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Aprendiz de todo, maestro de nada

iSchool day 5, Lackboard and panic at OCLC

Today is my fifth class day at the iSchool. After some rethinking of my class schedule I’ve managed to put together a stimulating and (eek!) challenging set of classes. The hardest part, I think, is going to be time management. As a half-time single parent, the time I have for studying comes in big uneven chunks not of my own choosing. On occasion I’m going to have to get a paper completed a week ahead in order to have a prayer of finishing it at all.

The biggest aggravation to date, upon which the gods of irony are no doubt smiling their wicked grins, has been the “e-learning” part of the work. It takes seven steps to burrow one’s way into the Blackboard discussion session which is required for one of my classes, with of course no e-mail or RSS export to keep tabs on what’s been going on. The electronic reserves and e-journal subscriptions are full of usability booby traps and browser issues. It’s all an excellent object lesson in how we need to improve things for our users, although my TAs swear that’s not intentional.

One of the online readings has been an interesting, if uneven, survey of the state of libraries from 2003: 2003 OCLC Environmental Scan: Pattern Recognition. I don’t know what “environmental scan” or “pattern recognition” are supposed to mean but what the heck. The report is full of statistics divorced from context, a few charts that would make Edward Tufte scream in pain, and the shifts in style that plague anything written by committee, but it makes some points worth reading. What’s interesting is the air of panic that seems to have replaced the techno-utopianism of a few years ago. There seems to be a lot of angst around the fact that people use Google more often than they use libraries (which I don’t think should in itself be alarming unless you believe it’s a zero-sum game) or that young people today do a lot of IMing and gaming. There’s a quaint sidebar about gen-X librarians vs. boomer librarians which implies that they may find common ground in their equal fogeyhood in the eyes of those scary young people.

The piece writhes with envy over the successes of Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble and implies that libraries should do more to emulate them, while notably leaving out the anxiety I hear from other quarters that people are buying more books now but reading them less. I don’t know that the latter claim is true, but if so it suggests that maybe libraries should claim a territory distinct from that of the big retailers.

I’d like to know more about the politics behind the sections on the “open access” movement (mostly academics who want to cut the middleman out of scholarly publishing) and on digital rights management. Last I heard OCLC wasn’t exactly in the business of free information, even if its member institutions are, so I have to wonder about a conflict of interest. There’s some talk about how DRM is extremely difficult but an inevitable development in order to make e-publishing work; the preservation section later in the report says only that DRM is “complex” and in “tension” with the open access community and stops short of saying what it really means for preservation, namely total annihilation. I’m convinced that ubiquitous DRM would in time be worse for preserving our intellectual and cultural heritage than if someone were running around burning down libraries.

Finally, for all of its obsession about Google the report couldn’t of course anticipate the news from the end of 2004 that Google is about to start scanning entire libraries and making their contents available online, beginning with those of Stanford and Michigan. Seems to me that will make bigger changes in the “environment” than everything Google has done to date.

iSchool day 1

Lou Rosenfeld has been begging me to use this blog for an exposé of the seamy underbelly of iSchool, so here you go, Lou, this is for you:

seamy underbelly of iSchool

I don’t know what this piece of equipment does but it’s about ten feet tall and was humming busily to itself under the iSchool offices when I walked by this afternoon. Is that seamy enough for you?

Day 1 of my return to student life was fun, if you can believe that. It was nice to go to a physical place to meet face to face with other people engaged in intellectual activity, something I haven’t had enough of in recent years. The faculty seemed to be enjoying themselves and welcomed participation from the class, although that was something of a challenge in one overcrowded section, and none of the students fell asleep or did any detectable IMing. Both faculty and students seemed a lot more clueful about technology than during my brief experience in the program ten years ago (which I guess is no surprise — perhaps there’s a School of Luddite Studies somewhere for which that’s not a true statement). If they were any more up to date they’d be in danger of accusations of trendiness; one course will be using a collective blog, the other a wiki, and one prof even used the bookstore that recently arranged its stock by color to illustrate a point. No explicit mention of del.icio.us or Flickr yet but I think they’re coming.

My schedule may be ambitious: a one-hour pass/fail general intro class, an intro to organization of information, and courses on knowledge management, information retrieval and DBMSs. No GIS course, a subject where I’d hoped to assemble a minor concentration to complement the information studies program, but that may be hard as other departments’ schedules for GIS courses conflict with the iSchool’s. And by starting out with three electives I may be in danger of a crunch when I try to squeeze in all my required courses later.

I wish I weren’t getting so many concerned looks when I tell people about my total of 13 hours, but since 9 hours is considered a normal load it doesn’t seem that far out of line to me. I admit to feeling a bit daunted by the growing reading list. I’m also uncertain about the many group projects are supposed to work, especially group presentations; will they be more like a barbershop quartet or an improv comedy troupe? But it’s good that I’ll be somewhat outside my comfort zone.

Speaking of comfort, on Tuesdays I’ve got six hours straight with no lunch break. If anyone can recommend a good brand of energy bar, preferably without a crinkly wrapper, let me know.

Indeed, a job search aggregator

Indeed is a recently launched job search site which seems to have been paying close attention to the best practices of specialized search sites in other domains. It follows the Google rule of a clean, simple interface with additional power-user features if you go looking for them.

Indeed aggregates jobs from many sources including newspaper ads and other job-hunting sites. There must be some very interesting data mining and intellectual property work under that hood.

You can subscribe to its results via e-mail or RSS feeds, with one-click shortcuts to send results to your aggregator at Bloglines or My Yahoo. You can even create a “JobRoll” for inclusion in your own site. The uses for that last feature might not be immediately obvious (would you want to post job leads in your personal blog?) but it could be very handy for student or professional organizations or for small employers that list jobs at Indeed.

Searches are geographically based, by city or zip up to 25 miles (like a dating site?) Indeed suggests related search terms and keeps track of recent searches for you, but more cleanly than pushy sites like Amazon.

And for people who enjoy obsessing over minutiae there’s a “JobGeist” feature which tracks the most numerous recent job listings by title, location and company, with up/down trend information soon to come. I note that Dallas and Houston are in the top 10, with Austin ranked at 25. (It would be interesting to see the city numbers proportional to population, and maybe sliced up by occupational field; heck, why not a map?) Among employers, Computer Sciences Corporation and the headhunter Cybercoders are way out front, with more than twice as many jobs as the next employers in line; I wonder whether that simply means that those companies provided Indeed with direct feeds and other comparably-sized employers show up only through intermediate sources? Another interesting exercise would be to try to correlate Indeed’s numbers with those from state and federal agencies which track employment.

In a quick comparison with Monster Jobs I see that Monster claims to have “hundreds of thousands” of job listings, while Indeed says it has 1,691,810 as of this morning. Monster requires a login to search and its interface is noisy, with animated GIFs, widgets all over the place, and — good lord! — display ads. The Monster features apparent at first glance that are lacking from Indeed are resume posting services for applicants, and “networking”, which I guess means discussion boards and such. Leaving those things out seems to fit with Indeed’s model of doing one thing cleanly and well.

I haven’t yet put it to the acid test of trying to find a job through Indeed, but so far it looks to me like they got everything right.

(Full disclosure: founder Rony Kahan is a friend of mine but this post is uncompensated. He didn’t even pay for lunch!)

iPhoto 4.0 gripes

I’ve been unhappy with iPhoto 3 for a while now but held off on upgrading to iPhoto 4.0 because I wasn’t sure that it would address my complaints. When I found a cheap copy of iLife 4.0 the other day I went ahead and did it. I find that I was right to be skeptical.

The biggest problem I’ve had with iPhoto 3 has been that it’s slow. iPhoto 4 seems to help, but I wouldn’t say that it’s exactly zippy now. I think I got as much improvement by the option-shift-launch iPhoto library rebuild trick as from the upgrade. I may get further improvement if I spring for more memory (an expensive choice — my 12″ Powerbook G4 has only one memory slot so to upgrade from the present 640 Mb I have to buy a full gig), but any way you look at it, iPhoto is a hog.

The other major shortcoming with iPhoto 3 has gotten worse in iPhoto 4: bloated image files when you export to the web. I was accustomed to iPhoto 3 exporting images in web albums that were 50% larger than Photoshop would produce at high quality, 250% larger than Photoshop at medium quality. That forced me every time I exported an album from iPhoto to load all the images back into Photoshop and do a “Save For Web” on each of them to bring them down to an acceptable size. I had hoped that iPhoto 4 would do some decent optimization and save me that tedious step. On the contrary: in iPhoto 4 I’m seeing bloat over Photoshop’s high- and medium-quality exports, respectively, to the tune of 120% and 500%! I don’t know what iPhoto is stuffing into those images, but the lack of image optimization makes it essentially unusable as a web publishing tool.

Finally, among the features Apple touted in iPhoto 4 was keyword support. Like everybody else on the del.icio.us and Flickr bandwagon I’m keen for keywords these days and thought that feature might be just the thing to help me sort out my ungainly photo collection. No such luck. There’s a keyword feature in there all right, and there might be a way to put it to use, but the interface to access it is horribly clunky. It doesn’t show up with the other metadata (title, comments, etc.) in image edit mode, nor in the cmd-i “information” dialogue, but in its own third popup dialogue. And it doesn’t allow free typing but instead requires selection from an (unsorted!) scrolling list. It’s so hard to assign keywords to photos that I probably won’t bother.

Now, of course, Apple has announced iLife 5.0, which includes a new major release of iPhoto. Unless I hear that these specific concerns have been addressed, I won’t bother buying it. As it stands I may have been better off saving 30 bucks and sticking with iPhoto 3.

Back to school

As I’ve alluded elsewhere, I have left my job of 13 years as Rice webmaster and will be going back to school as a full-time student at UT’s School of Information.

The iSchool as it’s affectionately called (does it come with white earbuds?) is an outgrowth of the library school. I was briefly in the program ten years ago, but when Malini came along I decided I couldn’t handle fatherhood + job + school and dropped out. My interest in seeing how library science could be applied to this new interweb thingie was probably pushing the envelope of what they had to offer anyway.

The iSchool has come a long way since then. They’ve hired new faculty and added an Information Architecture track, the one I’ll be in. I’m hoping to squeeze a two-year master’s into a year and a half. Several people have asked whether I wouldn’t want to go for the PhD; if I enjoy myself that might be tempting, but at my age and with family responsibilities I doubt that it will be realistic unless I find some unusually generous support.

People keep asking what I’ll be studying and what I plan to do with it. The short answer to the first question (as I understand it at this time) is techniques for helping people organize and find information, especially as applied to information technologies like the web. When people’s eyes glaze over I say, well, you could think of it as high-level web design with a lot of library science concepts thrown in. I’m not happy with that answer, even though more people seem to understand it, because it sells the field short and sounds like something you could do by reading a For Dummies book. I guess I need to find a few examples to wow ‘em with. As for the second question, I’m purposely not answering that one yet. I’m going back to school to open doors, not to close them.

I’ve had a couple of experiences to make me feel like a student already. I got advised, and while my advisor is very encouraging and supportive, there’s something inherently humbling about the faculty-student relationship that will take some getting used to after all these years away from it. In my work and out here in the blogarium I’m used to floating a vague idea and having people say “cool” or “that might not work because” or “take a look at so-and-so who’s doing something similar”. When I did the same to my advisor his response was, “well, there’s thirty years of research on that”. Gulp.

I’m a bit concerned about my schedule. Of the thirteen hours I plan to take, I can only find open sections for seven; despite my having several alternates everything else is waitlisted. And new students are last in line. I’m counting on some seats to open up. Also, I’m thinking of trying out a sideline in geographic information systems in another department, but the most likely intro GIS class in Geography conflicts with my core iSchool classes. That probably means putting it off for a semester and reducing what I might do in GIS by a third right off the bat.

Orientation is on the 12th and classes start on the 18th. I’m itchy to get started.

I need a keyword

Is there a word which incorporates all of the following? Work habits and work spaces; time management; mnemonics and other cognitive devices; tools like notebooks and PDAs; personal and shared knowledge management tools (bibliographies, bookmarks and linkfarms).

It seems to me that these things are alike in some way but I can’t find a term which unites them. I certainly know a lot of people who share an interest in them, largely through Ed Vielmetti and his always stimulating Vacuum mailing list.

The most prosaic reason why I want such a term is to use it as a category for this blog. But I think that having a term to describe this set would be useful in discussing the set itself. I want to be able to say, “What kinds of X do you use to help with [a task]? Another X related to that one is [a tool or technique]. The best book I’ve seen about X lately is [title].” Not to mention that “Ed Vielmetti and his friends have the most fascinating conversations about X.”

Moleskine reskinned

Moleskine, the delightful outboard brain which inspired the current logo for this blog, is being repackaged — fortunately not the notebook itself, just its presentation in a retail setting. There are, however, two new formats: one with musical staffs and one with little rounded rectangles for storyboarding.

But this post isn’t about Moleskine gossip. It’s about the fascinating presentation by Leftloft which explains in detail the reasoning behind Moleskine’s new retail look.

Fascinating, but frustrating, too, because one of its most intriguing illustrations (coincidentally reminiscent of my logo!) is misleadingly devoid of content.

Moleskine uses

I thought the functions on the right would show some insight into why Moleskine offers the particular varieties of notebook listed on the left. But if you believe this image, you can think only with the squared Moleskine, create only with the plain, and write only with the ruled.

This graphic makes me sad.

Mac troubleshooting tip: unplug dead monitors

For the benefit of the Googlesphere, although probably of limited interest to anybody who reads this blog on purpose:

If your PowerBook boots with bizarro display preferences and won’t let you correct them, make sure you disconnect any dead external monitors, not just the live ones.

This came up when my 17″ external monitor went on the blink. I turned it off and rebooted only to find my PowerBook’s built-in display in the wrong configuration. I futzed around with it for quite a while before I thought to pull out the video cable for the powered-off monitor. Another reboot and the PowerBook was happy again.

Now thanks to a trip to Discount Electronics and $69 I’ve got a serviceable 19″ monitor in place of the dead one — not a bad outcome.

The Semantic Web and the I Love You problem

Since I started out with a nod to Ben Hammersley, I’ll risk biting the hand that inspires me by taking issue with something he just posted to his blog.

It’s a long-lost (and nicely produced) video of an interesting and accessible talk he gave in summer 2003 entitled A Sporting Gentleman’s Guide to the Semantic Web. It seems like a useful intro for someone like me who knows very little about the subject.

However, despite a promise not to oversell the Semantic Web, Hammersley may be doing just that. He claims that it solves what he calls the “I Love You” problem, that the same words can mean different things when said by different people in different contexts. The Semantic Web aims to address this in two ways: (1) by using unique identifiers, or URIs, for each of the terms in a statement; and (2) by defining its verbs via an explicit reference to a standard.

So far so good, but the example he uses to illustrate his point is one that sets off alarms for me, the Dublin Core element dc:creator. It would be hard to name a thornier category of metadata. Any cataloger will tell you that there are a thousand kinds of authorship. The Dublin Core definition he refers to in his talk does not make the concept unambiguous, but rather explicitly ambiguous:

Creator: An entity primarily responsible for making the content of the resource. Examples of a Creator include a person, an organisation,or a service. Typically, the name of a Creator should be used to indicate the entity.

So neither the Semantic Web nor the Dublin Core will tell you whether the dc:creator of the object conceived it, wrote it, directed it, produced it, acted the lead, played trombone in the pit, or did the catering. They say even less about what rights or responsibilities accrue to said creator. Those questions remain as messy with the Semantic Web (at least the Dublin Core-based version) as without it.

Probably I’m overreacting and the problem isn’t with the Semantic Web but with his example. More widespread machine-parseable use of a simple metadata standard like Dublin Core could come in handy despite its limitations, and if I understood it correctly the Semantic Web is extensible to any metadata standard, including much more precise ones. But a claim that the Semantic Web eliminates issues of ambiguity is an overstatement as far-fetched as the claims of magic and mind reading his talk is intended to debunk.

Hello, world, my old friend

Why another blog? When I’ve already got Aprendiz de todo?

Well, I’m now in a transition, career-wise, education-wise, knowledge-wise. And I’m drawn to the model (which I associate with Ben Hammersley‘s blog while his RSS book was in development, although I’m sure he wasn’t the first) of learning in public. The idea that showing one’s ignorance, as long as it’s accompanied by curiosity and a willingness to learn, is more rewarding than keeping one’s cards close to the vest. Releasing oneself in beta, as it were.

So I’m going to try it in a blog. I’ll be showing my ignorance about IA, IR, KM, UE, UI, and GIS, among many other two- and three-letter acronyms. I’ll let my geek flag fly a little more than in my other blog.

My biggest worry is that I’ll set up two categories — fun stuff for that blog, boring serious stuff for this one. If that happens, or if the idea of learning in public becomes too embarrassing, don’t be surprised if this one disappears — and its Internet Archive mirror, too.