Friday, February 27, 2009

NY Times on Malamud and Pacer

We posted about Carl Malamud and his site here last year. Now he take on PACER, the Public Access to Court Electronic Records service. This New York Times article chronicles Malamud and fellow activist's effort to exploit a free Pacer trial offered to libraries around the country by going to the libraries, downloading as many court documents as possible, and republishing them on the web. I wouldn't presume to comment on the ethics, but I would love to have access to PACER....

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Class, may I have your undivided attention?

What I don't know would fill a book - millions of books, come to think of it. Today I encountered for the very first time, even though its entry in Wikipedia is nearly 5 years old,  the term "backchanneling." It was brought to my attention by this post about "How to Present While People are Twittering" ("not, you will notice, "How to "Twitter While People are Present" which is the kind of thing this old gent would worry about)  At first, as usual, I found the whole idea preposterous, but upon second thought (as usual), somewhat intriguing.  Here's one definition: Back-channelling is a way of showing a speaker that you are following what they are saying and understand, often through interjections like I see, yes, OK and uhu. [a less distracting variant is uh-huh]  In my day, that kind of thing was acceptable, within limits, for private conversation, but not for a lecture hall situation where such spontaneous exclamation would be deemed impolite and disruptive for both lecturer and listeners. Now backchanneling appears to be acceptable, even de rigeur, and here's a more modern definition:
"the practice of electronically passing notes among some or all of the audience/students during the lecture. When sanctioned, this practice is particularly useful for speakers who are attempting to dynamically modify their presentations based on immediate feedback from the audience. When unsanctioned, this practice is often very distracting for the presenter. Meebo and Twitter are common back channeling devices, although any chat room style device works well."
There's something faintly absurd about an audience broadcasting the content of a lecture or presentation while its happening, but I can't quite put my finger on it. I guess it's consistent with the need we bloggers, and  Twitterers and Facebook status updaters have to express ourselves at every moment, even when someone else is talking or nobody is listening (this blog illustrating the latter point). At least the backchannel relieves the unbearable tedium of just sitting there, listening  and thinking about what's being said. And to be charitable, the post at pistachioconsulting makes a compelling case for how backchanneling can actually enliven and stimulate audience engagement with a presentation -  but goodness how far we've come since the days of "Class, please give me your undivided attention!"

Monday, February 23, 2009


Here's a bit of fun and learning that I stumbled upon on my very first visit (but certainly not the last) to Bad Astronomy
First, the learning part...
The term pareidolia (pronounced /pæraɪˈdoʊliə/) describes a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon, and hearing hidden messages on records played in reverse.(Wikipedia)
And now the fun part...

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Wowbrary: the newest stuff at your library

Libraries are all about sharing, and I should be a mean and uncharitable Scrooge indeed were I not thrilled that Wowbrary has taken my idea for a Telemegaphone new-arrivals service for libraries in rural, unwired regions (the idea that had libraryland buzzing like a beehive last August)  and adapted it for urban, wired, email-, RSS- and sms-enabled communities...

Wowbrary is a nonprofit service that provides you free weekly emails and RSS feeds about your local library’s most recent acquisitions. We’ve found that users of Wowbrary emails are both awed and excited when they discover their local public library’s abundance of new books, DVDs, and CDs.  

However, it is required that your library or others in your community sponsor Wowbrary. Sponsorship ranges from $500 annually for smaller communities to a few thousand dollars for very large cities.

Library patrons are encouraged to enter their zipcode on the Wowbrary homepage to "See what your library's alerts look like!" - in my case, none of the libraries in my (former) zipcode area offered the service, but no matter; you can choose your library, submit your email, and sign-up anyway, and you'll start getting the alerts when and if Wowbrary manages to persuade your library that this is a service its patrons want (presumably, you just contributed to that lobbying effort by signing up....)
I guess that's fair enough, and this is perhaps a nice service to buy into for libraries that don't have the capacity or know/how to develop such services themselves. But Wowbrary could do itself,  libraries, and their users a service by suggesting that the eager patron, before signing up,  should check to see whether his/her library already offers comparable services. This form could easily be augmented with a message to that effect and a link to the libraries themselves.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

An exemplary librarian

In Motoko Rich's New York Times series on The Future of Reading, an inspirational story and video about an exemplary no-nonsense librarian.  

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Missing Chinese

One thing that is a constant source of mystery to me is why more people aren't visiting this site. Then, last night, it came to me, and I woke up with a start - the Chinese aren't getting through!!! That's 1.3 billion readers gone missing! To test my theory, I went to the really cool  Behind the Great Firewall of China test website and entered This is how it works:

To perform the 'Website Test behind the Great Firewall of China', the monitoring agent resolves the domain name from selected location in China, connects to the test website and downloads the complete HTML content. The test results display DNS lookup time, time to connect, time to download the first byte and time to download the complete HTML of the tested web site. The total response time shows how long it takes for your website to download. 

I performed tests for Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, and there was no problem accessing from any of those citiies.  My missing readers must be elsewhere... 

Monday, February 16, 2009

Harper's Index online

I can tell that the spanking new Harper's Index online is going to make things a lot easier at the reference desk. In the incredibly popular Knowbodies series "tough reference questions," comes this one: a confrontational elderly gentleman of the "reference librarians aren't what they used to be" ilk interrupted my reference desk reveries last week with this question, "How many orphaned newborn puppies were successfully breastfed by Norwegian women in the fall of 2002?" As he stepped back and waited with a self-satisfied smile, I pretended wearily to be finishing up what I was working on...but in fact I was furiously searching the Harper's Index for "Norwegian" "Six" I snapped, before he'd had even a moment to gloat.  He was crestfallen. 

Friday, February 13, 2009

Status updating

That absurd activity that my age group cannot understand has entered the dictionary as "status updating." And there's a new report from Pew about it, only 6 pages, illustrated, that I'm going to read. Headline says 11% of online adults use Twitter or update their status online. Twitter users are mobile, less tethered by technology (by "less" I guess they must mean "more")

Show us the data

Speaking of all those CRS reports, the Sunshine Foundation sponsors "Show us the data",
This - lifted from the site - is what its all about:

Show Us the Data: Most Wanted Government Documents is collecting examples of government documents and data that are unclassified and should be easily available to the public online, but are not. Show Us the Data is a collaboration between and the Center for Democracy and Technology. We hope to encourage open government and citizen participation in democracy through full disclosure of unclassified government documents in open, interoperable formats.
This is the third Most Wanted survey, and previous projects (in 1999 and 2004) were highly successful both in bringing attention to the issue, as well as encouraging federal entities to put information online. Many of the documents in previous Most Wanted surveys have been ‘captured’ and are now available online.
This year project is being expanded, with the help of the Sunlight Foundation. We are soliciting suggestions from the public, and allowing you to vote on which documents you think should be on a Most Wanted list this time around. The timing of the project is particularly important in lieu of the recent memorandum President Obama released to the Federal Government. The website will be active for collecting votes and document suggestions through March 9th and will be followed up by a report during Sunlight Week. The report will be distributed to press and relevant government agencies.
For additional information on the project, please contact or call 202-637-9800.

Capture Fox

This great Firefox addon from the wonderful nation of Turkey makes creating a screencast ridiculously easy. Just click on the icon that Capture Fox deposits in your tray to start capturing; specify whether you want audio, and whether you want to capture the whole screen or just the Firefox window. Click it again when you're done, and it will either discard the video, open it for your instant perusal, or save it to a file.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bad Reviews II

After a few virtuous posts about the importance of being earnest and gentlemanly and resisting the temptation to be snarky, etc.(the recent post about anonymity was particularly soft-headed) it's time to reaffirm my delight in snarkiness. I covered this ground thoroughly in the post about Bad Reviews last year (which someone mentioned here only a day or two ago), but that post was inconclusive, insofar as I was unable to identify a really good trove of bad book reviews (I'm still looking!!) And, which a year ago provided some measure of satisfaction, has subsequently been bought and eradicated by Twitter. So I was delighted to see this recent article about Amazon Group Therapy by Cynthia Crossen in the WSJ, which speaks to our contemptible need to curse and commiserate with like minds when we see others getting better than they deserve. Crossen points out the very obvious yet ingenious solution of seeking out customer feedback, and going straight for the 1 star reviews. I looked up DBC Pierre's pretentious bit of drivel Vernon God Little, and was immediately connected with soulmate Steve Cornforth, who writes: Am I only only person who hated this novel with a passion? It was the worst piece of pretentious drivel that I have read since....? No Steve, (rubbing hands vigorously) you are not...!

Monday, February 9, 2009

CRS reports galore!

BeSpacific reports that wikileaks - which I'm ashamed to say I'd never even heard of - has posted a billion dollars worth of quasi-secret reports (ie. CRS reports).  At first  I bristled with indignation, thinking they'd filched all this stuff from Giovanni, but this appears to be a more extensive operation,  representing the total output of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) electronically available to Congressional offices. Enjoy!
Here are alphabetical and chronological lists, and they've also been merged into the OpenCRS service, which we posted about here in 2005.


Actually, that last post reminded me that there was in fact a piece of information I was genuinely needing to find...I came across a rather sophisticated "capture and read later" application a few days ago, and couldn't remember what it was, and searching for it didn't help.. but now I know, it was EverNote. (How did I find it?...I went to Bradley's I want to list and found it under "Notetaking" - though I think it also could have been listed under "Read later applications") For an understanding of how EverNote works on the web, watch the video.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Phil Bradley's I want to list

I've mentioned Phil Bradley's I want to list before, but it merits regular reminders. I've also mentioned sheepishly that many of the tools I blog about here come to my attention not through actual need, but through a contrived need - a desperate, contrived, 24/7 need to find things to blog about. Stephen Levy has written about the guilt of not contributing in The Burden of Twitter, but his guilt is of a relatively simple kind, of not holding up his end of the bargain: "I worry that I'm snatching morsels from the information food bank without making any donations." My angst is more existential,  all about having to validate my existence through contrived and unnecessary communication...why aren't other web2.0 people struggling with these issues?  Anyway, getting back to Bradley's list, which is so refreshingly NOT-2.0 because it addresses REAL NEEDS: "I want to..." or "I need to" or "How do I?" These are all questions we all ask all the time. This is a small collection of resources that will help to answer those questions."  Not so small anymore, with more than 1000 applications to meet your actual needs!
Darn, what should I blog about???

Friday, February 6, 2009


Criticism of  anonymity on the internet focuses to a great extent on its impact on the quality of information; the accuracy, accountability, intelligence, fairness, decency, civility, etc. of information that is contributed anonymously. But crowd wisdom has a remarkable capacity for correcting itself (e.g. Wikipedia), and the profusion of idiotic, slanderous and hateful commentary on the internet can  be dismissed for what it is.  Anonymity udeniably results in a lot of annoying noise and garbage on the net, and provides some astonishing insights into how mean and stupid many people are - and what breathtakingly poor spellers - but  maybe that all comes with the territory.  Undoubtedly it degrades the quality of discourse, but perhaps a more serious concern is what it does to the anonymous poster?  I speak from personal experience; increasingly, I have an urge to comment on everything I read in the newspapers and on the net. When I come across something particularly well put or trenchant or funny, I have a strange compulsion to notify the author of my approval. Why? And more commonly, when I find something particularly stupid or obnoxious, I have a gleeful urge to respond with some withering, witty rejoinder. It's not a part of me I wish to encourage; with anonymity, one  loses an inhibitor that is essential for health of character. A related phenomenon is road rage; compartmentalized and anonymized in their cars, people take on a behavior that is completely out of character, and even end up killing each other.  Over at the AL blog yesterday, the Annoyed Librarian - who I think is at his best when he keeps things light and doesn't get too shrill - responded angrily to a letter from John Buschman of the Progressive Librarian's Guild to Library Journal editor Francine Fialka.  Buschman chides LJ for dropping its Criticas column - one of LJ's "few voices of real diversity and alternatives" - while continuing to host the worthless anonymous rantings of the AL.  Buschman also attacks the principle of anonymity more generally, and attaches, for Fialka's edification, a 2007 Progessive Librarian editorial "On anonymity in libraryland blogging" by himself, Mark Rosenzweig and Kathleen de la Pena McCook.  Personally I find Buschman's self-righteous indignation and overwrought prose (e.g. "The zeitgeist and polity seem to have moved on, but LJ's ineffable [?] tin ear elevates an illegitimate crank poseur to prominence.") to be a tad off-putting, and I think his attack on the AL's conservative politics misses the mark; the AL is relatively scrupulous about attacking the politicization of the library profession rather than its politics per se. Besides, although I'd be very surprised to learn that the AL is actually a soft-headed liberal like me,  her dogged championing of the library as an institution for the betterment - rather than entertainment - of the masses, is to my mind a progressive ideal.  Nonetheless,  AL's post about Buschman, Buschman's earnest  responses, and the nearly 200 comments - most of them anonymous and jeering, are a good example of too much uninhibited behavior. Although I enjoy following the Annoyed Librarian, I find her defense of her own anonymity completely inconsistent with the frequent allusions in her blog to the importance of moral character - but she probably doesn't care.

More on snark

Here's some more on snark, specifically,  David Denby's new book "Snark; It's mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining our Conversation"  Here's a related - and fascinating - Knowbodies post from last year.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

"Mothers of America let your kids go to the movies!"

What a priceless shot this is....I never tire of looking at it. For fervent believers in the theater experience, like film critic David Denby, the  "platform agnosticism" of today\s children is a concern. The title of this post is the first line of a Frank O'Hara's poem Ave Marie - a poem about letting kids experience the world and grow up. Unfortunately, I don't think this is what kids look like from the inside of a computer.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Google and the future of books

Harvard professor and founder of the Gutenberg-e program Robert Darnton writes about the Google books settlement and the future of books in the 02/12/2009 issue
of the New York Review of Books