Saturday, February 27, 2010

Spycam Again

This Frontline video looks at a school improving after introducing laptops for all the students. It's called 'How Google Saved a School', but aside from using Google documents, I don't know how true that is. Right about four and a half minutes in the assistant principal shows how he can monitor the students. He can see if they're using chat programs and interrupt them to tell them to go back to work. He can also take pictures of them with the laptop's camera, which is still really creepy.

Google Execs vs. Italian Privacy Laws

Some Google executives were charged with breaking privacy laws of Italy because someone uploaded a video to YouTube in which a child with Down's Syndrome was taunted and hit by other schoolchildren.

While the executives had nothing to do with the incident, they still had charges filed against them and received suspended sentencing. One of them, David Drummond, had this to say about the verdict:

"I intend to vigorously appeal this dangerous ruling. It sets a chilling precedent. If individuals like myself and my Google colleagues who had nothing to do with the harassing incident, its filming or its uploading onto Google Video can be held criminally liable solely by virtue of our position at Google, every employee of any internet hosting service faces similar liability."

Google plans to appeal the verdict.

Why the Internet Will Fail

Back in 1995, a guy named Clifford Stoll wrote an essay about why the internet would fail.

Then there’s cyberbusiness. We’re promised instant catalog shopping–just point and click for great deals. We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obselete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet–which there isn’t–the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople.

Goodness, we can't function without salespeople!

That's perhaps unfair. I've met plenty of helpful salespeople who have answered my questions. Still, a necessity? Not always. Sometimes the internet is better informed than a salesperson. On the other hand, I can never tell if a shirt in a shop online will look okay on me, and I definitely can't just give it to someone who will seek out the proper size for me.

Mr. Stoll has a point. Yes, teachers are important. So are librarians! But saying the entire enterprise will fail because of a few shortcomings - some of which aren't even shortcomings anymore - was just silly. I wonder what he has to say now? At least he makes really cool bottles.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Library Social Workers

The San Fransisco Public Library has hired a social worker to help it's homeless patrons.

"Public libraries are trying their best to serve their users and people who have traditionally been non-users," Alire said. "I hope that what the San Francisco Public Library has done by hiring a social worker serves as a model, because these people are educated and trained to help these patrons who have every right to use the public library system."

More libraries across the country are hiring therapists to train staff members how to handle stressful patrons. Edmond Otis, a psychotherapist, trains librarians how to talk to patrons who may be mentally ill or on drugs.

"There is a gigantic homeless population that basically 'passes' except nobody knows where they sleep," Otis said. "That population is growing. But we're looking at the mentally ill and drug addicted. And there are ways of talking to someone." That includes remaining calm, treating all patrons with respect, and setting rules and sticking to them, he said.

I hope many more libraries follow San Fransisco Public Library's example. I would definitely appreciate training on how to deal with high or mentally handicapped people. That is some scary stuff.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Google's Algorithm

It's been far too long since the Google tag has come up. Here, learn about their search algorithms.

Take, for instance, the way Google’s engine learns which words are synonyms. “We discovered a nifty thing very early on,” Singhal says. “People change words in their queries. So someone would say, ‘pictures of dogs,’ and then they’d say, ‘pictures of puppies.’ So that told us that maybe ‘dogs’ and ‘puppies’ were interchangeable. We also learned that when you boil water, it’s hot water. We were relearning semantics from humans, and that was a great advance.”

But there were obstacles. Google’s synonym system understood that a dog was similar to a puppy and that boiling water was hot. But it also concluded that a hot dog was the same as a boiling puppy. The problem was fixed in late 2002 by a breakthrough based on philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theories about how words are defined by context. As Google crawled and archived billions of documents and Web pages, it analyzed what words were close to each other. “Hot dog” would be found in searches that also contained “bread” and “mustard” and “baseball games” — not poached pooches. That helped the algorithm understand what “hot dog” — and millions of other terms — meant. “Today, if you type ‘Gandhi bio,’ we know that bio means biography,” Singhal says. “And if you type ‘bio warfare,’ it means biological.”

Monday, February 22, 2010

SciFi Symphony

The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Symphonic Band and Wind Symphony is having a concert based on science fiction video games, books, manga, anime, and movies.

I definitely approve of their inclusion of One-Winged Angel, an awesome song used in the Final Fantasy VII video game.

“I’ve been really impressed by the intense relationship students have to this music,” Collins said. “They have known and loved these pieces for many years, and getting to perform them in public is a real kick for them.

University students who come in costume can get in free by showing their student card.

Forging Author Signatures is Bad

Forrest R. Smith III, a guy with a stately name but perhaps not the best conscience, carefully forged the signatures of famous authors in first edition books and sold them on eBay.

Another bookseller noticed that someone was buying first-edition books and a short time later those same books were being put up for sale, but as signed copies of a book whose author was dead, he said. - Boing Boing article

I can forge my brother's signature pretty well. I don't think he's going to become a famous author, though. Maybe he should work on that.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

School Spycams

A school in Pennsylvania has a security feature on the laptops it lends out to students that allows them to snap photos of the students in their own homes. The system has been disabled due to a lawsuit. How very, very creepy.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Snagged from BoingBoing! Sort of. Howtoons are fun instructions for crafts with educational value. Or at least the one for goggles has some information about the human eye on it.

Howtoons has just finished a project in collaboration with Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams called Seeing the Future: A Visual Communication Guide. It's a drawing/inventing guide that teaches kids or adults how to get big ideas on paper.

Seven Books Lost to History

From Cracked: 7 Books We Lost to History That Would Have Changed the World. I have more trust in Cracked's skill at humour than I do at research, but it's still a good read. I like Ab urbe condita libri and the rare books section of the Grand Library of Baghdad, which was 'the Library of Congress of its time' according to this article.

This page is not entirely safe for reading at work (NSFW).

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Stolen Book Sparks Love Affair

Here is a touching story about how stealing a library book sparked a romance.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Library and Archives Canada Displays Olympic Exhibits

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has put together two displays of Olympic portraits in Vancouver and Ottawa respectively. These include drawings, paintings, and photographs of Canadian Olympic medalists.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Happy Grover Appreciation Day

In a cheap move, today's post is to wish everyone a happy Grover Appreciation Day.

It is very vaguely topical because it leads to the discussion of the popular children's book, The Monster at the End of This Book. Sadly, the twist ending does not translate well to online format. Eat that, ebooks!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Harry Potter, Freedom of Speech, and Failure

JK Rowling gave a commencement speech at Harvard University about the fringe benefits of failure. You can also watch it here:

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.

I thought one of the most interesting parts was when Rowling spoke of the time she worked at Amnesty International's headquarters in London:

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard, and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

The CLDF and People's Icky Rights

A manga collector in the United States has been sentenced to six months of jail time after pleading guilty to charges of obscenity. The obscene works? Manga books with illustrations involving child sex and bestiality.

My immediate reaction is 'ew'. It's a reaction a lot people have, from what I've read on sites, but it's possibly knee-jerk. There are a few reasons this is not a fair ruling, one of which has been 'how do they determine which cartoon characters are eighteen, anyway?' The CLDF - the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund - supports cases like this. A lot about comic books is still misunderstood. Neil Gaiman, a strong supporter of the CLDF, has written a long argument as to why people should defend the 'icky' rights of others in response to a letter he received.

You ask, What makes it worth defending? and the only answer I can give is this: Freedom to write, freedom to read, freedom to own material that you believe is worth defending means you're going to have to stand up for stuff you don't believe is worth defending, even stuff you find actively distasteful, because laws are big blunt instruments that do not differentiate between what you like and what you don't, because prosecutors are humans and bear grudges and fight for re-election, because one person's obscenity is another person's art.

Because if you don't stand up for the stuff you don't like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you've already lost.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Save the Newspaper YouTube Video

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mystery Book

There's a mysterious book at the Reading Public Library in Pennsylvania. With a flowered cover and orange lettering that looks kind of like Hindi but isn't. Very odd.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

No Silence

Mark Kerr wrote an editorial for the EMC, a newspaper in Kingston, Ontario, about how glad he is that libraries are not silent.

On the first night of my introduction to library sciences course, the instructor asked how many people wanted to be librarians because they 'liked quiet'. She looked at those of us who raised our hands with amusement. "Boy," she said, "Are you in for a surprise."

As it turned out, I was not really up to date on what libraries were like. I had the common misconception that they were still quiet areas, places you could only speak in a whisper. The picture my instructor painted for me over the course of the... well, the course, was a far livelier and colourful place. And in the end, it was this new sort of library that made me decide I wanted to be a librarian. It was far less boring than I'd worried.

First African American Librarian in Clearwater Writes a Book

Christine Wigfall Morris, the first black librarian in Clearwater, Florida, is writing her memoirs. I bet that's going to be an interesting read. The article relates one of her recollections from the 1960s:

"A little white girl walked in the library and she said to me, she says, 'Is this the library for me too?,'" Morris said. "I said, 'Yes, it's for all races.' I said, 'Come and join us.'"

Newspaper Website Subscriptions

So this one newspaper decided to put it's website up behind a 'pay wall' - people need to pay a subscription fee to read the articles - and there were only 35 people who signed up for it.

I'll admit I kind of giggled. I think what the newspaper failed to realize was that it's not the only news source out there. If I follow a link to the New York Times website and it turns out to be broken (they don't allow permanent access without paying for it), I will just look it up on a search engine.

I find that New York Times thing really annoying, by the way. Some articles are still interesting months later, and not allowing people to share them past an expiry date is irritating... particularly when people can look up newspaper archives in libraries for free anyway.

Mean Cold Lady

I found this letter to the editor in which a woman with a cane claims she got to the library five minutes early on a cold day and the library wouldn't open despite the people waiting outside. I was sympathetic; poor woman, handicapped, c'mon, just five minutes, people! Then I started reading the comments.

It turns out this woman knows exactly when the library opens and could have waited in her car until the proper time; it seems people often want to get there first so they can get to the computers. The comments from other library goers indicate this woman is unpleasant to deal with and prone to complaints. My sympathy waned.

Then, of course, there were the comments about how handicapped spaces should be moved further away from the doors because 'many peoples' only handicap is being fat and lazy'. Ouch.

I believe libraries should be accessible to people with disabilities. I also believe having a disability doesn't mean a person can use it as an excuse to be a jerk.

Taking Books Personally

This NYTimes article by Mokoto Rich discusses how some readers like to keep books to themselves; they don't enjoy discussing them or feel a sort of ownership of the ones they love to the point where they're disappointed if others like them ('that's mine!'). Interesting, I think.

Personally, I'd rather talk about a book. Preferably with someone I know and like, but I love hearing other people's impressions.

Friday, February 5, 2010

With Enough Libraries, All Content is Free

From Jessamyn West:

With enough libraries, all content is free.” That is to say… if the world was one big library and we all had interlibrary loan at that library, we could lend anything to anyone. The funding structures of libraries currently mean that in many cases we’re duplicating [and paying for] content that we could be sharing. This is at the heart of a lot of the copyright battles of today and, to my mind, what’s really behind the EBSCO/Gale/vendors. Time Magazine is losing money and not having a good plan for keeping their income level up, decides to offer exclusive contracts to vendors and allows them to bid. EBSCO wins, Gale loses. Any library not using EBSCO loses. Patrons lose and don’t even know they’ve lost.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Black vs. White Covers

Author Justine Balestier writes about the ARC* cover of her book, 'Liar', misrepresenting her protagonist. Justine's main character is black, but the US cover showed a white girl**.

This post is about a lot of things: how much say authors get regarding the covers of their books (not much), how common a problem 'white-washing' book covers is, how unwelcoming it is for young black readers to walk into a YA section and only find white faces on covers.

* ARC stands for 'Advance Reader Copy'.
** There is a new cover now.

The Amazon/Macmillan Thing

I wanted a good place to read up on the kerfuffle about Amazon unlisting books from Macmillan and I think I found one: All The Many Ways Amazon So Very Failed the Weekend from John Scalzi's blog.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Five Lessons Learned From an E-Book Experiment

Shane Richmond decided to read only e-books from October 2009 to January 2010.

Five lessons he learned:
  1. The weight is a nice advantage
  2. Page turning is less irritating than you’d think
  3. Being able to search a book is very useful
  4. Text formatting can be annoyingly sloppy
  5. Availability of titles is the biggest problem
Read the article for explanations of these five points. I was sort of surprised by number two, but it made sense; you get used to pressing the button to turn a page before you finish reading the last words on the page.

Book Reading as Racial Harassment

In 2007 a student working his way through college was found guilty of racial harassment for reading a book in public. Some of his co-workers had been offended by the book’s cover, which included pictures of men in white robes and peaked hoods along with the tome’s title, Notre Dame vs. the Klan. The student desperately explained that it was an ordinary history book, not a racist tract, and that it in fact celebrated the defeat of the Klan in a 1924 street fight. Nonetheless, the school, without even bothering to hold a hearing, found the student guilty of “openly reading [a] book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject.”

An article about political correstness on campuses and how it's changed. It quickly becomes centered on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), but fair enough.