Editorial Director of the Library Leadership Network, which is in the midst of a platform change.

  • The old platform is MediaWiki, which is open source software. MediaWiki is also the platform for an obscure little wiki some of you may have heard of: Wikipedia.
  • The new platform is Drupal, which is open source software. My sense is that Drupal is used for one heck of a lot of content management systems (albeit probably few with the size or traffic of Wikipedia, which of course runs on scalable proprietary open source software).

I’m as much an open source independent as I am an open access independent. I’m quite happy with Vista (and will move to Windows 7 soon) and, although I’ve tried OpenOffice, I much prefer Word2007 and Office2007 in general. But I believe a few million people use OpenOffice, which is open source software.

So I guess it depends on your definition of “big.”

(I’m guessing there are some other open source programs used by millions of people, which for me is a pretty good definition of “big”; I only included ones I’m personally familiar with.)

Followup: Still insufficiently paranoid

Posted in Media, Technology and software on August 15th, 2009

A few days ago, on this increasingly infrequently-updated blog, I posted a little musing about FaceBook’s acquisition of FriendFeed (FF).
Since then, I’ve seen one or two other FF users offer similar comments on FF itself–and a whole bunch of milling around looking for alternatives after the apparently inevitable and soon-to-come shutdown of FF. Christina even wrote a response of sorts. (Hmm. Her response never showed up as a trackback on my post–is there some special rule for inter-SB trackbacks? No problem, really: The previous incarnation of this blog didn’t allow trackbacks at all.)

Expanding on my peculiar calmness

Lots of people, most of them presumably more web-savvy and, as researchers, possibly more intelligent than I am, are dead-on convinced that FB will kill off FF at the first opportunity. I’ve tried to follow the reasoning. Here’s the logic, as far as I can figure it out:
Given that: Google buys lots of services and always shuts them down.

Well, that’s certainly true. That’s why Blogger disappeared in 2004, Picasa disappeared in 2005 and, most important, YouTube was shut down in early 2007.
What’s that you say? You thought Blogger, Picasa and YouTube were still available? And, for that matter, that Postini is still operating? Or that any number of other acquisitions have been renamed or merged into other Google services in a reasonably respectful manner?
You must be mistaken. Or, just maybe, the rule for Google isn’t universally true…

And given that: What’s true for Google is true for every acquiring company.

Use Flicker lately? Of course not; Yahoo! bought it–and must have shut it down, right?

Therefore, FaceBook will shut down FriendFeed.

Based on the absolute truth of the two premises, this conclusion must be sound.

Never mind that one of FF’s founders has said it’s not likely to happen. Never mind that FB might do better on a revenue basis by adding ads to FF and leaving it as a separate service than by attempting a clumsy merger or simply shutting FF down.

Missing the point

Indeed, maybe I am missing the point. I think of FriendFeed as a tool–a good tool, for the most part, but a tool.
But I’m a “library person”–and as others have noted, library people are all over new social media like ants over honey. I’m far less social than most of the library people on FF, I believe; otherwise, I’d be back with one bunch of them on Meebo, another bunch of them on Ning, another bunch of them in (sigh) Second Life, and more…and, to be sure, big overlaps among all those bunches.

There are a lot of library folks on FaceBook as well. My brother, who’s an active FaceBook user, remarked on my 185 “friends”–far more than his count. The difference, I told him, is that I’ll generally accept any “friend” invite from a library person, and that probably accounts for three-quarters of that count. He has a lot fewer people, mostly family and actual friends, possibly a sounder approach to actually using FaceBook rather than dabbling in it as I do.

FriendFeed is, in a number of ways, a fine tool. In some other ways, it’s aggravating, but that’s true of every social medium of which I’m aware. (Yes, I use Stylish to control some of the aggravation and broadly-applied hiding to control most of the rest.) Of course, social media aren’t ideally suited to relative asocial/shy people like me anyway.
But for a fair number of people, apparently, FriendFeed is more than a tool. And if FriendFeed (or the rooms set up within FriendFeed) has become something significantly more powerful than a tool, you get a lot more upset when you think it might go away. (Or, given the number of people with no apparent insider knowledge I’m aware of who have said this flat-out, “when it absolutely is going away.”)
I can’t tell those people Don’t Panic. I certainly can’t, and wouldn’t, suggest that they’re wasting time by looking for alternatives.
I can suggest this: If you’re looking for an alternative, look for the business model.
Having a business model doesn’t assure that you won’t be purchased or otherwise go out of business.
Not having a business model substantially increase the chances that you will go out of business, one way or another.
In other words: If you love the fact that FriendFeed doesn’t have ads and doesn’t charge fees…well, think about who or what was paying the bills. (And if you come up with one pundit’s approach to digital repositories, “just plop a server down and connect it to the internet, there’s no real expense,” you deserve the results you’ll get.)

Disclaimer

As already noted, I’m a shy guy (the first letter of my Myers-Briggs never varies from “I”), and not terribly social.
My hierarchy of writing/communicating preferences is also a little odd, actually nearly unique within the library field. Setting aside the writing I do as a part-time job, here’s the hierarchy:

  1. Cites & Insights, my odd not-so-little ejournal, now in its ninth year (120th more-or-less monthly issue, 2.225 million words, 2,788 pages).
  2. The bimonthly columns I write for EContent and ONLINE print magazines.
  3. Blog posts–here and, once in a while, on what’s left of Walt, Even Randomer
  4. Notes and comments on FriendFeed, and occasional status updates on FaceBook.

If FF was closer to the top of that hierarchy, would I be more concerned? Possibly.
If I was part of a close-knit community that only communicates on FriendFeed, would I be more concerned? Possibly.
So, just to be clear, I’m not telling you (my readers, apparently still only 5% of what they used to be on the other platform) not to be concerned or take action. I’m just expanding on why I’m still calm. As always, YMMV.


Oh, and if you are outraged that I’m not outraged, here’s something to soothe your soul:

I’m old. I’m nearly 64–less than a month to go. I’m part of the Silent Generation–you know, the ones who brought you the Free Speech Movement and other non-protests (yes, I was at UC Berkeley throughout those times). I’m obviously too much of an old fart, luddite and general nincompoop to understand any of this shiny stuff.

There. Better now?

Five years on

Posted in Media, Movies and TV, Technology and software on July 29th, 2009

Long-suffering readers will be aware that one of few things still left on my old blog, now retitled Walt, Even Randomer, is the series of brief reviews of old movies, done each time I go through a disc from one of the Mill Creek Entertainment packs (typically 50 movies on 12 discs).

Mill Creek Entertainment does a remarkable job of mining the public domain and other areas where they can license movies or TV for very small sums–including TV movies–to create large sets of VHS-quality movies, typically four or five to a DVD, sold in genre packs at extremely low prices.

I’d been using the movies to “stay on the treadmill” for the past five+ years–going through more than 300 movies in that time, including some true classics and a few total turkeys. Of late, I’ve been alternating discs from two sets and watching two movies in a typical week, so it takes about a year to go through a 50-pack.

End of background. Start of foreground.

So last week, I finished an unusual 20-pack (early Alfred Hitchcock), alternating with a comedy 50-pack (I’m on disc 9)…and, instead of starting another 50-pack, I started something a little different: the 250-movie Mystery Collection.
Two hundred and fifty movies on 60 DVDs…
And suddenly thought, “If I watch movies at the typical rate, I’ll finish this box in about five years.”
Which then suggested musing a little about five years on–particularly where media are concerned.
If you believe some pundits, physical media will all be gone in five years–we’ll rely on that great digital jukebox in the sky for everything, when and as we need it. I don’t buy that for a minute. For a variety of reasons, I firmly believe that many of us will be buying physical media five years from now, enough to make for healthy industries.
On a medium-by-medium basis? I’m deliberately not a futurist, but here’s my best guess:

  • Music: Even though CDs have already reached the 25-year mark (over the history of recorded music, a given medium has typically been dominant for about 25 years), they still represent the majority of music sales (about 2/3), despite widespread assumptions that CDs are already dead. There are two reasons for that: First, every DVD player is also a CD player; second, no replacement physical medium has succeeded (and those that have been attempted were, by and large, CD-equivalents). I’d bet that there will still be a multibillion-dollar (per year) CD industry five years from now, although it will probably be considerably smaller than today’s industry. But I’ll also bet that vinyl will still be with us five years from now, even though I’m not among the “digitization destroys music” brigade. (Not even close: The day we purchased our first CDs was a bit after the day we purchased our last LPs.)
  • Films & video: I’m nearly 100% certain that there will still be a large (that is, multibillion$) commercial market for DVDs five years from now–and almost certainly a decade from now. Unlike music, the infrastructure for a truly workable universal video jukebox isn’t in place–and, as with music, there are millions of us who actually prefer a physical object. I’m about 90% certain that Blu-ray Disc will also be a multibillion$ market five years from now. Will Blu-ray become dominant over DVD? Short of a forced conversion, I think it’s unlikely–not because there’s anything wrong with Blu-ray but because most people either don’t notice the difference or don’t care about the difference. (By all accounts, a very large percentage of people who own HDTVs never actually watch high-definition TV. Those people aren’t going to pay $1 more for a Blu-ray version, much less $5 more.) I think Blu-ray will do just fine, but for some people, anything short of market domination is a failure, in which case I think Blu-ray will fail.
  • Print magazines: Not going anywhere. Of course some are failing. Some always fail, and recessions aren’t great times to start magazines. It’s a tough time to start Yet Another Business Magazine (sorry, Portfolio); it’s a tough time to start Yet Another Any Sort of Magazine. I’ll still be subscribing to print magazines five years from now and ten years from now, and probably still paying absurdly low prices for some of them.
  • Print books: Do I even need to discuss this one? Unless you believe that an 0.2% dip in sales in the midst of the worst recession in decades means Books Are Doomed, there’s really no sensible discussion here. I hope ebooks, done right, take a few $billion of the book market where ebooks do it better–but I don’t happen to believe that ebooks are likely to “do it better” for most long-form narrative fiction and nonfiction in my lifetime, much less the next decade. (I plan to be around three more decades, with luck, and my family history suggests that’s on the short side.)
  • Print newspapers: I believe that hundreds of small and medium-sized print newspapers will still be around five and ten years from now; they’ve generally been doing better than the huge metro dailies. I hope that the better metro dailies will still be around–but I’m a little less sanguine. (Will we renew the San Francisco Chronicle next year at more than $400 a year? Hard to say…but I’d sure miss it, even though most content is available at SFGate.)

So, there it is: My personal take on what I think’s likely as regards physical media. I know some hotshot futurists say Everything’s Going Digital Real Soon Now. I also know the history of new and old media–and the wonders of DRM aren’t really helping. (Yes, Amazon probably did what it had to–but it also waved a Big Red Flag about the mutability of that big celestial jukebox. The book you “purchased” yesterday may or may not be the book you’re reading today…)
I could be wrong about any of these. I could be wrong about all of them–but I’d be very surprised. Heck, I’m hoping I’ll find interesting new Mill Creek 50-packs or 100-packs to buy in 2014. (The 250-packs appear to have been short-lived phenomena: you can still buy them from Amazon and elsewhere, but they don’t show up on Mill Creek’s website. That may be sensible…)
So, is this enough of an information science hook? The Future of Physical Media, from one reasonably informed perspective…

We and me

Posted in Stuff, Technology and software on July 22nd, 2009

I’ve probably mentioned before that ALA can sometimes be inspiring (or inspiriting, if that’s a word), perhaps not as a result of any given program or social event but through the cumulative effects of seeing a few hundred (or few thousand) people I know, and many thousand active librarians, face-to-face. (Inspiring: It can and does inspire me to keep “doing this stuff.” Inspiriting: It can restore my spirits when they’ve been down.)
It can also be revealing, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Chicago was inspiring and inspiriting, to be sure. I wasn’t actually dispirited before ALA Annual, but found it easier to concentrate on decisions related to the new house than to focus on library-related issues outside of work. That’s still a major focus, but I’m back to paying attention elsewhere…
The revealing part is the theme of the first part of this two-part mini-essay.

We: False universalism or simple elitism?

I’ve ranted before this, here and there, about “we”–with or without the implicit “all”–being used for claims that I don’t consider even remotely universal or opinions that I don’t believe there’s any real consensus about.
“We (all) are (or soon will be) connected to the internet all the time.” “We (all) are growing to prefer reading online rather than in print.” “We (all) use iPhones.”
None of those are literal quotes, although the first one’s very close. I could find hundreds of others (thousands?) with a little literature searching, but this isn’t really aimed at any one person, so I won’t.
I’d thought of these phony or overstated we-isms as false universals, a problem in and of themselves. (Want true universals? We breathe air. We eat food. We need safe drinking water. We will die. I think those about cover it–and if you believe Breatharians, if there are any of those left, even the third is questionable. Then again, if you believe Breatharians, what are you doing at ScienceBlogs?)
I was wrong, at least for some people who are fond of We-isms.
I recognized that during a session at ALA–details unimportant–in which one panelist was spouting We-isms with considerable relish, even after another panelist pointed out that one supposed universalism wasn’t even true for a majority of those present at the session. Nonetheless, We do this and We use that and…
The breakthrough recognition: It’s not false universalism. It’s elitism. “We” really means “the people who matter.”
Doesn’t make it any more right. Does make it a lot more understandable. Without that recognition, I’d have to believe that some We-ists are hard of hearing, hard of understanding or a bit daft: Surely they’re aware that their universal assertions are nowhere near being universal?
But once you substitute “the people who matter” for “we,” it’s all clear. Maybe all the people who matter really are connected 24/7. Maybe all the people who matter do use iPhones.
The trouble with all this, for public librarians at least, is that good libraries serve the whole public–and specifically serve those who “don’t matter,” who aren’t part of the elite, the in crowd, the overprivileged.
Anyway, this should be a useful reminder, for me at least, for the future: When I encounter an absurd We-ism, I won’t assume the speaker’s more ignorant than they would appear to be–I’ll assume they’re elitist.

…and me

The other part of this not-as-brief-as-I’d intended (but, you know, longer essays are The New Black for blogs, right?) has to do with me. Not “me” as short for “the out crowd” or “me” as short for “people like me,” but me–one person.
To wit: If you’re a FriendFeed user who pays particular attention to who is or isn’t subscribing to you, and if you find that I’ve dropped off your subscription list…
It isn’t you. It’s me.
That’s happened once this week. It may happen again. In the particular case, it was somebody I find interesting some of the time–but somebody who Likes, and comments on, a lot of stuff. A lot of stuff that I don’t have time for, but that’s just interesting enough that I spend time checking it out. (I’m not sure why, but skipping over stuff seems to take more time in FriendFeed than it does in Bloglines–or, again, maybe that’s just me.)
Yes, I use Hides, lots of them, but in this case that wasn’t quite enough. There’s another case that’s right on the cusp; I may quietly unsubscribe.
Let me be clear: You’re not doing anything wrong. I don’t believe you should even think about changing the way you use FriendFeed. Because, you know,
It’s not you. It’s me.
That’s not a breakup line. It’s the truth. You could expand that to “I’m too ignorant to set up FriendFeed in such a way that it’s compatible with your use of it–and that’s my problem, not yours.”
Another way to put it: I’m not much for either creating lifestreams or following them. Maybe I shouldn’t be using FriendFeed at all, but I find that it’s useful as a semi-professional conversational medium. When too much lifestream material makes it cumbersome to follow the conversations, I make changes…purely because of the way I use FriendFeed, which may not be how it should be used. (If I’m Breaking The Rules, so be it.)
I don’t know: Maybe FF doesn’t notify people when someone unsubscribes, in which case this isn’t an issue at all. On my part, I’d rather not know, to be honest…and I only scan my subscriber list maybe every three months to see who I should be subscribing to. Which, then, may lead to my resubscribing to someone who I later unsubscribe from…

Any wifi experts out there?

Posted in Technology and software on July 5th, 2009

Here’s the situation:

We have AT&T DSL in our new house, as we did in our old one. We use a 2Wire modem/router combo, the one AT&T recommends. My computer’s connected to the router by Ethernet. My wife’s notebook uses wifi.

And ever since we moved in here, her download speeds have been poor–significant delays in page opens, long delays in downloading photos. We ran speed tests yesterday, and download speed was around 200Kbps, sometimes lower. (When I removed my ethernet connection, I was getting 160K–as compared to the 1.5-1.7Mbps I normally get. And that was a foot away from the router.)

So: Any ideas?

Other factors:

1. The house has a security system with some wireless transmitters…

2. There are other nearby wifi networks…

3. When I was running my treadmill–which has now gone back to Sears–it would knock out DSL after about a minute, due to interference. But the treadmill’s gone and DSL itself is just fine.

I’m wondering whether it would make sense to use the DSL/router combo as just a modem and plug in a separate router (with external antennas–2Wire hides its antenna or antenna inside the case)…

Ideas?


Update, July 8:

After some experimentation–e.g., enabling wifi on my own notebook (normally connected via Ethernet) resulted in download speeds of 50K-250K, still upload speed of 400-430K; eliminating a whole bunch of possible interference sources made no difference–and trying out 2Wire’s initial suggestions (AT&T was, shall we say, a whole lot less helpful than they’ve been in the past):

We decided to try the separate-router route, even though there’s no way to actually disable the wifi portion of the 2Wire Gateway. Picked up a D-Link N unit with 14-day return policy. Set it up, using the variation on its setup wizard encountered when it sees another router. Logged in on my notebook (which has “n” support); got 900K-1500K download speed. Set up my wife’s notebook (which doesn’t); after one false start, got 800K-1400K download speed (still 400-430K upload, to be sure). Reset the power level on the 2Wire to 1 (lowest possible setting) to minimize interference–but the D-Link’s autoscan already set it to a channel considerably away from the 2Wire’s channel (it apparently looks for the channel with the least traffic: When my wife checked, she found *six different wifi networks* with at least one bar of signal, three of them public and unsecured…)

So, for now, we’re in better shape. I’ll probably replace the 2Wire gateway with a straight ADSL modem, once I’m confident that I understand how the modem would set up with AT&T DSL. (If AT&T still offered email as a contact option, this would probably be simple…)

[Later that day: ADSL modem on order.]

Culture clashes II: PDF, XML and what’s in it for me?

Posted in Books and publishing, Technology and software, Writing and blogging on June 24th, 2009

When I wrote this post, I left out a whole second “trigger” because of time and energy.
That trigger–once again, wondering whether my humanities background (rhetoric major, math minor) leaves me simply unable to cope with the true Scientific Mind–regarded the format used for publication.
Or, to put it another way, the widespread and vehemently-expressed view that PDF sucks (to use a polite version).
What I saw, in several conversations, was a seeming demand from text-miners that everything must be in HTML (or, better, XML) so it was easy to mine, with a complete disdain for layout and typography as irrelevant. (I can only imagine Donald Knuth’s response to the concept that typography and layout don’t matter…)

Why some of us humanists use PDF

Because we care about typography. Because we care about the presentation of what we’ve written. Because PDF–and, of portable formats, only PDF–can assure us that the typefaces and layouts we’ve chosen will be rendered properly for the reader.
And because it’s easy–pretty much automatic on the Mac, and not difficult on the PC (there’s a free Office download to define a PDF printer; I use Acrobat because it produces much smaller PDF files and because it can combine many PDFs into a single file, but for 95% of users, the free download’s good enough).

Getting from there to HTML

So you want HTML? Make it easy. Actually, for Word2007, it isn’t bad: Save as Web page (filtered), and you get not-too-ugly HTML. (Since .docx is actually an XML package, it probably should be better than it is.) But you have to tune an HTML-version stylesheet if you really want to do both well–one that only uses “easy” typefaces, for example. It won’t be elegant HTML, but it will work.
But, even here, what’s in it for me? Can you demonstrate that I’ll get more money, more fame, or even significantly more readers by taking those small steps?
“It makes it easier for me to plunder your text for my own purposes” is not, I hate to say, a terribly convincing reason. It might be for you, but it isn’t for me.
Still…after years of doing only PDF for my own peculiar ejournal, I started doing Word’s filtered HTML for most essays, because it did seem to serve some subset of readers–and it didn’t add substantially to the production task. But whenever I read one of the HTML versions, I wince a little: It’s just not as good as the PDF.

Going beyond HTML

But, you know, I think you want more than HTML. I think you want semantics–XML or better.
Provision of good-quality HTML from a regular writing-and-layout stream is at least plausible, with no real extra effort on the part of the writers and editors.
Provision of semantics, though–that’s a huge additional effort, and I don’t believe it’s one that’s readily automatable for non-trivial instances.
Which magnifies the question: What’s in it for me?
I’m honestly interested in the answers. “Some neato research down the line that will earn someone else grants and tenure” may not be a wonderful answer. Just sayin’


Update, June 25, 2009:
Based on one comment (not here–ah, the multifarious conversational channels!) I should stress that, when I say “What’s in it for me?” I’m not suggesting that there are no reasons to use HTML. Of course there are. (Hmm. I’m writing this in HTML, because it suits blogging–and, unlike WordPress’ editor, this editor is pretty much raw HTML, other than automatic paragraph breaks.)
I’m suggesting that there are also legitimate reasons to use PDF.
Really, “what’s in it for me?” (a phrase I rarely use) has more to do with demands for HTML–not for readability, but for text-mining–and pressures to do more than HTML. And the constant “PDF sucks!” refrain.
As noted above, I do provide HTML versions of (most) Cites & Insights essays (except for a small number that just don’t work well that way and one “print bonus” feature that appears sometimes)–because some people asked me nicely to do so as an alternative for those who really want to read online, and because it had been a while since people were demanding that my free publication should be revamped to suit their own preferences.
(Yes, I do mean demanding, in at least one case with fairly strong language. My standard response, after the unmailed two-word/seven-letter one, was that there are lots of other things to read on the web…)

Counting cycles

Posted in Technology and software on June 14th, 2009

I picked up a little buzz about Google software engineers planning to rework the guts of some major open-source software to make it run faster. Since it wasn’t software I use, I didn’t read enough to remember what software, but it brought up memories…

Walking to school in the snow, 3 miles, uphill, both ways

No, this isn’t going to be one of those posts. I only wish we’d had the kind of raw processing power in my early years (decades?) as a systems analyst/programmer that we take for granted now. Most people today spend more time on what needs to be done, and that’s as it should be.

This is just a little harmless nostalgia, none of it longing for those days.
(If you want my take as of three years ago as to how I think I’d deal with being young again, here’s your post.)

Early on, cycles really didn’t count

As I’ve noted elsewhere, my first systems analysis and programming involved an IBM 188 Collator. (Hmm. 20% of all Google results for the search [IBM '188 collator'] are my handiwork. That may be depressing.] In some ways, the 188 was a marvelous machine, particularly in 1961 when it was introduced: IBM’s first punch card equipment using solid-state circuitry and core.

That’s right, core memory–visible devices, just a wee bit larger than today’s RAM bits. I honestly don’t remember how much core the 188 had–maybe 64 bytes, but that’s vague memory. I do remember how you programmed it: with a double-wide board full of holes, into some of which you put jumpers to make circuit connections. Hard-wired programming…
For the circulation system, it wasn’t a question of using too many computing cycles. You got 650 cycles per minute–that is, one cycle for each card feed. Your program did whatever logical comparisons between two cards (one from each reader) as it could, given the limited core and your ingenuity, then either fed both cards into a common bin or one or both cards into other bins.
Sounds primitive. Was primitive. Worked.
(More technologically interesting, in some ways, was IBM’s last card sorter–by far the fastest, and using vacuum feed rather than pushers to move the cards and an optical sensor rather than brush contact, so that a card would last for thousands of sorts without wearing out. Without the speed and gentleness of the IBM 84 [2000 cards per minute, which is fast for a mechanical device processing little pieces of stiff paper], the circ system would never have kept up with Doe Library’s volume of business.)

A bit later, every cycle counted

Comparing computing power of, say, the IBM 360/65 that I did early programming on (indirectly, sending decks of cards over from Berkeley to UCSF) and the Intel Core 2 Duo notebook I’m writing this on is a chump’s game. Looking at some sources, I see “1.25 million calculations a second” for the ’65, which had one megabyte of RAM (rather a lot in those days). How does that compare with two CPUs, each with 1.6 billion processing cycles per second, and 4 gigabytes of RAM? You got me; I’m not sure there is a real answer to that question.

The thing is, doing library processing on a machine with that kind of power required a lot of optimization. The ideal language for the work I wanted to do was clearly PL/I, for its combination of logic and string processing–but the head of the systems office properly wouldn’t let me use PL/I because the early compilers just didn’t produce tight code. Instead, I used assembler (BAL)…
When PL/I (Optimizer) came along (and we’d moved up to a somewhat faster S/360), I could start using the high-level language–but not without paying attention. I remember a classic example: Cases where I needed to do translates to normalize characters for sorting purposes. The classy way to do that would be to include two strings of characters in the TRANSLATE statement, the source and the object. But, after trying that and seeing the results, I moved to using two 256-character strings (not variables), containing the source and object sets.
Why? Because it made a difference of at least 10:1 in the overall running time of the program–changing it from something we couldn’t use to something we could. And once you understood some assembler and learned to read PL/I’s pseudo-assembler output, you could see why:
If you were translating using variables, then the compiler would generate code that built two 256-character strings each time the translate was performed, then do the translate–a big, unwieldy loop of code.
If you were translating using fixed strings, then the compiler generated one assembler statement. One. I think the difference for the translation steps was at least two orders of magnitude, maybe even worse.
That’s just one example. There were many others. In the ’70s and early ’80s, I’d probably spend as much time optimizing code as writing it in the first place, maybe more–and after the first two programs, my first code was already fairly optimal.

Don’t take me back…

With more abstract tools and less need to worry about cycles, I could have (potentially, at least) accomplished a lot more. So could we all. I think it’s great that a modern PC (Mac, Unix or Vista) can devote perhaps 90% of its cycles to system overhead–and still have plenty left for actual computation.

Still, sometimes things really do run slower than you’d like–and there are still lots of programmers who understand code efficiency. (I’d bet Google has hundreds of them!) They may be counting cycles at a more abstract level, but they’re still coming a little closer to the machine side of the man:machine boundary to get the job done.

Enlightening or disturbing?

Posted in Technology and software on June 10th, 2009

I was going to write a series of posts describing each essay in the current Cites & Insights, and still plan to do so.
But this hit me by surprise–a LISNews item pointing to a makeuseof.com post pointing to Blind Search.

Blind Search?

People who care deeply about open web search engines spend a lot of time figuring out which engine is better for which purposes. For most users, though–at least the minority who appear to be aware that Google’s not the only game in town–the look and feel of a site may be as important as the apparent results.
Blind Search takes that away, at least for three major open web search engines. You type in a search. You get back the first 10 results for each of three search engines, displayed in three parallel columns. You click on one of three “vote for this search engine” buttons, based on the column of results that seem to match your query best.
Then, and only then, Blind Search shows you the engine used for each column.

Maybe both

I try to rotate searches to some extent. My FireFox search box includes several major engines along with some specialized tools (WorldCat.org, IMDB, Citizendium, that other web encyclopedia). But, yeah, I probably use Google more than the others…
So this morning I tried some searches at Blind Search. An ego search (oh, come on, you don’t do ego searches?). A semi-ego search, “Cites & Insights.”
While the results were similar (as you’d expect), the same engine seemed to yield the best spread of first-ten results in both cases.
I just now tried it on ScienceBlogs. The same engine seemed to yield a slightly better set of results than the other two (a small difference).
A silly search (memory of water). Hmm. One engine was just a little better.
By now, you’ve probably guessed the engine that came out “best” in the first few tests–and it certainly isn’t what I’d expect.
Maybe bing is on to something.
(Or maybe not. The more searches I try, the more diffuse the results. Still…)


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