Archive for the ‘Rants’ Category

Rant of the day

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

While cycling through through a green light on my way to work this morning, a guy waiting for a red light on the right suddenly gunned the engine and turned on me (not in front of me, but actually on me in a maneuver that normally would have t-boned me).

Fortunately, I ride in the left of the traffic lane if I can keep up. If I would have been in the designated bike lane, I would have been creamed. Instead, I had enough time to swerve and split the lane with oncoming traffic.

I live by the motto, “Ride like everyone is trying to kill you, but don’t take it personally.” So normally I’d just chalk this up as a stupid mistake and let it go. For some reason (probably because he was driving next to me), I shouted “WHOA! MY LIGHT WAS STILL GREEN!” He replied that he couldn’t see recumbents which struck me as strange because few motorists know what a recumbent is. Here’s a picture of mine if you’ve never seen one.

I understand that people just screw up sometimes. But it was clear the guy thought that *I* was in the wrong for being in his way despite the fact that he was the one that ran a red light. I also understand that some motorists don’t care for middle aged posers, but they’re not the only people you’ll find on bikes. Kids ride them too, and they’re far less likely to pull off an evasive maneuver like I did this morning.

So if you’re riding, watch out for the idiots. They’re not out to get you, but they will anyway if you aren’t vigilant. And if you’re behind the wheel, please be aware that the 2 tons of steel vs. flesh thing never works out well.

Departing from my normal practice

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

I usually avoid discussing politics because it’s a great way to accentuate points of contention with people when anyone who likes to get things done knows we need to focus on what we have in common. But a recent incident where police were shown on video pepper spraying peaceful protesters has really been bugging me.

At over 5 million Scoville units (habanero peppers are 350,000), that orange stuff you see the cops coating the students faces with is far hotter than the worst peppers you’ve encountered in your life and burns like acid even if it gets in contact with your skin. Get much of it in your eyes or your lungs, and you might need to be hospitalized as some of the students in the video did. It’s dangerous stuff.

The police chief made the ludicrous claim that this extreme action was necessary to because the officers were surrounded and their safety was in jeopardy. A lot of people support the police actions. I only wonder what those same people would have said if these events had occurred in China.

There are few more effective ways to generate contempt for the law than allowing those charged with enforcing it to abuse their authority or not obey it themselves.

Eating our own dog food

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

I’m a huge believer in doing what you say others should be doing. Libraries are dedicated to open access to information. I think that’s a very good thing because when information is withheld, enormous amounts of energy are wasted duplicate efforts since everyone has to start from scratch. It really limits what you can accomplish.

I keep running into situations where libraries increasingly fail to live up to their rhetoric. While we tell publishers to open up access, our digital repository projects seem obsessed with tightly controlling access even when we’re talking about locally produced resources. If we catalog a book, we worry over how to keep any other institution from benefiting from that information we create without paying — even though that information was produced at public expense and those that need it are also paid by the taxpayer.

The latest disturbing thing I heard regards library contributions to open source software. If you’re not familiar with open source software, the idea is simple. It is free of charge, and everyone can see the code and do what they want with it. However, when someone makes an improvement, they have to make the improvements available for everyone free of charge. The operating system on this web site as well as all the software (including that used to compose this blog post) are open source. The philosophy that is the best way to solve a problem is to have many eyes on a problem.

Anyway, I’m hearing that some agencies funding improvements to existing library open source software don’t want their contributions made available to everyone else — i.e. other libraries. They figure they paid for it, so it’s theirs and others shouldn’t just be able to benefit.

This logic makes sense on the surface, but keep in mind that there would be nothing for them to improve upon unless someone else had developed the rest of the software. Furthermore, no one else can improve on these enhancements, so unless the institution in question wants to supply funding indefinitely, they won’t see improvements. It’s like going to a potluck party and only contributing enough of one dish for you to eat yourself even though you fully intend to eat anything you want that other people brought.

If we’re going to claim we believe in sharing information, that should apply to our own stuff as well. Otherwise, I’m not entirely clear on what value contribute.

Why can’t we provide information the same way we provide other services?

Monday, November 17th, 2008

Despite the fact that people like libraries and say nice things about them, we’ve had our butts handed to us on a platter over the past few years.

We position ourselves as information professionals. However, according to a report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, people turn to the Internet, professionals (doctors, financial experts, etc.), friends, family, colleagues, newspapers, magazines, government agencies, TV, and radio before they ask for help from librarians.

The reason people like libraries but don’t really use the information we provide is simple. We recognized sometime back that the morgue-like library atmosphere of yesteryear just wouldn’t cut it. To address this problem, we devoted increasingly large portions of libraries to social spaces. Coffee shops, snack bars, and other amenities became the norm rather than exception. Patrons like what we did.

Unfortunately, we haven’t yet done the same for information services. We may provide access to online resources, but we’re missing the point. People want their information in a social context. That’s why they consult their colleagues, family, and friends. That’s why they go to bulletin boards and a million social networks like Facebook when they need help. That’s why they like online services that know who they are and what interests them.

We won’t provide what patrons need, but we actively encourage them to turn elsewhere.  We tell them they should subscribe to Meebo — a service that keeps track of passwords and conversations across all kinds of systems. We meet with users in social networks that track who our patrons associate with as well as what they say. The web sites we use and recommend to track everything patrons do, down to their physical location. We use insecure email for all kinds conversations that include private data.

At the same time that everyone else not only expects but demands we share information, we go backwards. We pretend we protect patron privacy when we impose the most ridiculous barriers to transmitting any kind of information that would be useful to system integration. Meanwhile, the rest of the world moves forward.

How not to treat customers

Saturday, June 21st, 2008

I’ve maintained my website with the same company for years. There are a lot of reasons I’ve been with this company, but the main ones are that they offer services I like, customer service has been excellent, and the value is good.

This past week, I was unpleasantly surprised to find that my account was suspended and that I was locked out. I called to find out why, and their abuse department told me I was keeping files unrelated to my website there. They explained that it didn’t matter that I was using only a tiny fraction of my quotas. The service is for hosting websites.

One of the selling points of this account is that I have shell access. That allows me to do things you can’t do with a regular account, so I’d sometimes use it as a workspace for things unrelated to my website. Before I started doing these things a few years ago, I called to make sure it was OK since it wasn’t clear in their policies (I’m one of the few people who actually reads user agreements). I was assured it was. I would go so far as to say I was encouraged to do what I wanted.

The company reserves the right to change policies. If they decide they can’t make enough money doing things the way they did in the past, that’s fair enough. But I wasn’t too happy to be blasted off the internet when they changed and I didn’t catch the change. I think a warning would have been in order.

The trick is that I chose this company specifically because of the services it offered me and the price I had to pay. By changing the terms of service so I can’t do something important that I chose them for, they lose most of their edge over the competition.

Aside from that, having to deal with sudden changes forces me to scramble and find a new way to do things — this is bad service in my book. If they need to change to stay competitive, they need to work with their customers and not just flip a switch and expect people to instantly adjust.

I will stick with this outfit for now because my overall experience with this company has been very positive. However, they lost quite a bit of goodwill with this last stunt, so it really needs to be an isolated experience.

What goes around comes around

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

One of the things that’s always made me nuts is how quick people can be to thwart others from doing anything new based on little more than vague fears.

Recently, a school asked a university library where a colleague works if they could download catalog records. The school library was hoping to avoid manually keying in all this info themselves since that is time consuming (i.e. expensive).

The university library said no. Lame excuses were given as to why fulfilling the request was impossible, but I suspect that the real reasons were related to emotional discomfort rather than an actual problem. The fact of the matter is that the university runs a publicly accessible Z39.50 server (and intends to continue doing so), it has the legal right to distribute their records even before you consider the fact that they were created at public expense, the system impact would be virtually nonexistent, and it would help the school. As a practical matter, the school didn’t need permission in first place and asking was really a courtesy.

Only library geeks even know what Z39.50 is, let alone know how to use it, so I’m scratching my head as to why an organization would host such a server if they don’t want people using it. It’s like buying a subscription to satellite TV and blocking out all the channels.

If we are going to wring our hands as we try to figure out how we will adapt our services for the future, we could start by not tossing up roadblocks unless there is a compelling reason. I don’t know how many projects I’ve seen sunk by nothing more substantial vague discomfort on the part of one or two individuals in gatekeeper positions. It seems like I’m constantly hearing people say something to the effect of “I’ll never try that again” because they were sent to bureaucratic and meeting hell for asking about doing things a different way.

This example might sound petty, but it’s stuff like this that really holds us back. I recently had a conversation with someone who expressed surprise at how easy it is for me and a few others to ask for favors. There’s no secret to it. Just look for excuses to help people rather than excuses for why you shouldn’t. If you make life easy and enjoyable for others, they like dealing with you and cut you slack when you need it. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if people treat you like you have a communicable disease whenever you come near…

Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones

Friday, January 11th, 2008

Recently, I learned that Google is expanding its digitization program to include newspapers. Apparently they’re contacting libraries and content providers to see what resources and partnership opportunities are available. You’d think this would be a good thing, but a colleague told me that it created a squawk where she works. Upon learning what Google was up to, a number of people at her library started discussing how to stop Google by throwing up intellectual property barriers and other means.

This reaction is sad but all too common in the library community. Although we talk a good game for open access, many libraries adopt a very different stance when it comes to giving away useful things that they create. The vast majority of catalog records are created at public expense, yet these are copyrighted and cannot be legally used without paying substantial fees. Critical library tools are designed by librarians who work at public expense, but then are copyrighted and sold by the American Library Association or OCLC (a cooperative of libraries). We tell everyone else to mount their content on open web servers, but very few of our publications are distributed this way. When we set up digital archives consisting of local resources, we often put in access restrictions, even for low grade materials like student papers.

The thing that’s particularly vexing about the Google example at hand is that practically every library project has the explicit goal of being included in Google, and that lots of money and endless meetings are dedicated to this objective. I suspect my colleague’s library fears that successful efforts by Google may cause the grant fed cash cows grazing on library digitization turf to wander off.

Just as it is bad for the sport when an athlete intentionally trips the opponent he is unable to beat in a fair race, undermining others is a disservice to our users and our profession. The fact of the matter is that Google will do a much better job of digitizing and providing access than any library can — we simply do not have the resources and expertise to compete at this level.

Besides, institutions with a lot more resources than us have been unable to stop Google. Google has been sued for their indexing, how they crawl, advertise, and digitize — the publishers weren’t too happy when they started Google Books. We need to come to terms with reality, and that is that Google will continue to digitize things. That is probably good for most people. We should welcome anything that improves things for users, even if it forces us to learn new things and take our services in new directions.

The Emperor has no clothes

Friday, December 14th, 2007

Recently, Dorothea Salo delivered a blistering critique of library-created institutional repositories. Her basic point is that our IR service model is driven by a failed ideology, we ignore peoples’ real needs, our tools are hopeless, and we don’t deal with funding or other practical considerations in a realistic way. In addition, she charges us librarians with not eating our own dog food since we do not do what we try to convince others to do. In two words — we suck.

What has been interesting is the response to Dorothea’s comments. A lot of people are glad she’s speaking up.

I believe in emphasizing the positive, but I’m glad to see our profession might finally be getting ready for an open discussion on how we can move things forward. We do many good things, but our profession has a disturbing habit of pretending we are dizzy with success when we are reeling from spectacular failures.

The “how we done it good” articles and presentations that permeate our professional communications are not harmless. I once let a journal editor talk me into putting a positive spin on a method I used in one of my own projects and originally reported to be unworkable. A couple years later, I learned the article was required reading in a library school class — a student contacted me wanting more detail so she could copy my method. I’ve been asked to put a positive spin on sections of several other writing projects when my assessments of methods, services, or products were less than glowing.

We need to recognize our limitations. As a profession, we pretend we can solve more than we can. We cannot compete with companies like Google, Amazon, or a number of others on their own turf. If we make pathetic attempts to mimic these services, our users will simply ignore us. We must accept that some companies perform certain tasks far better than we will ever be able to and adjust our services accordingly.

At the same time, we need to not be afraid of taking risks or let past failures make us fearful of decisive action. The only way to succeed is to try. Most things worth shooting for are hard, so logically, there should be many failures. Rather than pretend they are successes, we should learn from them and move on.

Technology is making us crazy

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

I’ve never thought Californians are totally normal, so when I saw lots of middle aged women shouting into the air (i.e. not directing their comments towards any visible humans) during a trip to San Jose a few weeks ago, I wasn’t surprised.

It occurred to me that while most people would had regarded such behavior as nutty a few years ago, it just doesn’t carry the same stigma that it used to. Thanks to the magic of cell phones and bluetooth, you can not only talk to someone who is hundreds of miles away, you don’t even have to take your phone out of your purse or pocket to do so. The end result is that having an ordinary conversation makes you look like a raving lunatic.

I’m leery of thinking about the “good ‘ol days” but at the same time, I’m wondering what technology has done for communication. When television first came out, people were saying how it was going to spread culture and education everywhere. According to Nielsen research, the average American household has a TV on more than 7 hrs/day, and the average person spends a little over 4 1/2 hours actually watching it. This means that instead of living regular lives, people either watch actors pretending to be people who don’t even exist, or worse, they gawk at people making fools of themselves on “reality shows” that rely almost exclusively on voyeuristic appeal.

Email was also supposed to improve communication and cultural understanding. The practical effect is that there are millions of people who can’t spell, express thoughts coherently, or conduct a normal conversation so they send email to people sitting 10 feet away. I can barely read all the crazy texting jargon that’s worked its way into our language.

Theoretically, cell phones are a very useful device, but they seem to have conditioned us to prefer talking to machines rather than people who are with us. And with bluetooth, we’re now yelling into empty air.

I can’t wait for the next killer technological application…..

Secrets in the age of information overload

Thursday, May 3rd, 2007

One thing that I’ve always found strange about living in the information age is how little most of us know about anything. Sure, we get bombarded around the clock about the personal lives of movie stars and ramblings of pundits, but getting useful information is another matter entirely.

Right now, I’m thinking about Google’s nondisclosure agreement. To be offered a job there, you agree that you won’t mention or imply the name of Google, talk about anything that Google does, or use knowledge gained there at future places of employment. Agreements like this are pretty standard, but what bugs me is how many people accept this as normal.

If you can’t talk about what you do and what you know, at best you slow the learning process for those around you. At worst, you do real harm to people who make serious mistakes or cannot solve critical problems because you withheld information. Even if you care nothing about others or aiding progress, you hamstring your career because you might not be able to use your most marketable skill. It’s like learning a foreign language and then not being able to use it.

To get straight to the point, I think that most information is kept secret so those who claim to have an interest in the information can take advantage of others. Many vendors don’t allow libraries to disclose what they pay for products. The only logical explanation is that the customers who are getting ripped off would probably be mad if they found they’re paying much more than other customers. Keeping salaries secret protects the overpaid at the expense of the underpaid. My observation is that the vast majority of the people who hide information from their employers or employees do so with the intention of manipulating the system for their own purposes.

I understand that companies spend a lot of money creating information and that it can’t just be given away. I also understand the need for some information to be secret. However, there is a total lack of balance.

When someone needs to keep everyone else from knowing what they know in order to succeed, it makes me wonder what they really contribute. Withholding service and/or knowledge is not real work, even if the person in question occupies a linchpin position. However, as slaveowners, feudal barons, and others have discovered throughout history, it’s an easy way to live well off someone else.

The library community is always gaga over Google, and as much as I like their products, I think we need to keep an eye on these folks just like we would for anyone else. With about $150 billion in market capitalization as I write this, they effectively have more than $20 for every man, woman, and child on the planet or almost $140 for every internet user.

That’s really a lot for an outfit that makes the bulk of its money from people clicking on advertisements. It takes more than a company motto of “do no evil” to convince me that they’re that different from everyone else — particularly if they won’t let anyone who actually knows anything about them give their honest assessment of what’s actually going on.

Communication, vanity, and reality

Saturday, December 2nd, 2006

Comments I’ve received about what I post here have gotten me thinking about why people create or read blogs. My best guess is that it’s because people are naturally curious and like to know about each other. The internet allows people to constantly be in touch, but it’s impractical for everyone to actually be yakking with each other all the time. Blogs allow a low intensity way for people to know what others are up to.

Those who blog because they believe others really want to know what they think are kidding themselves. People want surfing the internet to be fun. Few will read pages that are depressing, boring, full of controversial statements that upset them, or that can’t be digested in a minute or so. Also, you have to use some discretion because you never know who’s listening or what they’ll do with the information.

That might sound pretty restrictive, but it isn’t really — the rules that have governed society for millennia are virtually identical. No one likes to be around someone who’s always a party pooper, jabbers incessantly about things no one is interested in, intentionally provokes arguments, insists on turning every idea into a philosophical treatise, or introduces inappropriate topics. There’s no reason to expect that basic social rules depend on specific technologies.

Neither blogs nor any other new technology changes things as much as people imagine. To illustrate this point, the library world has been going nuts for the past few years over how “virtual reference” will transform services forever. Basically, the hullabaloo is about using instant messaging to answer questions.

It’s not a bad idea, but even most librarians seem unaware that virtual reference has been widely available for many years thanks to a fabulous peer to peer network technology. This technology is called the “telephone.” Gotta keep things in perspective…..

Potential new job redux

Friday, November 24th, 2006

Last week, I wrote a post about a job I was considering applying for. A couple of people suggested that I delete the posting because they were concerned it would negatively my bargaining position in the unlikely event I get an offer. The logic is that if the prospective employer knows I consider it a dream assignment, they’ll pay me less.

I’m not worried about this at all. First of all, a place that rewards indifference and punishes enthusiasm has questionable priorities and probably won’t be able to provide a stimulating, challenging environment. If I’m really hurting myself by saying that I think the job sounds interesting, it’s not the sort of place I want to work. Call me crazy, but I want to be where people are excited about what they do, where communication is open, and where people try to be fair to each other.

As good luck would have it, it is easy to identify good employers — they have the same qualities as good employees. They do the right thing when no one is looking over their shoulder. They go the extra mile. On the other hand, crummy employers act just like crummy employees. They only do what they should when you hold their feet to the fire. It’s usually obvious which ones are good and which ones are not.

I look at a job as a partnership. If employers and employees are open about their needs and perceptions, it’s easy to engage in productive conversations that benefit everyone. On the other hand, if one or both sides withhold information for purposes of taking advantage of the other, everyone winds up butting heads. Fooling your business partners is not a good idea. It’s only a matter of time before they figure out what happened and adjust their strategy for dealing with you.

Even if that weren’t the case, it’s going to take more than an ideal job description to convince me to leave my current situation. When I talked about this opportunity with my boss, he told me that he wants people to work at the State Library because it’s the best place to be. He felt that the only way for me to know if this is true is to apply and see what happens. No tricks, no bribes, no threats. He helps make the State Library my kind of place.

Also, as strange as it may sound, giving up my commute would be a major sacrifice. I’ve been riding my bike to work every day for years. It’s about 36 miles round trip, so I’m in good shape. I’ll need a really good reason to give up a huge chunk of my favorite hobby and a small part of my health.

I’m going to give this job opportunity my best shot. Regardless of what happens, I’ll be happy. If I am selected and it appears to be a better place to work than what I have now, great. If not (or I don’t survive the interview process — statistically the most likely outcome), that’s fine too because I’ll know that I’m still working at the best place possible.

Disorder du jour

Friday, June 23rd, 2006

Today when I was riding home, some guy in a white van yelled at me to get off the road and tried to scare me by racing the engine as he buzzed me. If you ride bikes very much, that’s just something that happens to you.

I don’t quite understand what makes people do things like this. In this particular instance, I wasn’t slowing anyone down and I was obeying all traffic laws. I sympathize with the fact that people don’t like to be impeded by cyclists, but the reality is that bikes aren’t what’s gumming up the roads. Most drivers think nothing of slowing an entire lane so they can turn left across a busy lane, get into or out of a parking spot, start really slowly after the light turns green, or a number of other things. Besides, I figure that if these vehicles that have one person in them took only quadruple the space I take on the roads, they wouldn’t even need to shift in the lane — they could zip right by without slowing down and a lot more of them would fit on the roads and parking lots.

Recently, a number of stories have been circulating in the news saying that scientists are now labeling road rage as a disorder. Technically, it’s called “Intermittent Explosive Disorder” and people who suffer from it exhibit bouts of rage that are triggered by minor events.

I can accept that some people have screwed up body chemistry that makes them react severely with little provocation. However, I find it interesting how this disorder afflicts Americans so much more often than it affects people in other countries where living conditions are so much more difficult than in the US or even the other parts of the industrialized world that I’ve seen. It is also interesting that the epidemic seems to be getting worse with time.

Nowadays, it seems like people justify the most ridiculous behavior simply by claiming to be victims of their environment and body chemistry. While I think it’s important to be sensitive to these factors, it makes me wonder what makes a person human to begin with. If bad behavior is caused by circumstances rather than free will, it would follow that good things people do also are purely a result of factors beyond anyone’s control.

There are some people with bona fide mental problems, but I suspect that the vast majority of the people who yell at cyclists are simply immature and self centered individuals who think they should be able to fly off the handle just because the world isn’t just the way they want. Normally, I wouldn’t whine since drivers do this to each other all the time. However, I think that anyone who doesn’t have better emotional control than the typical 2 year old has no business guiding a 3500 lb hunk of metal near people at high speeds.