Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Google Tech Talk: Plurilingualism on the internet

Google hosts a surprising number of really interesting tech talks about language. Back in July I attended a particularly good one by Stephanie Booth, about plurilingualism on the internet. Here's the abstract:

More people are multilingual than purely monolingual. Yet the internet is a collection of monolingual silos. Where are the multilingual spaces? How can online applications assist the people who bridge the linguistic chasms, instead of hindering them? How do present applications decide what language to present? IP address or keyboard locale detection are clearly bad solutions. How could this be done better? This talk addresses some localization issues, but beyond that, questions the very way languages are dealt with on the internet.

It's definitely worth watching in full, but if you want the highlights, these are some of the more interesting ideas I took away from it:

  • Code-switching! I'd forgotten there was a term for it. Code-switching is awesome, especially as a form of word-play. Everyone should try it.
  • Stephanie is multilingual, and when she blogs she prefaces each post with a short summary in the language in which it wasn't posted (that is, posts in English get a synopsis in French, and vice versa). This lets her reach two language communities at once, without the tedium and mess of double-posting each post in full. Check out these recent examples.
  • "Some people really resent being shown languages they don't understand."
    Google develops software with a global reach, and we put a lot of care into trying to make sure users get our products in the right languages; but this quote was an interesting reminder that getting it wrong can provide a very negative experience for a particular user. Right now, for example, we use IP address as a factor in determining which version of Google search to show. If you're browsing from a US IP, we'll show you in English; if you're browsing from a French IP, we'll show you in French. But what if you're browsing in Switzerland? We'll show you, but should we show the German, French, Italian, or Rumantsch version? We generally default to German, which—statistically—is the right answer, but for all the French/Italian/Rumantsch speakers is clearly the wrong answer. And what about someone from China who's road-tripping across Europe? She's probably going to want to see Google in Chinese, rather than being served a different language every time she logs on.
  • The lang and hreflang attributes are underutilized and offer some really cool potential for ways of understanding documents and hyperlinks. The most common use of lang is in the <html> tag, to define the language of an entire webpage: <html lang="en-US">. But you could also use it to define smaller subsections: stick it in a <blockquote> tag when you're quoting a different language; stick it in a <div> or a <p> if you have a section of text in a different language (for example, a summary at the top of a blog post!).

    The hreflang attribute is even more interesting to me, since I'd never heard of it before. From W3C:
    The hreflang attribute provides user agents with information about the language of a resource at the end of a link, just as the lang attribute provides information about the language of an element's content or attribute values.
    So if you link to a cool website in Spanish, you could throw <a hreflang="es" href=""> in the <a> tag. The thing about these attributes, though—especially hreflang—is that they're underutilized because no technology takes advantage of them. But no technology takes advantage of them because they're underutilized. If we ever find a way to break out of this Catch 22, I could imagine some cool opportunities (visualizations for language targets, applications in search and social networking... the sky's the limit!).

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Jet City: Derby of the Dead

Just got back from Derby of the Dead: a doubleheader of Black vs. Blue (two mashup teams of Jet City rollergirls), and an invitational match between the Sacred City Derby Girls and Jet City's new travel team, the Jet City Bombers.

The Black vs. Blue bout was pretty evenly matched, and some decent derby. But the real action was in the invitational. Sacred City is all but undefeated (I heard they've only lost once—to Rat City), and this was the Bombers' first bout as a team, so perhaps a defeat was to be expected. But the match ended with nearly a hundred-point spread (ouch).

Sacred City pulled ahead right at the beginning; they had a few star blockers and some solid jammers. But I think what really won the game for them was their defensive coordination combined with Jet City's inability to learn from their mistakes. SCDG were great at controlling the front of the pack, so that every time their jammer made it halfway through the pack she had nothing but her own girls ahead, and they could just whip her through; whereas the Jet City jammers were constantly getting stuck behind a wall of two or three Sacred City blockers at the front of the pack, and the rest of their blockers hardly ever stepped up to try to break that wall or help their jammer through. On the few jams that they did make an effort to match Sacred City at the front of the pack, they did much better as a team, and held the score even for a few jams before falling to the back of the pack again (and sliding back down the scoreboard).

Sierra Fist did some really awesome jamming for Jet City, but unfortunately her best jam got discounted (the time got put back on the clock and the points taken off) because it was decided that Sacred City's jammer had been incorrectly sent to the penalty box, where she'd spent most of that jam. And Ta Ta Tina (who used to skate with my squad!) was getting in some really solid blocks [edit: apparently I'm an idiot; she was skating for the Blue team at this bout, not the Bombers; but she was still rockin']. But as a team JCRG's coordination and strategy just wasn't enough. They also weren't using the lead jammer position as strategically as they could have: every time a Jet City jammer broke out ahead of Sacred City's jammer, she'd just keep skating (probably trying to make up the point difference), but that usually just gave Sacred City a chance to catch up and match the points Jet City had just scored. Hopefully JCRG will be able to analyze this game after the fact and get some good takeaways and strategy from it.

One thing I didn't like was that Sacred City seemed to have a bit of an attitude. Perhaps the standards for bout behavior are different in California than up here; but it seemed like their team was constantly arguing with and yelling at the refs, questioning every call, and their skaters were swearing and giving the finger when they were called out. I totally get that derby is an aggressive sport, but some of it seemed in bad taste to me (especially for a team that was so obviously winning). They even had some fans and statskeepers in the bleachers next to me who were laughing at and mocking the Jet City skaters. Sure, some friendly trash-talking is all part of the bargain, but making fun of people for falling? or for what they're wearing? I thought derby fans were better than that.

My final gripe was that the score whore this evening was pretty disappointing. She wasn't even on skates (!), and she looked completely disinterested in what was going on. She could've been walking on a treadmill instead of around a derby track, for all it registered on her face.

To end on a positive (if not entirely derby-related) note, check out this most excellent skating video I just came across. I think this beats even the Google ball pit:

Friday, October 26, 2007

Solving Tough Problems: Timezones and DST

I spent all my time putting out fires this week, and none of my time adding cool functionality. The trouble really started when I tried solving what I assumed to be common problems. But of course, when I tried to figure out how other people had dealt with these problems, I ran into a brick wall. Well, not a brick wall actually. Instead I found lots of "solutions". All of which took me forever to realize they had nothing to do with my problems.

The disaster actually started out as planned. I was working on some functionality dealing with calendar data (which is a difficult subject). This should be a simple thing. You've got a user in one time zone and another user in a different one? No problem. This isn't exactly a new problem. There should be support for such a thing in all this advanced technology. And it should be very natural to convert between them. And it should be natural to work with both computer oriented times as well as human oriented times. By which I mean the ridiculous practices we have of leap years, leap seconds, timezone offsets, and daylight savings times.

As it turns out, I needed to find different solutions for two operating systems, and three computing platforms (and I'm not even doing much AJAX yet). Just to give you a quick overview, most of the problems arise around counting the number of seconds in a day.

There's 86400 seconds in most days. But things get hectic with leap seconds and more importantly daylight savings time (which adds or subtracts an hour from two days a year). PHP provides the function strtotime which lets you do stuff like strtotime('+1 day') to add a day, taking into account daylight savings time so that today at 6:00am "+1 day" is 6:00am tomorrow. Combine this with date-default-timezone-set and you're ready to go, no matter where your users are.

Python, smug as always [ed: I love python], provides a timedelta class, assuming 86400 seconds in every day. This is as opposed to being timezone aware (even if you install and correctly use pytz). And it gets worse. You can convert from a UTC timestamp using the handy method datetime.fromutctimestamp. But how do you convert back? Is there a datetime.toutctimestamp? No, there isn't. What about the traditional mktime? That's only going to work if the datetime you're working with is in the system's timezone. And don't even try converting your datetime to the system's timezone. The only way to access the system's timezone is time.tzname which is non-standard and incompatible with pytz. I ended up using a combination of calendar.timegm and datetime.utctimetuple. No searches I tried found this solution.

Don't even get me started on MySQL. Check out this article on timezone support. And take a look at this list of date/time functions. But don't try using the timezone db they've got for download. It was inconsistent with all the olson zoneinfo databases I saw. I had to use mysql_tzinfo_to_sql on a Linux system and copy the resulting SQL script to my Windows box and apply it manually (mysql -u root -p mysql < zoneinfo.sql).

That's probably enough geeking out / ranting for this week. Next week I'll tell you about how I solved my very unexpected "(13)Permission Denied" / "403 Unauthorized" / ".htaccess pcfg_openfile: unable to check htaccess file, ensure it is readable" / "No input file specified" errors.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Answering an age-old question

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? What is the sound of one hand clapping? And what happens when you give 16 Googlers ice cream, two limousines, two hours and no agenda?

Why, they go to Microsoft, of course. :)

Google Kirkland recently held an office decoration contest to celebrate our expansion into a new building in Kirkland (we Googlers are fond of office decorations). The Webmaster Tools team won by a landslide. Our prize? A limo ride to the local Ben & Jerry's shop, and ice creams all around. But we had the limos for two hours, so we decided to use the extra time to swing by Microsoft's Redmond campus to see if we could get a sneak peek at the beta version of their Webmaster Portal.

Google Webmaster Tools team at Microsoft

In the end we didn't make it much farther than the lobby (due to not knowing the last names of any of their team members), but good times were had all 'round.

Have a funny story about a team outing? Photos of your quirky office decor? Share them with us!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

You say potato, I say linguistic train wreck

While checking out the new search queries data in Google Webmaster Tools this week, I noticed that I rank #2 for [separate wheat from chafe] (thanks to my last grammar rant). I was all ready to draft a follow-up post in the hopes of reaching a few more unenlightened searchers:

  • e + s is not pronounced [ex].
    So stop saying 'excape' instead of 'escape', and please stop saying 'expresso' instead of 'espresso'. Look it up. Really. It's espresso.
  • fiancé != fiancée
    If you choose to use the French word for "person to whom I am engaged", please be aware that (although they sound the same when spoken) there are two versions of the written word: fiancé is masculine, fiancée is feminine. A pre-husband is not a fiancée, nor is a pre-wife a fiancé, unless there's something they haven't been telling you.
  • nuclear
    I might be able to forgive him for stealing the election... twice... invading Iraq, ruining our international reputation, destroying the environment, attempting to constitutionally ban gay marriage, running our debt sky-high, and spending most of his time on vacation, if only Bush would stop saying 'nucular'. There's no vowel between the 'c' and the 'l', buddy. It's 'new' + 'clear'.
    ...Though on second thought, I probably wouldn't forgive him even then.

Yup, I was ready. But then I saw this article on YOUmoz. It argues that one man's grammar tragedy is another man's wordplay (using the examples of mondegreens, snowclones, and eggcorns):

You'll find these linguistic occurrences are popular on satirical websites like Fark and SomethingAwful, in cartoons and TV comedies, on the radio and in movies. Custodians of grammar may frown at the decay of 'proper English' but the laziness of online writers is a boon for observing the hyper-evolution of our language.

I shelved my draft and lamented having become a codger at 25.

But I think this commenter summed it up well for me: it's not that I don't like change in language. I love linguistic puns, code-switching, and other creative forms of breaking the "rules". I love hearing language twisted for clever or comedic effect; I just don't like hearing it twisted out of ignorance.

My phonetics professor in college used to dream of the day when everyone would learn the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) in school and mispronunciation would become a thing of the past. News anchors would no longer hesitate over the pronunciation of foreign names. You would no longer be asked to phonetically transcribe your name using English characters (most frustrating exercise ever!) so that the principal can read it out correctly at graduation. And Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! wouldn't get to make fun of Bush for needing a phonetic cheat-sheet in his speeches.

While we're on the subject of language, I found this article on the language of the Berkshire Hathaway annual report both insightful and reassuring. At least I'm not the only neurotic out there.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Dumbledore is gay!

Wow! Did anyone else see this one coming?

Rowling said Dumbledore fell in love with the charming wizard Gellert Grindelwald but when Grindelwald turned out to be more interested in the dark arts than good, Dumbledore was "terribly let down" and went on to destroy his rival.

That love, she said, was Dumbledore's "great tragedy".

I can't wait to see the conservative response... now Harry Potter promotes both paganistic devil-worship and homosexuality! As Bush would say, that's a double whammy.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Google Experimental (who knew?)

One of the things I love about Google—and that drives me a little crazy—is that they're constantly coming out with so much cool stuff, both big and small, that it's hard to keep up with it all. I'm loathe to say impossible (since sites like Google Blogoscoped do a pretty bang-up job), but I'd rather spend my free time listening to NPR or playing cards than stocking up on Google press releases. So I miss a few things here and there.

Just last week I found out about Google Experimental: Google is constantly running experiments on their search pages, but usually you only stumble into them by chance (and often don't know you were in one until you think about it later and go "Wait a minute, did I really see [whatever] on that SERP?"). But apparently, with Google Experimental you can explicitly enroll yourself in certain experiments to try out new features that Google is testing for search. Cool, huh?

Looks like it's been in Labs since May. Apparently I live under a rock.

Bookmarks and badges

Everyone love badges, right? The "Collect the whole set!" mentality is indoctrinated into us by cereal box giveaways and from Boy/Girl Scouting on up. Badges are cute and colorful and better yet, now that we're grown-ups we don't even have to do anything to earn them, we can just grab them off the web. :-P

So we've added a variety of bookmarking and web 2.0/social software-type badges to our posts. Yeah, I know, we're behind the times on this and some people just find it tacky; but, well, it's an experiment. Please let us know whether you find them useful, garish, and/or if there are any we should add (or any you think are a waste of space)!

Credit to 3spots for pointing me in the right direction.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

That crazy driver who just passed you? She might be a rollergirl

When I get out of roller derby practice I tend to drive a little crazy. After two hours of racing, cutting other people off, and taking the corners as tight as you can, it's hard to get in a car and immediately turn all of that off. I'm usually still panting and full of adrenaline for the first part of my drive home. The funny part is, I've asked several girls in my squad and they all admitted to the same tendency. I'm not trying to make excuses, I'm just saying... this may give some context to any bizarre driving experiences you've had late at night near a roller rink.

Our rink is a ~40 min. drive from my house, so I spend > 2.5 hours/week on the road. When I don't have someone on the phone to chat with, it's quite nice to have that time to myself, just to listen to music or be quiet and think. I spent more of my youth than I care to remember road-tripping, so I find being on the highway pretty relaxing (as long as I don't slip into "Must race... must kill" mode). Sometimes I'm eager to go to practice, and sometimes I have to force myself out the door (in anticipation of the pain), but the drive is always a nice buffer to be by myself and get in the mood for skating.

On my way home from the last practice I was thinking about friends. Y'know how different friends are good for different things—maybe one's a great listener, another one is completely unreliable but really good for going out dancing? I love some of my friends because I can completely be myself around them—even if that means I'm angry or lazy or just plain uninteresting for awhile. But I also appreciate having friends who make me want to not be who I am: who make me want to be more than what I am, who inspire me to change myself for the better and to push the limits of how I see myself.

My derby girls are that kind of friend. I don't take easily to athleticism, but after a practice with them you could almost talk me into signing up for boot camp. They make me push myself way past my comfort zone, make me yearn to be strong and skilled and full of endurance. I don't always live up to the skater I want to be, but I love knowing a group of girls who constantly remind me of how I need to work to get there.

How to have a successful wedding be way too uptight

Remember when we told you that the secret to a successful wedding is to not take yourself too seriously? Well, apparently these folks either didn't read our blog, or forgot to write that one down:

A New York couple sued a florist for $400,000 for using the wrong color flowers at their wedding—a mistake the newlyweds said caused them "extreme disappointment, distress and embarrassment."

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The world in your radio... literally.

Today our local NPR station finished its week-long pledge drive (thank gods). Of course I dislike pledge drives as much as the next person, but I'm proud to say that Nick and I donated to the station on the first day of the drive. Last year's drive finally got to us and we decided that after years of avid NPR-listening it was time to become members. (And yes, even though it's hooooorribly cheesy to say so, you do listen differently once you've pledged. But only during the pledge drive, when you get to feel smarmy and superior for having donated. After that it feels like normal again.) :-P

Then on Saturday I considered taking it all back when, during the inane motivational prattle that inevitably accompanies pledge drives, one of the announcers said (during the Rick Steves travel show), "KUOW's in-depth reporting brings you the world through your radio. And right now we're literally bringing you the world with Rick Steves."

Literally? Really? I'm still waiting for someone from KUOW to show up at my door with the world. Maybe that was the thank-you gift for my particular pledge level?

Happily, however, I am not alone in my grammatical neuroses: there exists a blog all about misuse of the word "literally". I'm glad someone else is writing this sort of thing so that I don't have to.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day: a retrospective

Today is Blog Action Day. From the official site:

On October 15th, bloggers around the web will unite to put a single important issue on everyone’s mind—the environment. Every blogger will post about the environment in their own way and relating to their own topic. Our aim is to get everyone talking towards a better future.

Of all the adjectives I could think of to describe Nick and me, 'environmentalist' is not the first that springs to mind. But looking back over our blog it seems we've actually written more environmentally-focused posts than I would've thought! In honor of Blog Action Day, a retrospective of our environmentally-related writing this year:

If you're looking for more reading material, check out some of our friends' posts for Blog Action Day, and feel free to let us know about your favorite articles or contributions from today.

InfoCamp 2007: Wrapup

I don't know if I have a whole lot to say that I haven't already. You can see all the posts I made from InfoCamp Seattle 2007 by checking out my infocampseattle2007 tag.

The event was great. I met some great people like the keynote speaker, Nick Finck, the plenary speaker, Bob Boiko, some of the organizers, Aaron Louie and Kristen Shuyler, and some innovative librarians, such as Whitney Edwards and Justin Otto.

My second session on short cut access to information was cancelled since there were only about 20 people left by the end of the second day and there were about 4 sessions competing for them. But I did get to attend a session that showed an example where a lot of work got done without enough user research and led to a lot of unanswered questions about how to proceed.

At the end of the day we had "five minute madness" where we all shared a few comments about what we liked, what we didn't like, and what we learned. Nick Finck pointed out what a great ROI we got from this un-conference: the whole thing cost $20 for registration, we got two days worth of breakfast and lunch, tons of sessions, a great keynote and plenary, and we got to meet a lot of smart people from across the information ecosystem. And he's totally right. InfoCamp Seattle 2007 was supported in a big way. From the InfoCamp Seattle 2007 wiki:

  • ASIS&T - The American Society for Information Science & Technology
  • UW iSchool
  • Information Architecture Institute
  • Ascentium - interactive marketing and technology
  • Blink Interactive - user experience consulting
  • Digital Web Magazine - online magazine for web designers, web developers and information architects
  • One Economy - a nonprofit organization that brings broadband to the homes of low-income people
  • ZAAZ - web design services with technical and creative design
  • Ginger Palace Restaurant - sponsor for lunch on Saturday

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Across The Universe

Wow. Just got back from seeing the film Across The Universe. It was superb.

When I first saw the preview for this film, it looked unlike anything I'd ever seen, and I knew I'd have to watch it. They certainly pulled some of the most titillating scenes for the preview, but the entire visual experience is fascinating and bizarre. Think Tommy, but more accessible. Think Michel Gondry, but more psychedelic. (Incidentally, my favorite random shot was of a head shop called the Psychedelicatessen.) Think Moulin Rouge, but more giant puppets.

I'll spare you the movie review in full; what really struck me was the role art played in the movie and the feelings it evoked in me. The main character is an artist, several of his friends are musicians and performers, and all the emotion and turbulence of love and the 60s and the Vietnam War are wrapped up in and expressed through their art and their music. (Oh yeah, and there's the fact that the movie is a musical, too.) The viscerality of it all was fascinating and was something that I'd partially forgotten. One of my best friends is an Artist; during the periods of my life that I've spent with him, I remember feeling some of that same visceral quality. There's something... fascinating? eerie? about art in the way it makes you feel more alive.

I spent a couple weeks at RISD on my way to and from Paris, and the energy there was amazing. There's no way to say this without sounding corny, but you could just feel that there was this confluence of creativity all pooling together, people feeding off each other's ideas and amazing secret things coming to life behind every closed door. Just being in that environment was energizing... like being a fluorescent light near a Tesla coil, lighting up simply by being in the vicinity. After a week there I was sketching, writing poetry, drafting stories and dreaming up crafts projects for months. (I'm actually quite glad of the timing, because I made some really neat sketches in Paris that I normally would never have thought to even attempt.)

So what is it about our relationship with art and music? I used to think that some people were just born with art and creativity in them, and they spent their life trying to pour it out onto paper (or any other medium). But now I'm thinking that art shapes us as much as, if not more than, we shape art. Or at least that being able to express ourselves in that particular way taps into some part of ourselves that we rarely stimulate in other situations. There was this great scene in Across The Universe where he was pinning strawberries on a white wall and they were dripping juices like blood running down the wall. How evocative is that?? How else could you create that feeling, that strong, without just doing it?

A fellow skater is applying to live in an art commune that's starting up in Seattle. I really hope she gets in; maybe I can go visit and some of that stardust will rub off on me. In another life I'd love to tap into that lifestyle more; but for now I'm feeling pretty suburban and yuppie. It seems I'm settling for occasionally drooling over the graphic novels in the bookstore and dreaming of the days when we could draw on the walls while listening to Philip Glass.

InfoCamp 2007 Live: Plenary by Bob Boiko

Day two at InfoCamp Seattle 2007 is underway. We began the day with a YouTube video titled "Information R/evolution". It's pretty slick:

We just got a very interactive (reminds me of my best lectures back at Cornell) plenary session delivered by Bob Boiko, instructor at University of Washington's Information School, author of the Content Management Bible and Laughing at the CIO, and president of Mediatorial Services.

Bob started with a quote from the cover of an issue of (the now defunct) Business 2.0 magazine: "Forget everything you know about business". He argues that we don't actually throw away old information. In fact, he argues, we "reinvent, refine, [...] and rearrange" information, building on what has come in the past.

The plenary consisted of trying to answer the question, who are we as information professionals? A couple of highlights from the answers he elicited:

  • We make the process of accessing information easier
  • We deliver information of high quality
  • We elicit the right question from users to answer their questions
  • We improve the experience of finding the question and then answering that question
Bob rounded all this out with the statement:
We hook up the knowers with the want-to-knowers.

However, he argues that this process needs to be personal and typically should involve lots of people. He argues that there are tons of idle brains around; "this is not a limited resource" he says. This sounds a lot like the current trends in social sites (a.k.a. web 2.0).

Then there's the notion of "cross pollinators" which Arron Louie brought up while introducing the key note. Regarding this, Bob asked three questions:

  • Are we cross pollinators?
  • Is that valuable?
  • How do we do it?

Regarding the first two, we all agreed that the answer is yes. As for the third, that's what this BarCamp is all about!

In fact, Bob asked me to give a session about making access to information "easier" (in this case, faster). This was after I brazenly argued that I know how to speed up access to a specific type of information by an order of magnitude in all cases. I think I'll call the session "Shortcuts to Information: Increasing Time to Access by an Order of Magnitude". By the way, an order of magnitude may just be a rhetorical device in this case...

Saturday, October 13, 2007

InfoCamp 2007 Live: My Session on Calendaring

For my participation at InfoCamp Seattle 2007 I presented some user interface issues with calendaring systems which is something I've been doing for a while now. I'm far too modest to go into too many details (maybe I'll write a blog post about it in more detail later, plus I'm dead tired after Thingamajiggr last night, and a full day of InfoCamp), but below is a quick overview of some of the problems I'm interested in investigating and addressing. I also looked at some different calendaring systems and programming languages with regards to how they address these issues.

  • Storing Time
  • Storing Repeating Entries
  • Editing and Deleting Repeating Entries
  • DST and Repeating Entries
  • Entries on the DST boundaries
  • Users in multiple timezones (especially when not all observe DST)
  • Programming Language Support for Date Arithmetic

So that sums up day one of InfoCamp Seattle 2007. So far, so good. By the way, my Lenovo Thinkpad X60's battery performed admirably: after a full day of note taking, blogging, and presenting I'm at 47% with an estimated three hours and 21 minutes remaining. Not too shabby.

I should also point out that I'm using photos (most graciously thankfully for) from Kristen Shuyler, one of the organizers of InfoCamp. You can find more at Flickr tag infocampseattle2007.

InfoCamp 2007 Live: Gateways to Information and Information Technologies in Public Libraries

The first session I attended at InfoCamp 2007 was titled "Gateways to Information" presented by Justin Otto, a librarian at Eastern Washington University. He was primarily interested in investigating how to bring the often vast information resources at libraries to library patrons. In fact this is a topic of interest to many of this weekend's participants, many of whom are librarians.

The session was part feedback session for EWU's library website, and part general discussion on accessing large amounts of information from many different (and often walled-garden style) data stores.

Consider the many kinds of information available at a library:

  • Library Catalogue
  • Research Databases (such as JSTOR and ProQuest)
  • Subject Guides
  • Library Events
  • Information About Local Organizations

It seems as if most of these libraries traditionally present the user with lists of links (dozens), sometimes categorized, but typically along single dimensions (such as subject areas). Often there are search facilities, but either the search is not a unified or federated one (meaning you must already know what data store you're searching under first) or the search facility provides poorly ranked results (perhaps due to poor result integration).

My fellow session participants and I came up with a few general principles which we find useful:
Unified Search
Make all information from the library (events, catalog, research databases, etc.) available from a single search interface, with high quality results integration. Make this search facility available on every single page.
Bread Crumbs
Someone brought up Steve Krug's infamous Don't Make Me Think with respect to his comments on creating a bread crumb trail to help users navigate a site.
Card Sort Analysis
This is one I hadn't heard of before, but someone suggested placing content areas on cards, handing the cards to users, and asking them to categorize the content into a hierarchy. Given the amount of content at a library and its complex relationships, this seems like an excellent technique to get a feel for how users might want to navigate subject areas.

I stayed for a second session on Information Technology in Rural Libraries given by Whitney Edwards, Elliot Edwards, and Katy Herrick of the Libraries of Stevens County in Eastern Washington. It sounds like they're addressing some interesting problems with some innovative techniques.

Stevens County has nine very rural libraries, each with different resources and its own collection. The population of Stevens county is technologically literate (seemly very much so!); however, the internet service opportunities in Stevens County seem to be limited. Most patrons of the library have only dial-up access.

Whitney and her colleagues provide several important services to their community. A very popular one is high-speed internet access (available wirelessly). The Stevens County librarians also maintain a wiki for the library that also performs as a local organization repository.

InfoCamp 2007 Live: Keynote by Nick Finck

I'm attending InfoCamp 2007 today and tomorrow and (trying to) live blog it. I just sat through the keynote given by Nick Finck from Blue Flavor. What a great name eh? I was competing with him to present a session, but he gave up and rescheduled his once we saw my name go up :)

Nick started by bringing us into the context of the information age as it transitions into the age of information overload. He cited two studies, the first in 2000 discovered that each user produces over one exabit of information (I'll check on this when I get a chance). The second study, in 2002, revised this number up by double, and discovered that the amount of information doubles every three years. From this data he draws the conclusion that we're drinking from a fire hose of information.

Nick also lead us through the notion of differing user experiences and contexts. Specifically he noticed the difference between the developing world, our culture, and societies embracing ubiquitous, mobile computing experiences. Did you know that in Japan even posters are tagged with barcodes which mobile phones can read, automatically adding the event to your calendar? Nick asked the question, how can we create user experiences, and provide access to this wealth of information to all these various users, through their various modalities and contexts?

Finally Nick asked, what's next? And admitted to having no crystal ball. However he did note that he sees more and more ubiquitous computing (an LG internet fridge in the UK). And he sees a place for this ubiquitous access to information. He concluded that this is a good industry to be in, noting the many attractive job postings for "information professionals" (not the MS definition). This is good news for you and me :)

I gotta run to the first session now, I'll update later (and try to cite those two studies on information production rates and provide more concrete details)

Friday, October 5, 2007

Marc Andreessen rips on SteveB

I was going to compose a post about how social networking is not just a fad for "younger" people (which of course means it's not going anywhere once we all grow up, right?). But after Marc ripped on Steve's quote (above), he wrote the post for me: Social networking and the Geocities fallacy.

But there's always more to say when some "older" person (which of course means irrelevant and out of touch, right?) rips on something new. I don't mean to offend (I don't believe either assertion about age), I'm just pointing out the arbitrariness of SteveB's statement. And wasn't he a "younger" person once? And wasn't there something that appealed to him that made him and Microsoft what they are today (have you seen the explosive revenue growth for the latest FY?)

That aside, the feature list comparison between Geocities and Facebook (and Ning too) only points out that part of the comparison is wrong (the feature equivalence). What's more interesting is that the idea behind social networking a la Facebook/Ning is both new, and more importantly, useful to society. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that contact with friends is not a fad, and that technology supporting that, facilitating that, enhancing that is relevant, valuable, and sustainable. I wouldn't say I'm an expert in social networking, but I think staying in touch with friends and colleagues helps me achieve my potential. And that reminds me of someone's mission statement.

By the way, I just joined Facebook :) It's pretty cool so far. I'm pretty pleased with my 27 friends in under 24 hours. I've actually chatted with (good) friends I haven't been in touch with in years. Some of them are married, god forbid ;)