Thursday, August 31, 2006

Recommendations with Reservations

A copy of To Kill A Mockingbird has been sitting on my bedside table for the whole summer and its largely been untouched. I don't really want to read it. But I am determined to plow through the thing since every book recommendation engine I have ever tried has pushed this book on me. In retailation, I dissed Suggestica this morning.

I have been thinking about book recommendation systems lately. Because these systems are created by those who are trying to sell you books, they are designed to push books that you may want to read. If you like a particular book, the system will suggest other books by the same author or in the same genre. This gets boring pretty quick. While I am occasionally paralyzed by choice when it comes to my next reading selection, I already know what I like to read. What I want a system that will tell me what I should read.

Sometimes we should be reading books that challenge the ideas and personal beliefs that we hold dear. Sometimes we should be reading books on topics that don't interest us much. Sometimes we should be reading books because they will help us understand other books. And sometimes we should be reading works because our professor has assigned them for us to read.

Here's a Library 2.0 (shudder - I can't believe I just typed that phrase) application I would like to see. I would like to see an application that injests the rss feed of every university professor's class readings and keeps track of the popularity of each citation. This ranking information would then be fed back into library applications like the library catalogue or periodical databases and would tell the reader: you should read this.

Monday, August 28, 2006

My fly pentop computer

So some weeks ago, I went to Toys R Us with the intent of buying the baby some blocks. Baby got blocks. I got Fly.

my fly

My spontaneous purchase surprised myself as I'm not usually one for electronic gadgets. I don't own a laptop or PDA and my ancient cell phone is a hand-me-down. But ever since I read about the Fly Pentop computer in WIRED Magazine, I wanted one mightily. I think I was captivated by the notion of a portable organizer that was easy to use and inherently fun. I justified the cost by telling myself that I was acting on behalf of my profession as I investigated the social ramifications of infusing computing technology into paper and pen.

And so, this review.

First off, the Flypen will not become my PDA of choice as you can only associate three words with each scheduled event. This makes it an appropriate reminding tool for students (PRACTICE MATH EXAM) but not grown ups who live in the land of acronymed sub-committees (UCRPLM PRESENTATION REVIEW). And since the Flypen is designed for students in grades 6 through 8, I'm hardly in a position to complain. So I will try to review the system keeping its official mandate in mind.

In short, the Flypen is an educational toy and as such, it is a slave to two masters. No one can serve two masters well, and when it comes down to it, the Flypen does a better job serving education as opposed to serving up fun. That is, certain kinds of fun.

One of the most mind-blowing tricks you can do with your Flypen is to draw a keyboard on some Flypaper and then "play" the piano (you tap the pen onto the drawn keys and the pen makes the appropriate sound). You can also draw a little drum set and play/record buttons and compose a little ditty. But making music is the only form of "unstructured play" that the current Flypen system provides. Most of the fun is provided in the form of games embedded in Flypaper that you have to buy.

I have only been able to play the Fly Games that came with my initial start up package and so I haven't been able to try some of the more intriguing ones. I've played the geography games, the matching games, hangman, and the quizes. Some of the quizes reminded me of the Invisible Ink travel activity books sold along highways (and they were just as disappointing). But the quizes that were simple personality tests really impressed me -- not because of any insights into my character -- but because the ability to embed the answer key in the paper means that there is no opportunity to cheat and the results take no calculation on your part.

So its not surprising that the ability to practice math, spelling, and even tests from standardized textbooks is the real strength of the Flypen system. I can see how the Flypen system could inject both instant and helpful feedback into rote learning and I think a child struggling with a subject could appreciate its infinately patient, non-human help. And if I was a student learning Spanish, I know I would love the pen's ability to identify words written in English and announce and spell its translation, since I learn best by writing things down. Whether Leapfrog will develop what I really would like - "Fly Through French" - I suspect depends on whether the Flypen franchise will, ahem, fly.

One of the things that I have learned from thinking about the Flypen is that having an amazing technology, unto itself, is not enough to become a successful product. The potential of pentop computing and smart paper is so massive and yet its unlikely to be realized because the technological change is *too* great. We have invested thousands of years into "normal" pen and paper and that's a lot of cultural inertia. Educational software may be the best way for this technology to get a toe-hold into our world. That's the strength of the promise of potentially better marks at school... which is pretty scary when you think about it.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Hotbooks - turning the library into a game space

From kottke I found out about the The Come Out and Play Festival - a "festival dedicated to street games. It is three days of play, talks, and celebration, all focused on new types of games and play." I want to go out and play but I'm housebound at the moment. So instead I can only read about the festival on the web...

Its being held in New York City and on September 23rd there's a game afoot in the New York Public Library called Hotbooks. From the "Come out and play" description:
Libraries are dying spaces. Hot Books is a game designed to bring life back into libraries by forcing players to explore, discover and share the deserted and unexplored spaces that make up a library.

Hot Books is a game where players “attach” books to each other. The game play of Hot Books takes place over the internet. Each player starts by creating a profile for himself. Other players then attach book titles to that profile and gain a point. If a player wants to detach a book from his profile, he has to go to the library and find a specific word in that book, which allows him to detach the book. Once the player detaches the book, he can attach it to any other player.

The game augments the library into a social space –where books are re-imagined into social markers that creates a new experience of exploring a library.
The game was designed by Nick Reid for a game design class at UC Berkeley and the game The game was inspired by the unused, lost and forgotten book(s?) in UC Berkeley's Doe Library. My favourite part from the original description of the game is this:
The critical moment of the game occurs when the real world and digital space no longer coincide, which happens when a book is lost in the library. This creates an impossible situation for the player, since the player must be able to find the book in order to obtain the key to detach it. If the player cannot find the book, then the play of passing the books stops. This critical moment, and the dilemma it present when the player cannot find the book, illustrates the fragility of the physical world of books.
Recently I've noticed a number of these events where a public space is turned into field of play. Why today on Boing Boing I learned that there will be an "alternate reality game" set in Toronto called Waking City -- "a kind of city-wide ongoing scavenger-hunt and puzzle where clues and collaboration come over the net".

And evidently, for more details, one must attend an information session being held at The Lillian H Smith Library.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Is the Internet making my newspaper dummer?

I haven't read Chirs Anderson's The Long Tail yet and so I don't know whether he would apply long tail dynamics to newspapers. But I did read a recent article on Slate (How the New York Times Makes Local Papers Dumber) that suggests that there are other forces at work that tend to concentrate subscriptions to the biggest newspapers at the expense of local papers:

Never mind Times print expansion for a moment. What about the great Web incursion, which is looting educated readers from local newspapers everywhere? The Web editions of the Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Time, CNN, the Guardian, and many other news sites appeal to the same demographic that defects to the Times.

Speaking of which, have you seen the digital version of The Guardian? If not, you should try out the demo because I defy you to find a more beautiful and useable interface to an online newspaper. By the way, at $20 per month, it is $10 cheaper than cost for home delivery of the The Globe and Mail, which, I must say, I am beginning to find boring.

Monday, August 14, 2006

How I found Ambient Finadability

We are said to live in "The Information Age". But unlike say, "The Bronze Age" when Bronze was valuable, its not information that's valuable. Its attention. Your time (which has always been finite) is now considered a precious resource.

So I was almost immediately disappointed by this passage from the preface of Peter Morville'’s Ambient Findability:

So, what's this book about? That's a tough one. I could tell you it's about information interaction at the crossroads of mobile computing and the Internet, or claim it opens a window onto the singular cultural revolution of our time... But I won't. Instead, I'll ask you to read it, for aboutness lies in the eye of the beholder.

That was the first warning sign. If the author can't be assed to give you a good reason to spend some time with his thoughts, then why should you? I was also off-put by the matter of citing the Internet as the "signular" cultural revolution (umm... 9/11 anyone?). I bristle at technology inspired hubris.

But I did preserver and read this book because I was captivated by the book's tagline: What We Find Changes Who We Become (which is way sexier than the line that I use when teaching about online searching, What you ask for is what you get so be careful what you ask for). And it should also be said that I gave the book a chance because of Morville's reputation. Peter is considered as a "founding father of information architecture" and he is a librarian to boot.

So I read this 179 page book. The only part of the book that addresses the promise of the tagline can be found on page 169:

Which brings us to graffitti theory, my corollary to both memory-prediction and broken windows, which suggests that all information that flows through our senses continuously and unconsciously shapes our memories, beliefs, predictions, decisions and behaviors. We are born with instinct, but in matters of intuition, we are lifetime learners. Information is data that makes a difference, literally. It changes our minds, physically.

Peter is not a cognitive scientist. I'm not either, but that's not going to stop me from saying that this is flat out wrong. From what I learned from Daniel Gilbert, we don't perceive everything and we don't remember everything. The only way Peter's theory works is by circular logic: if we define information as something that changes us, then all information changes us.

So what is the aboutness of this book? I'd describe it as a buffet table of stories from the disciplines of computer science, linguistics, urban planning, library science, graphic design and others, done in the name of Information Architecture... err sorry, Ambient Findability. Search engines, information literacy, web page navigation, maps, ants, city design, the semantic web, are invoked in this book. It's a quick tour, written for the business man as opposed to the academic, the is writing light and lively, and one is sure to find at least a couple items that will amuse (my fave: Info-overload harms concentration more than marijuana).

But, on the downside, I found the whole exercise very gimmicky. Morville litters the book with interesting excerpts from books popular in the blogosphere. That's fine but sometimes, like when he summarized stories from Freakonomics and The Tipping Point, they feel like diversions from the topic at hand. And the irrational exuberance for all things Internet frequently made me cringe. Nowhere does the cultural-name dropping and techno-cheerleading gets as painfully silly as this passage:

We hear this same rebel yell in the ancient markets of the cluetrain manifesto, the mobile thumb tribes of smart mobs, and the disruptive technologies of peer-to-peer. We embrace the hidden power of social networks and the emergent wisdom of crowds. We are small pieces loosely joined in persistent disequilibrium, gloriously and gladly out of control.

What I couldn't find in this book was the reason that brought all the stories and examples together. I couldn't find an argument being made or a point of view being advocated. I got the feeling that Morville was taking Williams Gibson's "The future is here. Its just not evenly distributed yet" as a guideline to structuring his book.

I found this book a waste of time.

Friday, August 04, 2006

13 Ways of Looking at Wikipedia, Encyclopedias and Libraries

There! I did it. I managed to untangle my confused thoughts and feelings on Wikipedia, libraries and encyclopedias into digestible parts.

13 Ways of Looking at Wikipedia, Encyclopedias and Libraries:
  1. A standing army is waiting for orders
  2. Wikipedia is to Britannica as American Idol is to the Juilliard School
  3. The Song of the Darnedest Stuff
  4. Because Britannica Doesn't Recognize You
  5. Do mere mortals buy encyclopedias?
  6. Are there encyclopedias that scholars use?
  7. Encyclopedias down the rabbit hole
  8. The closest reference book on the digital shelf
  9. There is no point not having a point of view
  10. Many hands make crappy work
  11. One search box to unite them all
  12. Wikipedia is War
  13. Why do we keep buying print encyclopedias?

No more for a while. I promise.

Why do we keep buying print encyclopedias?

From 1996 to 2006, there were 285 encyclopedia entries that were cited in Web of Science. During that same time period, the Leddy Library of the University of Windsor (where I am employed) acquired 580 encyclopedias.

Some of these encyclopedias include: "Blackwell encyclopedic dictionary of human resource management", "Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers", "Contemporary youth culture : an international encyclopedia", "Encyclopedia of ageism", "Encyclopedia of Arab women filmmakers", "Encyclopedia of fire", "Encyclopedia of local history", "Encyclopedia of relationships across the lifespan"... (Wot? No "Encyclopedia of the Enyclopedia"?)

I have to admit, I am dubious of the value of these works. It's not that that I doubt their scholarship. I just have a hard time imagining that the perceived value of these works are so great that they would draw a student in their dorm room to walk across campus and into the library in order to look at them. Not when Wikipedia is a click away.

I'm not saying that the print encyclopedia is dead or, by proxy, the library's reference collection is dead. It just smells bad.

There is valuable material in our reference collection and if we really want to make the material available we are going to have to put some effort into showcasing it. What I envision is an online index to the table of contents of our print reference collection. This revelation came to me after I had stumbled upon the ASU's Index to Physical, Chemical and Other Property Data which is simply magnificent.

Since so many libraries have similar contents in their reference collections, I imagine that it would be best if only own such index would be created and maintained any librarian interested. Library holdings information would automatically appear by means of a COinS Dialtone.

And it goes, almost without saying, that the platform would be a Wiki.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Wikipedia is War

Its not enough to make a contribution to Wikipedia on a topic that you care about. If you really care about your subject you are going to have watch over your pages, ever-vigilant.

I realized this after reading a short but amusing interview with Bearcat - an individual who has dedicated considerable time adding and editing Wikipedia entries about the CBC. My favourite part was this:
There was an American editor who first popped up during the CBC labour dispute last year. He didn't know very much about the CBC, but seemed to have heard on NPR that there was a labour dispute, and this somehow inspired him to make a complete muck of CBC articles on Wikipedia. First he *removed* the program schedules from the articles, and then asked us why the articles didn't provide detail on CBC's programming. Then he started writing articles himself on CBC programs that didn't have articles yet; naturally, given his lack of knowledge, they mostly consisted of vague equivocations like "Music and Company is a program on CBC Radio Two that probably plays classical music."

He also tried more than once to propagate the theory that Toronto'’s CFMX (Classical 96) should take over CBC Radio Two, which he did mainly by changing the call signs of CBC stations to make it appear as though his fantasy takeover had *already* happened...

Wikipedia, needless to say, can be a real education in human psychology at times.
Its a recurring theme to my readings on Wikipedia. You must have patience, persistence and...
You have to be able to suffer a lot of foolishness to work on Wikipedia. You really do. And for most people who were brought up in academic discourse, the way people behave just isn'’t acceptable. But you have to balance that against the efficiency of producing the largest encyclopedia in human history over the course of five years.

the truth goes to whoever has the last edit, the editing will never end.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

One search box to unite them all

When academic libraries first made their research journals available to their campus community via the web, they did so by listing them alphabetically on a webpage. When these lists grew too long, libraries responded by acquiring software that managed these resources, breaking down the journals into subjects and allowing to search the titles using one search box.

When academic libraries first made their periodical indexes available to their campus community via the web, they did so by listing them alphabetically on a webpage. When these lists of indexes grew too long, libraries responded by breaking down the links into lists of indexes by subject. When those lists started becoming longer and more intimidating, libraries started offering federated search, which allows the user to search multiple indexes -- and their online journal collection -- all at once using one search box.

Academic libraries are now making their encyclopedias available to their campus community via the web. Most libraries list them alphabetically on a webpage while others make them available through subject specific lists. Access to the entire contents of a library's encyclopedias via the one search box seems inevitable to me.

At this stage there are some companies that offer access to a number of reference tools at once. Oxford Reference Online provides access to over 100 general and specialized dictionaries - all published by Oxford Press. Xrefer also offers general and specialized dictionaries and other research tools from a number of publishers, but not including Oxford Press.

I can't help but think that there will be, one day, a new -- for lack of a better word -- space where libraries will dump all their factual information from the encyclopedias and other resources that they have in their collections, that their users can then search and cross-reference. And yet, I realize that the notion sounds fanciful and downright goofy.

In the future, will libraries grow their own Wikipedias?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Many hands make crappy work

What makes the story of the genesis of Wikipedia so delightful to those who distrust the experts of the world, is that the web-based "encyclopedia of the people" succeeded after its its founder gave up on Nupedia - the web-based "encyclopedia of experts", which had failed miserably. Why did it fail? Well, it's simple. "Nupedia wanted scholars to volunteer content for free".

And yet, its not so simple. Scholars give their work away for free most of the time. Its just that they tend to give their work to more established publishing houses or to a scholarly society that publishes research. When a scholar has their work reviewed, the reviewers tend to look at the quality of publications that accepted the work done more so than the actual quality of the work itself. So its no wonder to me why a start up like Nupedia had trouble getting submissions.

When it comes to Wikipedia, its hard for some folks not to bring up the notion of common people outsmarting the experts a la Wisdom of Crowds even though Wikipedia doesn't fulfill Surowiecki's four conditions of a "wise crowd". Its largely unsaid, but Wikipedia is thought to improve by means of a strange evolution-like process...

1. Anyone, irrespective of expertise in or even familiarity with the topic, can submit an article and it will be published.

2. Anyone, irrespective of expertise in or even familiarity with the topic, can edit that article, and the modifications will stand until further modified.

Then comes the crucial and entirely faith-based step:

3. Some unspecified quasi-Darwinian process will assure that those writings and editings by contributors of greatest expertise will survive; articles will eventually reach a steady state that corresponds to the highest degree of accuracy.

But in fact, the opposite occurs as noted by some of the stewards of Wikipedia:

DR: What about the 'collective intelligence' or 'collective wisdom' argument: That given enough authors, the quality of an article will generally improve? Does this hold true for Wikipedia?

EB: No, it does not. The best articles are typically written by a single or a few authors with expertise in the topic. In this respect, Wikipedia is not different from classical encyclopedias.

KN: Elian is right. Also, most of the short articles remain short and of rather poor content.

Jason Scott also backs this idea:

Wikipedia has what's called a "feature article". When an article achieves a certain level of quality, it is then put up as a featured article. There is actually a list on Wikipedia of articles that have been demoted from featured. Literally dozens of articles that once they hit featured status, they start to slowly actually degrade in quality, to the point that they lose their featured quality status and just become regular old articles again.
The transcript of Jason's presentation, The Great Failure of Wikipedia, does a masterful job of pulling back the curtain of the Wizard's Kingdom so all can see what actually goes on behind the scenes. It become evident that it is likely that Wikipedia will eat itself.

What I find so telling is that editorial access to Wikipedia is granted to those who have spent the most time working within Wikipedia in good standing. That these unseen folks have the final say on what goes on the pages within Wikipedia as opposed to actual experts who know each field doesn't sit well with me. Wikipedia is not "anti-credentialist" - it just doesn't recognized any credentials outside of Wikipedia.

Universities are in the business of awarding credentials to those who prove that they deserve them. It wouldn't surprise me if they make another attempt at Nupedia.