Fuck the Jetpacks, I want my Alternative Internet Media Stream

Pulling a page from the Fox playbook, ABC has not only canceled Pushing Daisies but may not even air the last three episodes. I could go on at length about greedy douchebag executives, or idiot suits more concerned about add revenue than content or lament the artless shit that will no doubt fill the time slot. And while all these are legitimate gripes, what really pisses me off is the lack of artistic integrity. I don’t expect the salami for brains at ABC to get the show but they could at least have the common decency to let those of us who do have some bit of closure. But no. They are, yet again, going to try and leverage more money out of our pockets by forcing us to wait for the DVDs to find out how one of the most inventive, and creative shows on Television ends.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a problem if we already had an alternative media distribution network on the interent, which it being 2009 already we should have had by now. But since the execs haven’t figured out how to put a pay wall between your computer screen and eyeballs yet, no dice. So, let’s put our heads together and try and fix this problem. I’m not asking for world peace or even a long term resolution to the Isral/Palistine problem. Just make it so I don’t have to give gormless idiots my entertainment dollar if they aren’t even going to give me content.

Writing Software

I’ve been having problems finding a good, reliable open source word processing program. MS Office is a bloated piece of crap, so naturally it’s the industry standard, even if you have to rejigger the preferences as it was not intended for creative writing. Also, not OS. OpenOffice 3.0 was just released and there are plans to port it to Aqua for Macs… eventually. All previous versions require installing X11 so it can run in a Unix environment, which is a pain, especially if you want to run a browser at the same time. NeoOffice, the Aqua-native version of OpenOffice, is buggy.

I’ve had mixed results using online word processors. Google Docs, besides having a silly EULA, doesn’t support footnotes* and requires mucho reformatting once it’s exported. Zoho does support footnotes but still requires reformatting, isn’t quite WYSIWYG and ever since they mysteriously upgraded last week, has been buggy.

Even if Zoho gets it’s act together, I’ll still need a program to prep a manuscript for print. Preferably a free one but I’d be willing to pay for an inexpensive program if it worked for my needs. Any ideas?

UPDATE 10/20: I found a nifty little app called JDarkRoom, a light little Jav-based word processor that runs in full screen mode with no distracting tabs or buttons. Just a black screen with green monospaced text, like the old MS Works used to be. It’s simple, elegant and creates a nice environment to play in, just you and the words.

Still have to use MS Office or OO to format text after the fact but that’s not so bad actually. It’s weird: I didn’t realize how much I missed the old green text on black screen. It’s really engaging. Like how you dream about words. How I do, anyway.

Makes me wonder if there will be a minimalist computer renaissance: eschuing all the fancy designerly polish for green on black screen, low rez, minimal GUI and 8 bit design. Functionality and form over excessive processor speeds and pointless Flash doodle. I’d buy that for a dollar.

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* Which I use quite a bit.

Slide Show and Presentation Now Available!

The text and slide show of my presentation, Using Social Network Tags in a Library Setting is now available. I’ve put it on it’s own page, so that I can have it handy for future reference. There’s a permanent link to the presentation page on he sidebar, under Pages. As always, comments, criticism and tips for future expansion are much appreciated!

Historical Photos on Flickr

One part of the presentation I did for my recent job interview was about how libraries and other institutions are using Flickr to attract attention to their photo archives. The Library of Congress has been doing this for a while and now, via Xeni at Boingboing, news that George Eastman’s House has put over 200 historical pictures on Flickr, including several handcolored autochromes.

I should have the text of my presentation and the slides ready to go in another day or two.

Lessig For Congress

Free Culture Guru, tech savvy superhero and all around mensch, Larry Lessig is considering a run for Congress.

We need guys like Lessig in Congress. For far too long, elderly Ludites like Ted “Series of Tubes” Stevens have been drafting our policies on everything from Telecom regulation to how copyright laws are altered to keep cultural icons in the hands of corporations, rather than in the public domain where they belong. Lessig is a clear and smart voice who could help change all that.

If you live in California’s 12th District, drop by the Lessig 08 website and show your support. And if you don’t live in CA 12, write your Rep and tell them you want them to be more like Larry and less like Ted and that if they don’t change, you’ll find someone who will.

The Mac vs PC Wars Are Over

It’s VP day! Farhad Manjoo at the Machinist Blog has the definitive Mac vs PC article which finally gives the only answer you’ll ever need: buy a Mac:

The present article is an attempt to prove to you that, on price alone, the Mac is not the BMW of computers. It is the Ford of computers. I am not arguing that the Mac is cheaper only if you consider the psychic benefits conferred by its quality. Rather I’m going to illustrate something more straightforward: Even though you may pay a slight premium at the cash register for a Mac over a comparable Windows PC (a premium that gets slighter all the time), it will cost you less money — real, honest-to-goodness American dollars — to own that Mac than to own that PC.

Why this should be has to do with an economic truth that has not recently mattered much in the computer industry, but that, in an age of eBay and unyielding obsolescence, is now crucial. It is resale value. Macs fetch far more on the aftermarket than do PCs — and after years of use, you can offset that cash-register premium by selling your Mac for a better price than you could your PC.

Consider this example: Last Thanksgiving, you could have purchased a fairly well-outfitted Windows desktop — the HP Pavilion Media Center A1640n — on sale from some retail outlets for $699. The machine came with 2 gigabytes of memory, a 250 GB hard disk, and it ran on a quick 1.86 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor.

Around the same time, you might instead have picked up Apple’s top-of-the-line Mac Mini, which came equipped with a processor slightly less powerful than the HP’s (a 1.83 GHz Intel Core Duo), a far smaller hard disk (80 GB), and less memory (512 MB). The Mac Mini would have set you back $799, or $100 more than the HP.

A good way to gauge the current market value of a computer is to check how much buyers have been willing to pay for similar models in auctions recently completed on eBay. Doing so for the HP shows prices ranging from $236 to $257 — let’s say a rough average of $250. Sales of the Mac Mini, meanwhile, go from about $445 to $550. Let’s assume you can unload yours for $500.

If you used your HP for a year and then sold it, you would have spent $449 to own it — that is, your purchase price of $699 minus your sale price of $250. The Mac Mini, for the same year, would have set you back far less: $799 minus $500, or just $299.

I ran such comparisons on many Windows and Mac systems sold during the past four years, and in nearly every one — whether the machines were laptops or desktops — the Macs sold by enough of a premium over comparable Windows machines to make up for the greater amount you would have paid when buying them.

I have a 4 year old G4 Powerbook 12″ with 40 Gigs of memory and 256 Megs of RAM. I used it to build this blog, write a novel and it got me through grad school– and it’s still kicking ass. The only repairs it’s ever needed were a few freeware patches, a replacement battery ($80) and a replacement AC adapter ($20) and those needed replacing only because they wore out.  I upgraded twice, first to Panther, then to Tiger with zero problems or bugs. A quick perusal of eBay tells me I could sell this thing for between $400 and $600. I purchased it for around $2000. Now sure, with wear and tear, maybe that would knock a hundred bucks off the price. But could you imagine a Dell or HP laptop selling for 40% it’s cost after 4 years? Hell no. Most PCs don’t even last that long because, as Farhad points out, they get eaten alive by spyware and viruses long before they ever have a chance to be resold.

So. Buy a Mac. It’s not only pretty and (mostly) virus free, but if you have a need to resell it, you’ll get your money’s worth. Not that you’ll need to resell it; Elvira and I have three Macs at home, all between 3 and 5 years old and they all work brilliantly. We’ll be using them for years to come.

Sputnik, Comrads!

And I had this great post half written in my head, all about how Sputnik changed the world and all the technology we use today, from cell phones, to GPS to the Internet wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for a beeping little basketball that the commies launched into orbit fifty years ago today. Then I saw that Phil Plait went and wrote all that and then some. So go there and read.

Three Cheers For The Average User

Emily over at Library Revolution brings up a point that relates, tangentially, to something I mentioned recently in regards to Michael Gorman and his fear of a user-contributed world:

My husband and I recently took our son to the Bronx zoo, where we were in for a treat – se got to see an Okapi up close and personal. Apparently, even in the zoo it is rare to see an Okapi up close – they usually hide in the back of the exhibit. But that day the Okapi was interested in being social and was right there up by the glass.
After talking to one of the zoo guides about this interesting and unique creature and the fact that it is unusual to get such a good look, I was curious. So when I got home I took a few minutes to look up the Okapi online. I just wanted to get a little bit information, so I ended up on Wikipedia, of course. There I learned a few facts about its habitat and behavior, including the interesting fact that they like to eat the burnt wood left over from a lighting strike.

And that was enough for me. It’s all I wanted or needed to know.

So when I have conversations with librarians concerned that people are using the internet to get fast, basic information instead of coming in to the library for “real” research, I have a hard time thinking that is always a bad thing.

Don’t get me wrong. Students need to use good, reliable sources for their research, and a quick Wikipedia reference just isn’t going to cut it. Medical questions, financial questions, and other really important topics should be handled carefully and researched in much more depth. There are plenty of times when there is just no replacement for good, solid library research with the help of an information professional.

But this wasn’t one of them. And there are lots of instances when basic information gained quickly is more than sufficient. I didn’t need (or want) to delve into great tomes of zoological knowledge to learn detailed Okapi facts. I didn’t need to access scientific journals via complex databases or double check the citations and cross references for multiple sources.

This is an important development that often gets overlooked, not just by librarians but by most people in general when discussing the web: people know how to use it to find basic facts and figures that they otherwise wouldn’t. They may not be expert searchers but– and this is the real kicker– they don’t have to be. 9 times out of 10, people use the Internet to find out some basic info on Okapi, or the name of that actor, the one who plays the Lead Tenor in ‘Springtime for Hitler” in the Producers. He looks really familiar, but what’s his name? It’s easy to find out– grab the laptop, jump on line and go to IMDB. (He’s John Barrowman, better known as Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who).

Ten years ago, this answer would have been a lot harder to find out. Sure, you could wait for the credits to roll and pause the VCR, squint and go, “John Barrowman? Well great, I know his name, but what else has he been in?” You would have then had to have gone to the library, asked for a movie guide and hoped they had an up to date one, which they probably didn’t. Now, a few clicks of the mouse and you’re informed. Maybe it’s trivial information but you now know something you didn’t before and more than that, you know where to find information like that, again. Most information needs are like this, which is the dirty secret reference librarians don’t tell you. I do five hours a week on the reference desk and most of my questions are: Can I borrow your stapler? Where are the periodicals? and Why doesn’t my login info work on this computer? Every once in a while though, you get a meaty little research question. I had one recently that made my pulse jump because it was actually interesting: Are their any manifestos about Earthworks and nature installations? A student was writing a paper on Earth Art, like the Spiral Jetty or the Gates and wanted to know if there was any document that laid out the reasons and theories that motivate artists to create these works. She was interested in the history of them as well but wasn’t sure where to draw the line. Did Earth Works go back only to the Sixties or should she include ancient works like the Nazca Lines or Stonehenge? This is the sort of question that involves doing complex searching on databases and looking for books on the topic, a job that requires searching skills. Finding out about John Barrowman’s acting career? Not so much. Knowing the difference between the two types of information is important but recognizing that most people these days can find the easy stuff on their own — that’s huge.

And Take Your Flappers With You!

Not satisfied with mangling facts and figures about Google, Information Retrieval Systems or the Internet in general, in his latest rant, Michael Gorman sets his sights on the big fish: Wikipedia. It’s really always been about Wikipedia for him. Trashing Google, bloggers, and Burst Culture is just a side project. He’s really pissed off about Wikipedia and what it does to authoritative credibility in general but his in particular. As his posts have been hosted thus far by the Britannica Blog, that’s no real surprise, seeing as how they’re primary competition comes form Wikipedia:

All the central institutions of Western society have responded in a similarly reactive and alarmed manner. Many of these institutions are driven by the middle aged and old acting in a domain that is widely perceived to be the province of the young. This discontinuity is not helped by reliance on a series of urban myths about the supposed uniqueness of the young generation based on the idea that its members have no useful memory of the pre-Web life. Let us leave aside the fact that the “uniqueness of the young” has been proclaimed every 15 years or so for almost the past century—from the energetic flappers of the1920s to the lethargic slackers of the 1990s.

He’s finally become that stereotypical cranky old man, ranting about young people on his lawn. And flappers. I’m not going to parse the rest of his two part rumination on why Wikipedia, and by extension the whole entire Web, sucks. And flappers. It’s more of what we’ve already seen: over simplifications, generalizations and straw men of unusual size.

Wikipedia works. This isn’t just a fan speaking, or some dirty webified Youtubian. I did graduate work on Wikipedia and found that it works pretty well, applying the peer-review concept on a larger scale. An article published in Nature two years ago reached the same conclusion: Wikipedia is just as good as Britannica in most places, better in some but could use a little more attention paid to the more complex, technical articles, a fact that Wikipedians have mentioned and addressed frequently. And, as we say on the Web, it’s just as easy to fix Wikipedia as it is to bitch about what’s wrong with it. But of course, Wikipedia won’t cut Gorman a check for his work, so why bother? No pay, no play for our Serious Academic.

Throwing Shoes In the Machinery of the World

Michael Gorman is still showing his ass to the world over at Britannica Blog. This time he demonstrates that he hasn’t got a clue how Google works:

Information retrieval systems have been studied for many decades. In the course of that study two important criteria have been developed to evaluate such systems—those criteria are recall and relevance. The first measures the percentage of pertinent documents retrieved from a database (for example, if there are 100 documents on Zambian agriculture in a database and a search on that topic retrieves 76 of them, the recall is 76%). The second measures the supposed appropriateness of the documents that have been retrieved (for example, if you retrieve 100 documents when searching for Zambian agriculture and 76 of them are actually about Zambian agriculture, the relevance is 76%).

Information retrieval systems achieve high recall and relevance rates by the use of controlled vocabularies (indexing terms, etc.) and present the results of complex searches in a meaningful and usable order. By any of these criteria, Google and its like are miserable failures. A search on those engines on anything but the most minutely detailed topic will yield many thousands of “results” in no useful order and with wretched recall and relevance ratios. However, even when the documents retrieved by a search engine are on the subject sought, the quality of the material – often community-generated material that pops up high on a hit list because the material is free and easily accessible — is shoddy or irresponsible.

Let’s unpack some of the misconceptions that Gorman is, once again spreading heedlessly.

Continue reading “Throwing Shoes In the Machinery of the World”